The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s highest court has upheld the censure of the Rev. Jane Spahr for performing 16 same-gender marriages in California during a time that such rites were legal in the state.
The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission’s (GAPJC) vote was 9-6, indicating the denomination’s continuing struggle to decide the limits of “pastoral care” as more states legalize same-sex marriage.
The PC(USA)’s Book of Order defines marriage as “between a man and a woman,” but several overtures to the upcoming 220th General Assembly call for that definition to be changed.
“I feel sad for the church because I think it's such a right and loving thing to be with couples on this journey of marriage and deep intimacy with one another,” Spahr told Reuters after the decision was announced.
Spahr, 69, is a retired PC(USA) pastor and grandmother. She was originally censured in Redwoods Presbytery for officiating at 16 same-gender weddings between May 2008, when the California Supreme Court struck down a ban on same-sex matrimony, and November of that year, when voters approved a state constitutional amendment reinstating it.
The Redwoods decision was upheld by the Synod of the Pacific’s PJC.
Censure carries no further form of discipline in the PC(USA).
“The issue is not simply the same-sex ceremony,” the GAPJC majority wrote in its decision. “It is the misrepresentation that the Presbyterian Church ... recognizes the ceremony and the resulting relationship to be a marriage in the eyes of the church.”
The ruling cites a 1991 “authoritative interpretation” of the PC(USA) constitution, in which the GAPCC said that Presbyterian ministers should not perform same-sex union ceremonies “that the minister determines to be the same as a marriage ceremony.”
The six dissenters said the censure of Spahr perpetuates the notion that gay couples “are children of a lesser God.” They wrote: “As Christians, we claim the high goal of loving and including all, then seek to exclude the (gay) community. This second-class ... treatment proclaims the hypocrisy of our present interpretations.”
Ordained in 1974, two years before coming to the self-realization she was a lesbian, Spahr was the first openly gay minister called to pastor a PC(USA) congregation. The GAPJC blocked her call to Downtown Presbyterian Church in Rochester, N.Y. The church responded by hiring to create and lead “That All May Freely Serve,” a nationwide ministry that advocates full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Presbyterians in the church, including service as church officers.
Last summer, the 173 PC(USA) presbyteries ratified an amendment to the church’s constitution that allows ― but doesn’t require ― the ordination of gay and lesbian Presbyterians in committed same-sex relationships.