Synod PJC upholds Spahr’s conviction on same-sex wedding charge
Court says guidelines are needed where same-sex marriage is legal
March 31, 2011
The Synod of the Pacific’s Permanent Judicial Commission (SPJC) has upheld the Redwoods Presbytery Permanent Judicial Commission’s (PPJC) decision to rebuke the Rev. Janie Spahr for performing state-sanctioned same-sex marriages in California.
The synod court’s decision was issued March 25.
Spahr presided over at least 16 same-gender marriage ceremonies between June and November of 2008, during the time they were legally recognized by the State of California. More than 18,000 same-gender couples married during that time.
Spahr was consequently charged with violating the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as interpreted through a previous General Assembly PJC decision (Spahr, 2008) stating that “…officers of the PC(USA) authorized to perform marriages shall not state, imply, or represent that a same sex ceremony is a marriage. Under W-4.9001, a same sex ceremony is not and cannot be a marriage.”
Spahr was also convicted and rebuked (the court’s mildest sanction) by the Redwoods PJC for a persistent pattern of disobedience and a failure to be governed by the polity of the PC(USA) ― a violation of her ordination vows.
Spahr appealed the decision to the Synod PJC, arguing that a single sentence in a GAPJC decision did not have the same standing as “… the authority of the Gospel, the witness of Scripture, and the plain language of the Constitution.”
Spahr argued that she had acted in good faith with both Scripture and the Constitution by offering pastoral services, including celebration of legal marriages, without discrimination.
After hearing testimony here on March 24, the Synod PJC used two recent GAPJC decisions, (Spahr, 2008) and (Southard, 2011)) to guide its decision. Those decisions declared that civil same-sex marriages cannot be represented as ecclesiastical marriages as defined by the PC(USA).
The Synod PJC further declared that the constitutional interpretations voiced in the Spahr and Southard decisions are not inconsistent with The Book of Order “…when read as whole.”
The synod court also noted the need for clear guidelines for clergy who wish to officiate at a civil same-sex wedding. “What would a minister need to do to faithfully perform a civil wedding while conforming to PCUSA polity regarding ecclesiastical weddings,” the SPJC asked.
The 219th General Assembly (2010) declined to change the PC(USA)’s constitutional definition of marriage from “a woman and a man” to “two people.” The Assembly chose instead to ask the church to study the issue further.
“The church was not yet ready to make a decision,” 219th GA Moderator Cindy Bolbach, said at the time.
“In a time when increasing numbers of states permit same-gender weddings and civil unions,” the SPJC wrote, “it is important for the church to clarify how its clergy might pastorally participate in such secular occasions while honoring the PC(USA)’s definition of Christian marriage.
Scott Clark, a member of Spahr’s defense team, made clear Spahr’s intention to appeal the ruling to the General Assembly PJC. “The SPJC failed to honor Rev. Spahr’s thirty-five years of faithfulness,” he said. “They convicted her for something we don’t think is precluded in the Book of Order at all.
“The problem is that Rev. Spahr has not been charged with violating either the Constitution or Scripture,” Clark said, “but with a single sentence in a GAPJC decision. We will be asking the GAPJC to make it clear that they did not intend to, nor constitutionally could they have … directly amended the constitution of the PC(USA) to add a new sentence of limitations.”
The sad thing about the Synod PJC decision, Clark added, “is that it leaves gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered people without a pastor. When folks were coming to their pastors in 2008, the synod suggests they should have been turned away from the church. That’s inconsistent with what Christ taught.”
Anitra Kitts is a free-lance writer in Santa Rosa, Calif., and a candidate for the ministry under the care of Cascades Presbytery.