Church finds minister guilty for marrying gays

LISA LEFF  |  Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — A retired Presbyterian minister was found guilty of misconduct Friday, Aug. 27 by a church court for officiating the weddings of 16 gay couples when same-sex marriage was legal in California.

A regional commission of the Presbyterian Church (USA) ruled 4-2 that the Rev. Jane Spahr of San Francisco “persisted in a pattern or practice of disobedience” by performing the weddings in 2008 before Proposition 8 banned the unions in the state.

The church’s highest court has held that Presbyterian ministers may bless same-sex unions as long as they do “not state, imply, or represent that a same-sex ceremony is a marriage.”

By willfully challenging that holding, Spahr broke her ordination vows, the commission said in its majority opinion.

At the same time, however, the tribunal devoted most of its 21/2-page ruling to praising the 68-year-old pastor, a lesbian who founded a church group in the early 1990s for gay Presbyterians.

Spahr was acknowledged “for her prophetic ministry” and “faithful compassion. The commissioners called on the broader church to use her example “to re-examine our own fear and ignorance.”

The six-member commission representing 54 Northern California churches censured Spahr with a rebuke as punishment. Spahr said she was disappointed by the verdict and would appeal to a midlevel church court.

It was the second time the regional Presbytery of the Redwoods convened a court to consider charges against Spahr for sanctioning same-sex relationships.

In 2006, a church court composed of different members ruled that she had acted within her rights as an ordained minister when she married two lesbian couples in 2004 and 2005.

—  John Wright

Church court upholds 3 of 4 charges against Spahr — but not because they wanted to

The Rev. Jane Spahr

The Permanent Judiciary Committee of the Presbytery of the Redwoods of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has released its verdict in the church trial of lesbian minister the Rev. Jane Spahr who had been charged with performing same-sex marriages in violation of the denomination’s Book of Order. The committee voted to uphold three of the four charges against Spahr and to censure her by rebuking, adding that she is “enjoined to avoid such offenses in the future.”

The rebuke and injunction, however, will not be imposed until the final determination in the event that Spahr chooses to appeal the ruling.

In a statement released after the committee’s verdict was announced, Spahr said: “I’m sad for my  church. Think about the mixed-messages they are sending the faithful lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters in our community. Think about the mixed-messages they are sending to the next generation who overwhelmingly embrace God’s amazing hospitality and welcome. A great injustice has been done today.”

The committee voted 4-2 to uphold the charge that Spahr did refer to the same-sex weddings she performed during the five months such unions were legal in California as marriages in violation of church doctrine that declares “…officers  of  the  PCUSA  authorized  to  perform  marriages shall not state, imply, or represent that a same-sex  ceremony is a marriage.”

The committee also upheld, on votes of 4-2, that Spahr “persisted in a pattern or practice of disobedience” by performing 15 same-sex marriages during the time those marriages were legal in California, and that the minister “failed to be governed by the polity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), in violation of [her] ordination vows.”

The committee, however, voted 6-0 not to sustain the charge that Spahr “failed to uphold the peace, unity and purity of the church” by “intentionally and repeatedly acting in violation of the Book of Order.”

Even in voting to sustain three of the charges against Spahr, the committee appeared to be siding with Spahr to some degree, almost seeming to say that even though she violated the Book of Order, Spahr did the right thing. In other words, the committee seems to say, quite plainly, that they had to uphold the charges because Spahr clearly violated certain sections of the Book of Order, but that they believe that Spahr is right and that the Book of Order is, at least in some cases, wrong.

You can download the full text of the decision in PDF form at RedwoodsPresbytery.org (look under the “Announcements” section on the home page),but here is the part I was describing:

“The Permanent Judicial Commission, in sustaining the first three charges, recognizes that while the Rev. Dr. Jane Spahr has indeed performed these marriages, which were and continue to be legal marriages, she did so acting with faithful compassion in accord with W­7.3004. These marriages were legal in the state of California, being civil contracts (W­4.9001), and are different from same-sex ceremonies. The testimonies of those at court clearly demonstrated this difference.

