Jane Spahr has been trying to get thrown out of the Presbyterian ministry for decades. She was ordained as minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the large, mainline edition of the Presbyterians, more than 30 years ago. Along the way, though, she decided to divorce her husband and take up with a woman, while keeping her status as a Presbyterian minister. The church, meanwhile, clarified its traditional position that the Bible says homosexual practice is a sin. Since Presbyterian ministers take a vow to be guided by the Bible, as well as by the rules of the church, Spahr might have resigned from the ministry in 1978, when this "definitive guidance" on church doctrine was first made.
Jane Spahr, however, decided to be a "lesbian evangelist" in the church – informally at first, but these days as her official job. She has been trying to provoke discipline ever since. In 1992 the church courts decided that she could not take a new job as a pastor of a Presbyterian congregation because she did not accept the church's rules. However, that court also said that, since she had been ordained before the rule was officially stated, her ordination was grandfathered in. She now works for an organization called That All May Freely Serve, which exists to overturn the Presbyterian Church's understanding of what the Bible says about homosexual practice.
Since being turned down for a pastorate, Spahr has been trying to provoke prosecution by performing same-sex "marriages." These ceremonies are not recognized by either church or state. Spahr even went to Canada to try to perform a legal same-sex marriage, but it turned out she had failed to get a license to perform weddings in Canada, so they didn't count, either. The Presbyterian Church has had several constitutional amendments on whether ministers could perform same-sex weddings, and each time majorities of church voters from across the country have said no.
Spahr, who says she has performed hundreds of same-sex weddings over the past thirty years, was tried in her own presbytery of Redwoods in California last week. On March 3rd the presbytery's judicial commission (church court) acquitted Spahr.
Here is the really important part: the church court agreed that Jane Spahr had violated church law for ministers. However, they ruled, 6 to 1, that she was “acting within her right of conscience in performing marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples.” The court declared that the church's constitution offers a "definition, not a direction.” This line of reasoning threatens to dissolve the whole denomination. As the presbytery's attorney, Stephen Taber, put it, "You have a situation where any minister anywhere can claim, 'My conscience tells me I can sleep with 16-year-old girl outside my marriage vows,' and who's to question his conscience?"
Now the stakes have been raised to a higher level. The issue in the inevitable appeal of the verdict is no longer what Jane Spahr did, but what the presbytery's judicial commission did. If a presbytery can decide that the church's constitution doesn't apply to its ordained ministers if the don't want it to, then we have a constitutional crisis.
The silver lining of this mess is that the Presbyterian Church at the highest level may make clear that the whole church makes its constitutional rules, not six judges in California. In that sense, this case is much like the disastrous ruling by a handful of California judges that "In God We Trust" is an unconstitutional motto.
I think it likely that the higher church courts will reject this decision by the presbytery's judicial commission. And on that day, Jane Spahr will finally get her wish – to be a martyr. At that point, she can become a minister of the gay-friendly United Church of Christ – something she could have done decades ago.
More on this story as it unfolds.