Free Janie Spahr
From August 24 through August 26, Soulforce co-founder Mel White and I were in Napa, CA, representing Soulforce at the trial of our long time friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. Janie Spahr. And, on August 27, a panel of six commissioners, sitting as judges on the Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) of the Presbyterian Church(USA) through the Redwoods Presbytery, found Rev. Spahr “guilty of misconduct” for officiating at the weddings of sixteen gay and lesbian couples during that window of opportunity (June-November, 2008) when same sex couples could legally marry in California.
The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church(USA) defines marriage as a sacred union between a man and a woman and any Presbyterian clergy person who threatens to undermine that doctrine by performing a wedding for a lesbian or gay couple can be charged, tried and punished for their courageous act. The PJC could have imposed a penalty from a “censure by rebuke” to a removal of Janie’s ordination. Incidentally, she was found not guilty of similar charges at a trial by the same PJC of Redwoods Presbytery in 2006.
In other words, when asked to perform a same sex wedding ceremony which is legal under the laws of the State of California, the Presbyterian hierarchy demands that their clergy say “NO!”. Janie, like so many courageous Presbyterian clergy before her, refused to obey the unjust and discriminatory doctrine and said “YES!” instead.
Eleven of the couples Janie married appeared to testify on her behalf. These courageous and articulate lesbians and gay men made it clear what it meant to hear a Presbyterian clergy say “Yes” and the tragic consequences in their lives from hearing so many other clergy say “No.” These couples were courageous and generous in sharing the intimate details of their relationship and their longing for their marriage…just like everyone else. While clearly the commissioners were moved by the testimony, they chose the easy way out and missed their chance to take a prophetic stand for LGBTQ Presbyterians.
During her trial Janie reminded the judicial commission that she was motivated by more important Presbyterian doctrines that call clergy to ministries focused on diversity and inclusion. In Janie’s words, it was Christ’s call to welcome all people that supersedes a Presbyterian doctrine that excludes and demeans same-sex couples.
On the last day of her trial dozens of Janie’s supporters put on T-shirts with a white dove pulling a banner that read: “Free Janie Spahr.” The words on the banner were words from John 3 describing the mysterious ways the Spirit creates change. “You can hear the wind blow,” the text begins, “but you can’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going.”
There is no question that you can hear the wind of change blowing within the Presbyterian Church(USA) but at this particular moment, GLBT people and their allies must be wondering where exactly that wind is leading or how long it will take Presbyterians to get there.
Since the founding of Soulforce eleven years ago, our volunteers have organized nonviolent protests at similar church trials across the U.S. In fact, in 1999 our first official nonviolent direct action was at a similar trial of Jimmy Creech by the United Methodist Church for marrying a gay couple.
After more than a decade, the so called “mainstream” denominations are still punishing their most prophetic and courageous clergy who refuse to treat LGBT people as outcasts. The winds of change may be puffing like a breeze in the Presbyterian and Methodist denominations, but until this religion based oppression ends, Soulforce promises to confront and condemn injustice wherever we find it. Why not join us!
Read the full PJC decision at www.redwoodspresbytery.org. Look for link under Announcements section at top right of home page.
A New York Times article can be found at www.nytimes.com/2010/08/29/us/29bctrial.html.
You can help support our efforts to bring full inclusion to the Presbyterian Church (USA)–and all spheres of all life–by making a contribution toward our on-going work to change the policies of the PC(USA) church.