Sunday, March 05, 2006

A Minister's Conscience and the Church's Rules

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.


Charlotte said...

I see a parallel here in my job. I happen to hold some points of view which would go against the grain of the majority of our readers if I wrote them and would also be diametrically opposed to positions held by the man who signs my paycheck. However much I may believe I am right (or even righteous) in my views, I DON'T have a First Amendment right to express my point of view on the pages of a newspaper I don't own, so if I wrote a column the owner didn't like, he could simply say, "Don't run that," and it wouldn't be in the paper.
IF having a political platform were my main goal in doing newspaper work or my mission in life, then I would obviously need to find another publication to write for or to start my own publication.
Sometimes, I think that people's epic battles take on a life of their own and get very far removed from the initial problem, so that people just want to WIN. Obviously, the lady should find another church in which her views are welcome, or start a church of her own. (People do that around here all the time.)

Gruntled said...

Yes, I think that is a great parallel. I think Jane Spahr and her allies imagine that they are enacting civil disobedience in the manner of the civil rights movement. But the Presbyterian Church is not the state, which imposes its laws on all, but a voluntary organization that they could leave any time.

And I think they just like being the star of their street theater.

Anonymous said...

Suppose it doesn't go the way you expect. Suppose Jane Spahr wins overwhelmingly, and the entire Presbyterian Church suddenly decides to support same-sex marriage. Ministers are allowed, even encouraged, to approve of, support, officiate for, even engage in same-sex weddings. Would you shrug your shoulders and go find another church, as you suggest she does, or would you fight to change the church into something that you believe it should be, even though you find yourself in the minority, as she is doing?

Gruntled said...

Since that would mean an about face for three quarters of members, elders, and ministers of the church, that is a pretty big if. Still, in the spirit of your hypothetical, if I were convinced that my church was irreversibly uninterested in following its own constitution, then yes, I would look for a more "decently and in order" biblical church.

Mark said...

I'm linking this helpful post. :)


Gruntled said...

So what should be done with Spong?