Tara Spuhler McCabe will continue to stand as a candidate for vice moderator of the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), despite questions being raised about whether she performed a same-gender wedding in April.
McCabe is a minister in the District of Columbia, where same-gender marriage is legal.
Asked in an interview whether she had performed a same-gender marriage – something the PC(USA) currently does not allow its ministers to do – McCabe declined to give a yes-or-no answer.
She acknowledged that on April 28, she signed the marriage license for two women who were married in the District of Columbia, Christy Hallinan and Morgan Davidson, and that she stood with them at their service.
“I am the officiant that has signed their marriage license,” McCabe said. “The license is out there and my name is on it.”
The issue came to public attention after reporters were provided copies of both the marriage license that McCabe signed and the couple’s application for a marriage license. The documents were provided to the Outlook by a source who asked not to be named, and McCabe said she had received an inquiry from the Layman as well.
McCabe is standing as a candidate for vice moderator of the assembly with moderator candidate Neal Presa, a teaching elder from New Jersey. Both McCabe and Presa said in interviews that she will continue as a candidate, and that their differing views on whether PC(USA) ministers should be allowed to perform same-gender marriages can serve as an example of how Presbyterians who disagree can be in conversation together on difficult theological issues.
On June 18, Presa released a “Statement on Unity & Difference” on his website regarding what has happened.
McCabe said one of the women who were married April 28 is the cousin of a neighbor. She said she entered into a pastoral care relationship with the couple after learning they were not involved in a congregation but were interested in meeting with a minister to explore spiritual questions.
“I began a pastoral care relationship with these two women,” said McCabe, who has served as associate pastor for congregational life at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington.
McCabe is leaving that congregation June 24 in a transition she said she announced last summer. She said that the wedding between Hallinan and Davidson did not take place at the New York Avenue Church and that neither Presa nor the congregation’s pastor, Roger Gench, knew of it until recently.
Asked if she performed a same-gender wedding, McCabe said, “I began a pastoral care relationship with these two women. Over the year and out of the conviction of my faith, I proceeded to realize with the Lord of my conscience that I needed to move forward.”
McCabe said she stood with the two women as they exchanged vows.
“That was their personal service,” she said. “I guided them through a covenant service,” using words the two women had written, rather than the Book of Common Worship service that she typically uses when marrying a man and a woman in a church. McCabe said she did not pronounce the couple to be married.
Asked again if she had performed a same-gender marriage, McCabe said “they very specifically sought for a pastor to guide them through a discernment period, and we moved forward. Out of the conviction of my faith, I did move forward, standing with them as they themselves exchanged their vows and as I signed their marriage license . . . I am the officiant that has signed their marriage license.”
She also said she did not become involved with the ceremony as an act of public advocacy, but of “pastoral presence.” Asked if she thought she was taking a risk, McCabe said, “I did not.”
The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission, the highest court in the PC(USA) system, ruled in 2008 in a case involving same-gender weddings performed by a California minister, Jane Adams Spahr, that because the PC(USA) constitution defines Christian marriage as being between a man and a woman, “a same-sex ceremony can never be a marriage.”
The court instructed Spahr not to perform same-sex ceremonies designated as marriages, and said PC(USA) ministers should not “state, imply or represent that the same-gender ceremony is an ecclesiastical marriage ceremony as defined by PC(USA) polity, whether or not the civil jurisdiction allows same-gender civil marriages.”
The court’s ruling also stated that “the critical question is not whether the definitional question creates proscribed conduct, it is whether it is permissible to represent that one is doing what one cannot constitutionally do.”
General Assembly controversy
When the General Assembly convenes in Pittsburgh in less than two weeks, electing a new moderator will be one of its first acts of business. The assembly will choose from among four candidates for moderator, each of whom is running on a ticket with a candidate for vice moderator.
Same-gender marriage is likely to be one of the most controversial issues the assembly confronts. In 2011, the PC(USA) changed its policy to allow the ordination of gays and lesbians without requiring them to be celibate.
