Lesbian Activist to Face Trial for Violating Presbyterian Law

The itinerant lesbian activist and director of the LGBT-rights group That All May Freely Serve, may be defrocked, if found guilty of blessing the union of two gay individuals in Canada

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By Pauline J. Chang, Christian Post Reporter
November 26, 2004|6:42 pm

A lesbian activist and minister in the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) is facing trial by the Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) of the Presbytery of the Redwoods for performing a same-sex “marriage” service in Canada earlier this year. If found guilty, the Rev. Jane Spahr, who has been with the presbytery for a quarter century, may be permanently defrocked.

A pretrial hearing before presbytery’s PJC has been slated for early December, with a full hearing expected in January.

The charge, filed by Joan Runveon, interim stated clerk of the Presbytery of the Redwooks, alleges that Spahr is “in violation of her ordination vows and the (Presbyterian Church USA’s) constitution by performing a same-sex marriage.”

The current PCUSA constitution specifically states that a God-ordained marriage is a covenant between one man and one woman only.

Spahr is the director of That All May Freely Serve (TAMFS), one of a number of organizations seeking to repeal the denomination's ordination standard and redefine marriage as being a committed relationship between two people – no matter the gender.

In 2000, the PJC of the General Assembly – the highest court of the denomination, ruled that a minister may bless same-sex relationships, but should not confuse or equate them with marriage.

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During a demonstration at the 2000 General Assembly, Spahr said such blessing ceremonies are "are marriages. These are weddings. And let's call them what they are."

Spahr is now accused of officiating at the marriage earlier this year in Ontario of two gay men, "Douglas Potter, co-Moderator of our TAMFS board, and Gregory Partridge, our newsletter co-editor."

In the February TAMFS newsletter, Spahr confessed that she was involved in the “marriage” ceremony.

"Yes, this February 28th, I traveled to Ontario, Canada, a country which recognizes our full right to be married. A Unitarian minister, the Rev. John Mayer, and I performed Doug and Greg's marriage service,” said Spahr.

Furthermore, she acknowledged her taking part in the ceremony in a statement to the Presbyterian News Service this month.

“If this helps people see LGBT people as persons, that we do make commitments, that we do have dreams, then I’m grateful,” Spahr said of the charge. “If this gives our denomination an opportunity to be in conversation about healthy marriage or healthy relationships and what they might look like, then I’m grateful.”

In a statement posted on the TAMFS website, Spahr added, "I am so grateful to Redwoods Presbytery, as they have a long history of standing for justice for LGBT people, and they have stood by me and my ministry in this area and throughout the country for the last nearly thirty years. I know how difficult it has been for them to take this step, but I am glad the conversation may now take place."

"Help me understand why" she said, "when a wonderful loving couple; members of the congregation who co-sponsor our ministry; and dear friends who have been together for 20 years invite me to participate in this sacred and civil marriage – publicly marking their integrity and love – why I would ever refuse? As a matter of my faith, my love, my pastoral care for and with them, along with my conscience and sense of justice – to have done otherwise would have been a violation of my ordination vows."

Spahr was ordained in 1974 by the United Presbyterian Church (USA), which merged in 1983 with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.) to form the PCUSA. In 1991, the Downtown United Presbyterian Church invited Spahr to serve as its co-pastor, but the call was invalidated by the General Assembly PJC in November 1992. However, despite the PJC decision, the Downtown church invited her as a “lesbian evangelist” and established the TAMFS to support her ministry in 1993.

The defiant Downtown church also declared publicly that it does not have to abide by the denomination’s “fidelity/chastity (G-6.016b)” ordination standard, which prohibits any and all active homosexuals from ordination.

"We will continue to work to remove G-6.0106b from the Book of Order, and, in the meantime, we will interpret this law so as to permit the ordination of those whom we deem qualified," the session of Downtown said in a declaration titled "Basic Christian Principles."

Downtown's officers said they could not "agree with an interpretation of that law which subverts the welcoming essence of our faith and results in the categorical exclusion of all those persons who are in a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender relationship. We do not believe that same-sex relationships are inherently sinful. We will read and apply all Constitutional provisions in the light of the Constitution as a whole, and will make judgments concerning the life and character of all persons on an individual basis."

Meanwhile, Runyeon, who wrote the allegations about Spahr’s role in the same-sex ceremony, said she brought the case to light after receiving an email from the Rev. James Berkley, a member of the Seattle Presbytery and the Issues Ministry Director for Presbyterians for Renewal – a conservative renewal group that seeks to protect the current laws of the denomination.

In his email, Berkley included the brief article posted on the TAMFS website that announced the “marriage’ of Potter and Partridge.

Runyeon said that Berkley’s email quoted a 1991 “authoritative interpretation” of the PC(USA)’s constitution affirming that “a Christian marriage performed with the Directory for Worship can only involve a covenant between a woman and a man, it would not be proper for a minister of the Word and Sacrament to perform a same-sex union ceremony that the minister determines to be the same as a marriage ceremony.”

“He (Berkley) did not want to be the one that wrote the allegations . . . which is why I was the one who ended up actually writing for the investigating committee, the initial complaint,” Runyeon said. “But as I say, once we heard what he had to say, and he had put it in the email, which in effect is in writing, it was incumbent upon us to do the investigation.”

Berkley said action was reparatory necessary, though no one enjoys doing it.

“I think that the presbytery is being responsible and doing what they must do,” said Berkley, a former associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Bellevue. “It’s no fun. Nobody likes the idea of this needing to be done. But when there is direct disobedience of what we as Presbyterians have decided are the boundaries of our practice, a presbytery, out of love, has to stand firm.”

Presbytery members were informed of the disciplinary charge during a regular presbytery meeting Nov. 19.

Five of the presbytery court’s seven members would have to vote to convict Spahr. She could be acquitted; rebuked; rebuked with supervision and rehabilitation; temporarily excluded from office; or permanently removed from ordained ministry.

Spahr, a traveling lesbian activist, is one of at least two Presbyterian ministers to face charges for marrying same-sex couples. The other, Rev. Stephen Van Kuiken, former pastor of the Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, OH, lost his job and membership in the church after the Presbytery of Cincinnati overwhelmingly voted to remove him on June 16, 2003.


 

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