In a standing 74-18 vote at its May 15 meeting, the Presbytery of the Redwoods stated its opposition to the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission’s decision to “rebuke” the Rev. Janie Adams Spahr, who had been convicted of performing same-gender weddings.
During a five-month period in 2008 when same-gender marriages were legally recognized by the State of California, Spahr celebrated 16 weddings for same-gendered couples.
In August of 2010, she was charged and convicted by the Redwoods Presbytery Permanent Judicial Commission for violating the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s constitutional prohibition of such services.
The constitution’s “Directory for Worship” defines marriage as between “a man and a woman,” and the GAPJC has ruled that Presbyterian ministers cannot conduct services that represent themselves to be marriage ceremonies or could be construed as such.
The Redwoods PJC decision was appealed and upheld by the Synod of the Pacific Permanent Judicial Commission and the GAPJC, which instructed that the “rebuke” ― the mildest form of discipline in the church ― be read by the Redwoods stated clerk to the presbytery.
The reading of the decision was scheduled to take place as part of the stated clerk’s report to presbytery at the beginning of the seven-hour stated meeting Tuesday at First Presbyterian Church here.
Spahr was present, along with a large contingent of friends, family members, and several of the couples she married in 2010. After an extended and emotional discussion, the Rev. Scott Clark, Spahr’s co-counsel, introduced the prevailing motion to “oppose imposition of the rebuke as set forth in the original decision of the presbytery Permanent Judicial Commission, dated August 27, 2010, (which was stayed by its terms until the present day).”
Clark’s motion further stated that the 2010 decision was “...inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the faithful life of ministry lived out in this Presbytery.”
The Rev. Beth Buckingham-Brown, interim pastor at Montclair Presbyterian Church in nearby Oakland and part of one of the couples married by Spahr, spoke to the pain of witnessing the formal rebuke of Spahr. “If you rebuke Janie,” she said, “you also rebuke me and my marriage.”
The Rev. Kelsey Ingalls, associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church, Ukiah, Calif., spoke in opposition to the motion. “There are many people who say the constitution has not been upheld, who take great offense and are also feeling oppressed and hurt.”
“My larger point,” Ingalls said after the vote, “is that there are Presbyterians who are exhausted, who are tired of being the fish that swims upstream. I have elders who ask, ‘Why go to a presbytery meeting? No one is listening.’”
Even so, Ingalls affirmed the connectional nature of the Presbyterian denomination. “This is a small part of a larger mission. We have been called to be in community with each other as church leaders, as church members, as Christians.”
The Rev. Beverly White, clerk of the presbytery Permament Judicial Commission, stated that while the committee members supported Spahr’s ministry, they felt “constrained to accept the decision of the supreme judicial authority of our church, and its order as contained in its decision.”
White said that there are several ways to bring about change. “What Janie is doing is one way to change the church, and what we did is another.”
White said that the Redwoods PJC’s decision was intended to rebuke the church rather than Spahr.
In a written statement available at the meeting, the presbytery court said: “We cannot perpetuate the idea that LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) couples are children of a lesser God. They are ethically and spiritually the equals of heterosexual couples in the eyes of our Lord.”
“I didn’t know if it was going to pass,” Spahr said after the vote. “It was a stunning moment when love and justice came together.”
Noting that previous readings of the decision, including a formal reading of the presbytery PJC’s initial decision at a Sept. 2010 Redwoods Presbytery meeting, had left many of the couples in tears, Clark said, “It’s a great day. In this motion, the presbytery chose to stop the cycle of harm.”
“The presbytery basically said, ‘We oppose this decision,’” said the Rev. Robert Conover, Redwoods Presbytery stated clerk, after the meeting. “As individuals, each member could have filled out a statement of dissent but instead the presbytery as whole made this statement.”
“Perhaps the majority, perhaps all of them, thought they had removed the rebuke but I don’t see how it is in the power of the presbytery to do that,” Conover said, adding that he had about 30 minutes notice on the Clark motion before the beginning of the meeting.
Laurie Griffith, manager of judicial process in the Office of the General Assembly said there “are two possible options for redress if anyone wanted to raise the issue” of the presbytery’s refusal.
“Each presbytery submits a ‘compliance report’ to the GAPJC, which is reported for information to each General Assembly,” she told the Presbyterian News Service, but it’s always been just pro forma.”
The other option, Griffith said, “could be a remedial complaint against the presbytery, but remedial complaints are not usually used to challenge disciplinary processes.” The rebuke stands, whether Redwoods Presbytery reads it publicly or not, she said.
Anitra Kitts is a freelance writer in Santa Rosa, Calif., and a candidate for the ministry under the care of the Presbytery of the Redwoods. Jerry L. Van Marter of the Presbyterian News Service contributed to this report.