The Presbytery of the Redwoods has refused to follow the instructions of a Presbyterian church court that it rebuke Janie Spahr, a California minister, for performing same-gender weddings.
Redwoods Presbytery voted 74-18 on May 15 not to rebuke Spahr despite the church court’s directive. Some characterized the vote as a sign of loving support for her and for gay and lesbian couples, and others as disobedience that could undermine the church’s system of connectional ties and mutual accountability.
In February, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission – the highest court in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – ruled against Spahr, finding that she had violated the denomination’s constitution by performing 16 same-gender weddings in 2008, during a period when such marriages were legal in California.
The court ruled that Presbyterian ministers cannot perform same-gender weddings even in states that permit such marriages, because the denomination’s constitution defines Christian marriage as being between one man and one woman.
“The issue is not simply the same-sex ceremony,” the court’s Feb. 20 ruling states. “It is the misrepresentation that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) recognizes the ceremony and the resulting relationship to be a marriage in the eyes of the church.”
In ruling against Spahr, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission upheld an August 2010 ruling from the Permanent Judicial Commission of Redwoods Presbytery. That earlier court ruling included an instruction that the presbytery rebuke Spahr for her actions – an instruction whose imposition has been stayed, or delayed, while the case was being appealed.
One of Spahr’s lawyers, Scott Clark, made the motion that the presbytery not rebuke her. The motion stated that such a rebuke would be “inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the faithful life of ministry lived out in this presbytery.”
Others see the presbytery’s action as overt defiance of a church court order.
Mary Holder Naegeli, an evangelical minister from California and executive director of the Presbyterian Coalition, described the vote in a blog post as “a new low in Presbyterian life.” Naegeli wrote, “I cannot recall in nearly 25 years as an ordained minister ever witnessing open defiance” of a direct church court order. She added, “this is a presbytery gone rogue.”
With President Barack Obama recently voicing his support for same-gender marriage, the issue remains hot in both secular politics and inside the church.
The PC(USA) General Assembly, when it meets this summer in Pittsburgh, will take action on roughly a dozen overtures asking it to give approval for Presbyterian ministers to officiate at same-gender weddings in states where such marriages are legal.
One set of overtures would amend the denomination’s constitution to define Christian marriage as being between “two people” – a change that, to take effect, also would need to be ratified by a majority of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries.
Other overtures ask the assembly to approve an authoritative interpretation to give Presbyterian ministers pastoral discretion to perform same-gender weddings in states where such marriages are legal. Such an authoritative interpretation would not need approval from a majority of the presbyteries to take effect.