“We commend Dr. Spahr and give thanks for her prophetic ministry that for 35 years has extended support to ‘people who seek the dignity, freedom and respect that they have been denied’” (W­7.4002c), and has sought to redress ‘wrongs against individuals, groups, and peoples in the church, in this nation, and in the world’ ( W­7.4002h).

“In addition, we call upon the church to re­examine our own fear and ignorance that continues to reject the inclusiveness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. (G­3.0401c) We say this believing that we have in our own Book of Order conflicting and even contradictory rules and regulations that are against the Gospel.”

Later on in the ruling the committee members note although they had to find that Spahr had repeatedly violated the Book of Order and her ordination vows, they also believe that she “has also followed the Book of Order by remembering that our confessions and church is subject to the authority of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him.”

And they said that they refused to uphold the charge that Spahr failed to “uphold the peace, unity and purity of the church” because they believe that she should instead be commended for “helping us realize that peace without justice is no peace.”

AND, the committee members expressly asked forgiveness of the same-sex married couples “for the harm that has been and continues to be done to them in the name of Jesus Christ,” urging the Synod and General Assembly levels of the Presbyterian Church to “do what needs to be done to move us as a church forward on this journey of reconciliation.”

—  admin

Trial set for Calif. minister who performed gay weddings

LISA LEFF  |  Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — A retired Presbyterian minister and active critic of her faith’s position on same-sex marriage will be tried by a church court for performing the weddings of gay couples during a brief period when same-sex marriage was legal in California.

The Rev. Jane Spahr, 67, has been charged with “publicly, intentionally and repeatedly” violating Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) doctrine by presiding at the weddings of 16 couples between June 2008 and November 2008, before California voters outlawed same-sex marriages.

“To turn my back on the love and lifelong commitments of these wonderful couples would have gone against my faith, the ministry where I was called, and most of all, against God’s amazing hospitality and welcome where love and justice meet together,” Spahr said in a written statement.

She has pleaded not guilty, explaining there are other parts of church doctrine that are just as important such as being welcoming and valuing diversity.

The church constitution defines marriage as a covenant between a man and a woman, but its Supreme Judicial Council has ruled that ministers can bless same-sex unions as long as they are not called marriages and the ceremonies don’t mimic traditional weddings.

The regional Presbytery of the Redwoods, which oversees 52 churches from an area north of San Francisco to the Oregon border, was required to bring the charges against Spahr earlier this year after a member filed a formal accusation against her.

Eleven of the couples Spahr married were expected to testify as witnesses at the trial scheduled to start Tuesday, Aug. 24 at a church in Napa.

“The question of this trial is, are state law and church law incompatible,” said the Rev. Robert Conover, the prebytery’s standing clerk. “Did Rev. Spahr violate the church constitution when she performed same-gender marriages that were legal?”

It’s the second time Spahr, a lesbian who founded a ministry for gay Presbyterians, has faced possible sanctions from her church. In 2006, she became the first pastor of her faith to be tried for officiating the weddings of gay couples from states that did not permit same-sex civil marriages.

The regional church tribunal acquitted her, but an intermediate church court rebuked her for misconduct the next year. The church’s highest court finally cleared Spahr of any wrongdoing, ruling she did not violate denominational law because the ceremonies she performed were not for government-recognized marriages.

Spahr’s lawyers plan to argue this time around that she would have been breaking church law and shirking her pastoral responsibilities if she had refused to marry gay couples who had the legal right to wed and wanted Presbyterian ceremonies.

“The implication of these charges is that Rev. Spahr should have told these couples no — that she should have advised these couples to go elsewhere,” the lawyers wrote in their legal brief. “The testimony in this case will show that Rev. Spahr’s was the more faithful response.”

If found guilty, Spahr could receive sanctions ranging from a rebuke, the most mild discipline, to a suspension. As with her previous case, the verdict following the upcoming trial would likely be appealed to a higher church court and take a few years to resolve, Conover said.

“Presbyterians, like most mainline Protestants, are accustomed to our church law and state law complementing each other,” he said. “We are in a situation now where what’s at argument is whether that is still the case.”

—  John Wright