Edwards, a parish associate at the interdenominational Community of Reconciliation, will face two charges when she goes before the Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) of Pittsburgh Presbytery on Oct. 1. The two charges against her allege that Edwards knowingly acted in defiance of her ordination vows and of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Constitution by performing the ceremony.
“This has been a very long journey,” Edwards told the Presbyterian News Service.
Edwards has never denied officiating at the June 2005 marriage ceremony of Brenda Cole and Nancy McConn, who reside near Wheeling, W.V.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Book of Order defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and church courts have ruled that Presbyterian ministers may not utilize the denomination’s marriage liturgy in same-sex ceremonies.
Edwards has steadfastly argued that there is no prohibition on same-sex wedding ceremonies in the PC(USA) because the courts have said clergy “should not” conduct them — language she believes is advisory, not binding.
James C. Yearsley, a Presbyterian minister who is currently serving in Florida, filed a complaint against Edwards shortly after she performed the lesbian ceremony, only to see the charges against her dismissed on a technicality in November 2006. The presbytery PJC ruled that an investigating committee filed charges against Edwards after its deadline for doing so.
Yearsley submitted a new grievance against Edwards in February 2007. Seven other PC(USA) ministers and six elders from Texas, North Carolina, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Washington state signed on to the new complaint, joining Yearsley as “co-accusers.” One of the co-accusers, L. Russ Howard, eventually withdrew his name from the complaint after the congregation where he’s a pastor left the PC(USA) for the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
A Pittsburgh native, Yearsley has been pastor of Village Church in Tampa, Fla., since February 2006. When he filed his original complaint against Edwards he was serving as pastor at Mt. Hope Community Church, a Presbyterian congregation in suburban Pittsburgh.
In the new complaint the church leaders accused Edwards of acting in “willful and deliberate violation of her ordination vows” as stated in the Book of Order by performing the same-sex wedding ceremony of Cole and McConn. McConn, a longtime Presbyterian and former member of Dallas Church in Dallas, W.V., currently worships at a Unitarian congregation. Cole was raised Methodist but now is a practicing Buddhist.
Yearsley and the co-accusers also contend that Edwards performed a marriage ceremony that was “heretical and apostate” in that it was “contrary to the Word of God and the Book of Confessions by expressing Buddhist doctrine anathema to the Christian faith.”
Edwards, who was ordained by Pittsburgh Presbytery in 1977, and served as its moderator in 1987, said she does not believe she violated her ordination vows or the denomination’s constitution by marrying the two women. A direct descendant of legendary Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, she could face a number of punishments, including removal from ordained ministry, if she’s convicted.
The charges against Edwards follow another church court ruling earlier this year involving the marriage of same-sex couples. Jane Adams Spahr, a Presbyterian lesbian activist from San Rafael, Calif., was found not guilty of misconduct in April after a trial on charges that she violated the PC(USA)’s constitution by performing weddings for two lesbian couples.
The Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly (GAPJC), the PC(USA)’s highest court, found that Spahr did not violate denominational law when she officiated at the weddings in 2004 and 2005. The GAPJC found that the ceremonies Spahr performed were not marriages, so she did not violate the church’s constitution, the high court ruled. The ruling overturned an earlier decision by the Synod of the Pacific’s PJC that found Spahr guilty of misconduct and gave her a rebuke — the lightest possible punishment.
“I’m sure that we will press the parts of the Spahr decision that supports my presiding at the wedding and calling Brenda and Nancy’s relationship a marriage,” Edwards said.” We see a lot of positive things in the Spahr decision.”
Yearsley said he plans to attend Edward’s trial in October if he can possibly make it to the proceedings in Pittsburgh.