PITTSBURGH, July 4, 2012 –Tara Spuhler McCabe, who was elected vice-moderator of the 220th General Assembly July 1, resigned from that office Wednesday, citing what she described as “pervasive poisonous activity” in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) surrounding her election that she fears could distract the assembly from its important work.
McCabe, a teaching elder from Washington D.C., has been under pressure since mid-June after news stories reported that in April she had signed the marriage license for two women who wed in the District of Columbia, where same-gender marriage is legal.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) currently does not allow its ministers to perform same-gender marriages, as the denomination’s constitution defines Christian marriage as being between “a man and a woman.”
Whether to change that definition – and whether to give Presbyterian pastors leeway to perform same-gender weddings in states where such marriages are legal – are among the hottest issues before this assembly, with overtures on same-gender marriage likely to come up in plenary on Friday.
An assembly committee recommended July 3 that the PC(USA) change the definition of Christian marriage from being between “a man and a woman” to being between “two people.” To take effect, such a change would require approval from the full assembly and then from a majority of the denomination’s 173 presbyteries.
In a somber address, McCabe said Twitter and blogs have lit up with “unhelpful and frankly divisive comments” since her election. Neal D. Presa, moderator of the 220th General Assembly, said those have included a public letter to McCabe; rumors of a mounting effort to ask the assembly to reconsider her election; and even questions about “the authenticity and veracity” of their friendship of more than 11 years.
“I care too much about this church and about this assembly to let this situation continue,” McCabe said.
She also said she is “embodying the reality of a growing number of pastors who find ourselves caught. We are caught between being pastors – being with couples in those sacred moments when they make their vows to one another . . . and having a polity that restricts us from living out or pastoral calling – especially in states where it is legal for everyone to be married.”
Commissioners gasped, and some responded with a chorus of “No!” when she said she was stepping down, but McCabe said “it is my choice and it is my decision, and it comes from the same pastoral core that led me to be present with two women in their sacred moment in D.C.”
McCabe’s resignation, announced at the start of the first plenary session following the assembly’s committee deliberations, took many commissioners by surprise. After she removed her vice-moderator’s stole and handed it to Presa, he pulled her into a long hug and both wiped away tears. Presa and McCabe have become close friends since meeting more than a decade ago at a PC(USA) 7 Percent event for young pastors. Both are married with young children, and their families have become close.
Presa announced that he is nominating Tom Trinidad, a teaching elder from Pueblo Presbytery, to replace McCabe as vice-moderator. Trinidad, pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs and a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, is to address the assembly Wednesday night before it votes on his confirmation.
McCabe will continue to serve as a General Assembly commissioner.
Controversy built. After the news broke in June that she had officiated at a same-gender ceremony, McCabe decided to stay on as a candidate – with the blessing of Presa, a teaching elder from New Jersey.
Presa, pastor of Middlesex Presbyterian Church, issued a statement saying he would stand by McCabe, although he disagrees with her position, and that their theological differences could be a model for the PC(USA) of working together despite theological differences.
The assembly elected Presa as its moderator on June 30, on the fourth ballot. On July 1, when McCabe came up for election, a stab was made at challenging her, but the assembly fell short of the two-thirds majority needed to suspend the rules to allow debate on her election, even though more than half of the commissioners present voted in favor of doing so. After that effort failed, 60 percent of the commissioners present voted in favor of McCabe’s election.
In an interview with an Outlook reporter in June, McCabe said no disciplinary charges had been brought against her in her presbytery, National Capital, but acknowledged that was a possibility she might face.
Until recently, McCabe served as associate pastor for congregational life at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C. She recently left that position, a departure that has been in the works for a year and is unrelated to the current controversy.
McCabe said in the interview that neither Presa nor Roger Gench, pastor of the New York Avenue congregation, knew that she had signed the marriage license for the two women until the news broke in June.
McCabe said she began a pastoral counseling relationship with the women who married, who were not members of any church and who wanted to discuss spiritual matters with a minister. She said she stood with them at a restaurant as they exchanged vows they had written themselves, and did not use the Book of Common Worship service that she typically uses when performing a heterosexual wedding in a church. McCabe said she did not pronounce the couple to be married.
Asked if she had performed a same-gender marriage, McCabe declined to give a yes-or-no answer, but said “I am the officiant that has signed their marriage license.”