Conflict in the Presbyterian Church

As a church that is borne out of a liberal Protestant Christian tradition, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. has a problem with its lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer population.

While homophobia is nothing new in the hallowed halls of most churches, the Presbyterian Church – with its 10,900 congregations that are part of the Reformed family of Protestantism, descending from the branch of the Protestant Reformation begun by John Calvin – is an embarrassment to itself.

As a church that proudly touts itself as “reformed and always reforming,” it has a recalcitrant attitude to the very thing it purports to be about – reform. And when it comes to all things LGBTQ, the church not only loses its theological ground of being one that affirms diversity without divisiveness, but it also loses its public face of inclusivity.

Case in point: its recent ecclesiastical action to reverse a decision that granted a minister the right to officiate the marriage of two same-sex couples. But the Presbyterian Church’s decision comes as no surprise to many of us LGBTQ Christians, because it is part and parcel of a much larger effort by anti-queer forces nationwide to stop an ever-growing movement for full civil and ecclesiastical marriage equality.

And for the Rev. Dr. Jane (or Janie, as she prefers to be called) Spahr – a lesbian evangelist and ordained Presbyterian minister who for decades has committed her life’s ministry to social justice issues for the LGBTQ faith community – this also comes as no surprise.

Having been granted approval to officiate the weddings of two lesbian couples by the Presbytery of the Redwoods, the local governing body that oversees Spahr’s ministry – the Synod of the Pacific Permanent Judicial Commission – reversed Redwood’s decision:

“Although the Rev. Dr. Spahr had acted with conscience and conviction, her actions were contrary to the [Presbyterian Church] Constitution as it is authoritatively interpreted. ¦We determine that the decision of the Redwoods PJC (Permanent Judicial Commission) is reversed. The Pacific PJC is directed to enter a finding of guilt of the Rev. Jane Adams Spahr to the charge set forth ¦and to impose the censure of rebuke.”

The Presbyterian Church’s reversal of Redwood’s decision doesn’t just put Spahr in the hot seat, it may very well cost Spahr her license. And if her case is tried within the next 45 days by the Pacific PJC, it can consider four possible censures: rebuke, rebuke with rehabilitation, temporary removal from the church, or permanent removal from church office or membership.

Although the church specifically states that marriage is a covenant between only a man and a woman, the church is nonetheless conflicted on this issue of marriage equality for its LGBTQ worshippers.

“Rev. Spahr’s performance of a same-sex marriage ceremony is not held by the Presbytery nor the Permanent Judicial Commission as contrary to the fundamental tenets of Reformed faith, therefore I believe the issue of freedom of conscience importantly distinguishes her action from wilful disobedience, and does not require censure,” wrote Linda Lee and Susan Barnes, moderator of the Permanent Judicial Commission and clerk of Permanent Judicial Commissions, respectively.

LGBTQ worshippers have second-class status in the church, and it is maintained not only by church policy that forbid us to serve as pastors, elders or deacons, but also by overriding decisions made by local churches in support of inclusion of us within the body of the church.

“In its action to overturn the decision of the Presbytery of the Redwoods’ PJC, the Synod Commission perpetuates the vague and poorly crafted standard of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church, the contradictory positions asserted in the rulings of other earlier church trials, denies the historic Presbyterian principal of the discretion and freedom of conscience of the clergy, and in so doing capitulates and contributes to the ongoing homophobia of the denomination and the perpetuation of practices and beliefs that wrongly make lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons second-class members of the church,” said Doug Huneke, a member of the lower court and the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tiburon, Calif.

At the church’s 2008 General Assembly, the church will begin new and inclusive talks on sexual orientation by introducing the adoption of the Belhar Confession. It was written by the Dutch Reformed Mission Church in South Africa in response to apartheid. But in the American context, it will be used to talk about issues of sexual orientation.

Until then, More Light Presbyterians give us hope. It is a coalition of congregations and individuals in the American Presbyterian Church committed to increasing the involvement of all people in the church, regardless of sexuality.

More Light churches endorse the mission statement: “Following the risen Christ, and seeking to make the Church a true community of hospitality, the mission of More Light Presbyterians is the full participation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people of faith in the life, ministry, and witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA).”

These are the Presbyterians who truly uphold the church’s motto of being reformed and always reforming. •

Published August 29,2007 in In Newsweekly. 

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