Today’s Opportunity for the PCUSA to Join the Spirit’s Movement
A certain spirit is blowing across our land right now. Two events last week alerted us to this movement.
The first was the United States Ninth Court of Appeals upholding a lower court decision to overturn Proposition 8, a 2008 ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage in California. The second came in the passing of a bill to extend civil marriage to same-sex couples in Washington State, sent on to the governor for signing into law.
Washington now joins six states plus our nation’s capital and two sovereign Native American tribes in acknowledging the love and commitment of all couples equally. I see the Holy Spirit in this because I firmly believe that families and communities are strengthened by state support for all couples—gay and straight—whose relationships display the qualities we all recognize as marriage.
Today, my church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), has the opportunity to join in this response to the loving spirit that is touching hearts across our land. In San Antonio, Texas, the highest court in the 3-tiered judicial system of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is hearing an appeal of a conviction against the Rev. Dr. Janie Spahr. Accusers said she violated church law by presiding at weddings of multiple same-sex couples in California during that lovely summer of 2008, when civil marriage was briefly made legal there. Janie said she believed that “to turn my back on the love and lifelong commitments of these wonderful couples would have gone against the lifetime of dedication I’ve shown to my faith, the guiding principles of my church, and especially those I have served in my ministry.”
I understand the place where Janie is coming from. I, too, have felt the call to preside at the wedding of two committed people who love each other and who happened to be of the same gender. I, too, have been put on trial by my church for doing so. My presbytery charged me twice for violating Scripture and church law by presiding at the wedding of Brenda Cole and Nancy McConn. I was acquitted both times.
The first time I was acquitted was on a “technicality,” simply because the Investigating Committee filed the charges late. The second time, the first-tier court, by a vote of 9-0, ruled that the Prosecuting Committee failed to meet the burden of proof to sustain the charge against me. There was no appeal to this decisive verdict, so the case ended there.
And yet, as recently as two weeks ago a colleague in my presbytery told me I had “gotten off on a technicality” —and he meant the second trial, not the first. When I asked him to explain, he replied that everyone in the church knows Scripture and church law limits marriage to between a man and a woman. He told me I know that too.
The fact is that there is no agreement in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), in the wider church or in our culture right now on what defines a marriage. And no matter how much my colleague may yearn for a clear answer from Scripture that supports his beliefs, there isn’t one.
What Scripture does tell us is that God wants us to love one another. “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
God wants us to love. Nothing could be clearer. When two men or two women come to us with a request that we preside at the celebration of their vows before God and their loved ones—to be “faithful ‘til death do us part”—it is our pastoral duty to get to know them and to find a way to strengthen their love, because God knows life together will be a challenge for them. As with any loving and committed couple that is meant to be together, we see the face of God and the heart of marriage in their love and commitment. The gender of the partners in marriage is no more important than the gender of God and the people God loves as attested to in Scripture.
So what do we do when there is no agreement among us, and when a spirit is blowing that is fresh and unrelenting as this one inspiring our country in a variety of ways?
As always, we can look to Scripture. And Scripture tells us that things change. “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19) I look to the wisdom of the Pharisee Gamaliel in the New Testament when a new spirit was roiling Jerusalem as recorded in Acts. 5:38 His counsel prevailed in the trial of Peter and the apostles. He said, “If this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be fighting against God!”
For some of us, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has the opportunity, through this court decision, to rise up on the wings of the spirit that is moving so powerfully among us, offering joyful support to love and commitment wherever we find it.
For others who hold fast to marriage only being between a man and a woman, allowing the possibility for marriage between two men or two women doesn’t seem sensible. But as faith concludes, “If it is contrary to God then it will ultimately fail. If it is of God, do you really want to contend against it?”
As I reflect on Janie’s trial today, I think back to the decision she received by the first-tier court in August of 2010*. The panel of ministers and elders in Janie’s home Presbytery found her guilty of violating church law and yet, in their statement they also made an appeal: “We call upon the church to reexamine our own fear and ignorance that continues to reject the inclusiveness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
We all know the argument will continue in courts, in legislatures, in churches, around dining room tables across our land. As spirit blows us where it wills, I pray that we all have the courage to face our fears and live into the future God already has planned for us.
Reverend Janet Edwards
*(If you haven’t already read the wonderful piece in the LA Times by Maria LaGanga about Janie’s life and trial, I encourage you to click here and do so.)