US Presbyterian cleric to appeal same-sex marriage ruling

August 31, 2010 | Web First
By Chris Herlinger | Ecumenical News International

A retired California Presbyterian minister, rebuked on charges that she violated her ordination vows by marrying same-sex couples, plans to appeal against a ruling that she said sent contradictory messages about the church's support of gay rights.

"Who does the Presbyterian Church think we are?" said the Rev. Jane Adams Spahr, who is a lesbian. "We are they, they are us."

The Aug. 27 ruling by a court of the Redwoods Presbytery, a church district of the Presbyterian Church (USA) in Napa, California, rebuked Spahr for violating church policy on same-sex marriage by conducting marriage ceremonies for couples between June and November 2008. Same-sex marriage was already legal in California then.

Still, the court commended Spahr for "her prophetic ministry that for 35 years has extended support to 'people who seek the dignity, freedom and respect that they have been denied'". The court called upon the Presbyterian Church "to re-examine our own fear and ignorance that continues to reject ∑ inclusiveness" and it noted that the denomination's own rules offer "conflicting and even contradictory rules and regulations that are against the Gospel".

While the six-member court rebuked Spahr on three charges, she was acquitted of a charge of failing "to further the peace, unity and purity of the church".

In an Aug. 29 interview with ENInews, Spahr said she was "stunned" by the decision, and expected a different outcome given predictions that the commission might vote in her favour and because of what she called heart-felt testimonies by couples who testified on her behalf.

"The law here is wrong," said Spahr, who is a lesbian. "It was not a just decision." She said that being found guilty and then commended for her prophetic ministry, shows the "church is in great conflict and playing it out on our lives".

Spahr said the controversy over marriage is a power issue in which the church pays lip service to equality for gays and lesbians but then denies openly homosexual seminarians, clergy and laity the chance to fully serve the church. "These are people who are raised in the church, feel a call and then are told they can only go so far," Spahr said.

She had already faced a denominational court in 2008 over whether she broke church rules about same-sex marriage. In the 2008 trial, Spahr was acquitted because the church court ruled that the ceremony of the couple was not recognised by either the church or the State.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) assembly in July approved a measure to allow those in committed same-sex relationships to be ordained as clergy, but the change needs the approval of a majority of its presbyteries. A similar measure was voted down in 2009.

On the issue of same-sex marriage, the assembly voted to maintain the current definition of marriage - between a man and a woman - in its constitution.

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