The 2012 General Assembly will consider a number of overtures asking that Presbyterian ministers be given discretion to perform same-gender weddings in jurisdictions where such marriages are legal, as they currently are in eight states plus the District of Columbia. Some of the overtures seek to change Presbyterian policy on same-gender marriages through an authoritative interpretation; others by amending the PC(USA) constitution, which also would require approval of the change by a majority of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries.
Currently, the PC(USA) allows Presbyterian ministers to bless same-gender unions, in services that do not use the same liturgy as marriage services and are not presented as being weddings. The denomination’s constitution defines Christian marriage as being between a man and a woman.
Asked if he thought McCabe had performed a same-gender marriage, Presa said, “I don’t want to confirm or deny what that was. I wasn’t there. I don’t have any proof of what happened.”
He also said “she was exercising her role as she saw it as a friend to this couple and providing pastoral care to them. She was acting out of her strong Christian conviction. . . I don’t know. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what the liturgy was, I haven’t seen it. I did ask her if the Book of Common Worship was used, and she said no” and explained that the couple had written their own liturgy and vows.
If charges are brought against McCabe in a church court, her presbytery – National Capital Presbytery – would form an investigating committee and “it would be that body that would determine if it was a wedding or not,” Presa said.
Presa said he chose McCabe as his vice moderator candidate knowing that he and she had theological differences. The two have been friends for about a decade, after meeting through the denomination’s 7 Percent events for young pastors, for which both have served on the planning team. Both are married with young children, and their families have become friends as well.
“I don’t think anything is broken, so there is nothing to be fixed,” Presa said, in explaining why he wants McCabe to continue as his vice moderator candidate. “We move forward. I am one who is known in the church to be fair, to be one who studies Scripture and takes Scripture seriously, who loves Jesus Christ and the church . . . As a progressive evangelical, I am standing side-by-side with my vice moderator candidate. I believe we will model for the whole church what it means to live with differences and integrity even when we disagree with each other.”
Presa said of McCabe: “I disagree with her action of last April. We are moving forward because I truly believe in unity in the spirit and the bond of peace. People in the PC(USA) hold different positions. How can we move forward together as sisters and brothers in Christ and stand shoulder to shoulder together even when we disagree? . . . She has owned up to her responsibility. She is taking full responsibility for what she has done. She is willing to face whatever consequences that might mean in her presbytery.”
Presa said he is not angry with McCabe, even though he was surprised when he learned what had happened.
“I’m not mad at her, because I already knew she was in support (of same-gender marriage). I knew that already – that’s precisely why I asked her to stand with me. I knew that New York Avenue Presbyterian Church is aligned with the Covenant Network (of Presbyterians) . . . That’s precisely why I asked her. We approach the question from different angles.”
Presa also said he sees a value for the PC(USA) to be in tension on difficult ministry questions that have real consequences for people’s lives.
“What is the faithful way to be the church, as Christians in the 21st century?” he asked. “Love is a complex thing. We are dealing with human relationships, seeking the love and guidance of the divine, of God . . . We need to approach this very humbly and prayerfully.”
Time of transition
McCabe said her departure from New York Avenue church was announced in the summer of 2011 and is “completely separate” and unrelated to questions over her role in the April marriage. She said she’s been an associate pastor with the church for 12 years, coming there in her first call out of seminary.
Close to two years ago, “I started to get scared because I felt I didn’t want to work anywhere else but New York Avenue,” McCabe said. She felt so attached to that one congregation, and “as a pastor with a larger call (to the greater church) as well as a particular call, that scared me. “
She began a process of discernment, trying to figure out what her ministry at New York Avenue had prepared her to do more broadly, “what is it i would want to be doing away from New York Avenue and outside of New York Avenue and because of New York Avenue.”
McCabe decided she would leave in June 2012 and give herself at least six months of a personal sabbatical before beginning to seek another call. That decision was announced in a letter sent to the congregation last summer, saying to the congregants that “the decision to leave is coming from a place of complete abundance . . . I am moving on because I need to move in order to grow in my call as a minister.”
It was actually that decision to leave New York Avenue, McCabe said, which gave her the time to consider being a commissioner from National Capital Presbytery to the 2012 General Assembly.