PITTSBURGH, July 6, 2012 – When Tara Spuhler McCabe stunned the 220th General Assembly July 4 by resigning as vice-moderator, both she and moderator Neal D. Presa used strong language in describing the criticism McCabe had encountered both before and after her election. McCabe told the assembly that “pervasive poisonous activity” in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) had helped seal her decision – with both she and Presa citing remarks critics had made on blogs and Twitter.
That language led some in the church to state publicly that McCabe had been a victim of “bullying,” although specifics about exactly what had been said and by whom were scarce.
Some commissioners have voiced deep regret and sadness at McCabe’s resignation – although others were questioning why she had run for office at all. At the heart of the dispute is the disclosure that in April, McCabe signed the marriage license for two women who wed in Washington D.C., where same-gender marriage is legal.
The PC(USA) constitution defines Christian marriage as being between a man and a woman. And the General Assembly Permanent Judicial, the denomination’s highest court, has 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.”
In the days since the resignation, the conversation has broadened – to the point where McCabe and Presa held a “town hall” during the assembly’s dinner break July 5 to discuss the issue with commissioners and other observers. Speaking at the town hall were McCabe; Presa; Tom Trinidad, who the assembly elected to replace McCabe as vice-moderator following her resignation; and Wilson Gunn, general presbyter of National Capital Presbytery, of which McCabe is a member.
During that meeting:
Presa and McCabe acknowledged their comments reflected more an overall atmosphere of mistrust in the PC(USA), rather than a barrage of spurious comments made online or in e-mails (although there have been some which made them uncomfortable). “I have never used the word bullying,” Presa said. Rather, he said, he was referring to “suspicion and mistrust” in the denomination, including some who questioned whether Presa and McCabe’s 11-year-friendship is real or was somehow being spun for political motives.
Some pastors in the town meeting said people would be naïve to assume that McCabe is the only PC(USA) minister willing to become involved in same-gender unions. “These are acts of ecclesial disobedience,” a pastor from Washington D.C. said. “I can’t stand here and act as if Tara is the only person who is doing this . . . This is part of God’s work. Ecclesiastical disobedience is an option.”
McCabe and Presa acknowledged that some level of criticism is fair in the PC(USA) – not everyone who spoke out may have crossed a line. And to some extent, McCabe may have resigned because she feared the attention placed on her might be a distraction from the assembly’s important work – and because she wasn’t sure she wanted to continue in that bright spotlight.
“Part of this also is personally what my heart can withstand,” she said. “That’s my part in this.” When criticized, McCabe said, “I have a tendency not to be weaker, but angrier” – and she felt the need to moderate assembly meetings as a “non-anxious presence.”
Presa added, “We’re not about quashing questions. What I named was suspicion and mistrust.”
In some ways, this controversy is about McCabe – about her actions in April and about the tenor and of the criticism she and Presa received. For some, it also raises questions more broadly about how the PC(USA) handles discord and disagreement.
Rick Ufford-Chase, a former General Assembly moderator, said at the town hall that young people have told him “I am not safe” in the PC(USA) and that “it doesn’t feel like a family.”
Asked in an interview to explain what he meant, Ufford-Chase said Presa and McCabe tried to create an environment in which people in honest disagreement could work together. In the fallout from that, McCabe felt she needed to resign. “If we have our highest elected offices fearful to serve . . . the message it telegraphs is that fear is the zeitgeist,” Ufford-Chase said.
Exactly what criticism McCabe received, however, and whether it crossed the lines of civility and fair discourse has been difficult to pin down.
McCabe’s resignation from the office of vice-moderator generated anguished complaints of bullying from some quarters. In her resignation speech, McCabe indicated that she was stepping down due to the “pervasive poisonous activity that has increased toward the overall tenor of our General Assembly and toward the Office of the Moderator.” She specifically stated that “individuals and groups with no personal relationship” with her have not attempted to talk with her directly but “are blogging and tweeting unhelpful and, frankly, divisive comments.”
Presa also weighed in, stating that “the undercurrent of pernicious poison in our family reared its ugly head.”
The controversy surrounding Spuhler McCabe’s election arose after it was disclosed that, in April, she had signed the marriage license for two women who were married in the District of Columbia, and stood with them at their service.“I am the officiant that has signed their marriage license,” McCabe told the Outlook.
Following McCabe’s resignation, some, including the Outlook, began to search the Internet, wanting to read for themselves the substance of the blogs and tweets concerning her. Few were found that seemed obviously to rise to the level of “pernicious poison.”
Asked in the town hall about the communications, McCabe said that she doesn’t use Twitter or blog. “Neal had received a tweet that he sent to me, and one of the members of my presbytery sent me a picture of a series of tweets going back and forth on the concern as to whether I was allowed to stand after I was installed,” McCabe said.
She directed the Outlook to a blog posting by a commissioner “who has been fine,” but that some of the responses have not been. In fact, the commissioner’s post generated just one response, submitted by a member of a non-PC(USA) church. It ponders a point in her own pastor’s recent sermon, asking whether it is “ever proper to refuse to submit to corrupt leaders.”
Presa cited a blog by Mateen Elass, the pastor of First Church, Edmond, Okla., in which he wrote that by participating in that wedding she “knowingly violated our present Constitution” and showed a “lack of integrity.”
In the town hall meeting, Presa also referred to an email sent by a pastor urging McCabe to resign from as vice-moderator. Presa provided the Outlook with the text of that message, which says: “Already, your actions in officiating at the marriage of a same-sex couple is causing issues. Loving the PC(USA) how can you remain vice-moderator when it will only cause more division and harm? Please resign immediately.”
McCabe also referred to an open letter posted online by a pastor in Ohio, inviting her to engage in a conversation with a colleague who was attending the assembly. McCabe stated that being invited to such a meeting via an open letter was inappropriate, leading to the comment made in her resignation speech about people having no “personal relationship” who blogged when they should have tried to talk with her directly. In the town hall meeting, McCabe clarified that the person who posted that blog did contact her personally by way of a private Facebook message, and “what I did experience was a deep apology,” she said, adding that “I am so grateful that he took a risk to offer an apology.”
McCabe said that, prior to arriving at the assembly, she had heard that some members of National Capital Presbytery were considering filing disciplinary charges against her. When a participant in the town hall meeting asked if any case had been filed, Gunn reminded those present that any such filings are, by policy, kept confidential. They become public only after the allegations are investigated to determine whether a case needs to go to trial.