Saturday, March 11, 2006

"Jury nullification" in Redwoods Presbytery

Nearly two years ago, after reading a defiant Janie Spahr crowing about doing something she knows full well Presbyterian pastors are not allowed to do, I just wanted to know: What is her presbytery going to do about such egregious defiance? So, being a straightforward kind of guy, I wrote her presbytery to find out. Might as well go to the source.

Here's my e-mail:
From: Jim Berkley

Date: Thursday - March 18, 2004
Subject: same-sex marriage by Rev. Spahr

Dear Joan Runyeon, Brian Tippen, and COM Chair,

(Please forward this also to the chair of Committee on Ministry. I could not find the chair's name or e-mail on the presbytery website.)

The following news item appears on the That All May Freely Serve web page:

After twenty years loving and honoring one another, Dr. Douglas Potter, co-Moderator of our TAMFS board, and Gregory Partridge, our newsletter co-editor, were legally married in a ceremony in Ontario Canada on February 28th. Participating in her first legal same-gender marriage, the Rev. Dr. Janie Spahr assisted the Rev. Dr. John Mayer, a Unitarian minister from Canada. Read more of Janie's reflections on this mile-stone event in our soon-to-arrive newsletter. A service of blessing celebrating Greg and Doug's marriage will be held at the Downtown United Presbyterian Church in April."

You will notice that Rev. Janie Spahr helped preside at that service which is definitely, even joyfully, declared to be a "marriage." As you well know, Rev. Spahr is a member at large of the Presbytery of the Redwoods and thus is under the ecclesiastical authority of your presbytery.

What Rev. Spahr did in performing a same-sex-couple marriage service is in defiance of our church law. Specifically, the 1991 Authoritative Interpretation reads in part: "...since a Christian marriage performed in accordance with the Directory for Worship can only involve a covenant between a woman and a man, it would not be proper for a minister of the Word and Sacrament to perform a same sex union ceremony that the minister determines to be the same as a marriage ceremony. (Minutes, 1991, Part I, pp. 55, 57, 395)"

Further, in Benton v. Presbytery of Hudson River (Remedial Case 212-11) the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission states that: "ministers and sessions should take special care to avoid any confusion of such services with services of Christian marriage. Ministers should not appropriate specific liturgical forms from services of Christian marriage or services recognizing civil marriage in the conduct of such ceremonies. They should also instruct same-sex couples that the service to be conducted does not constitute a marriage ceremony and should not be held out as such." Yet Rev. Spahr traveled to Canada to specifically officiate at a service held out as a marriage service, which could hardly be considered "taking special care to avoid" it!

My question is this: given this ample evidence of Rev. Spahr's defiance of church law, what is Redwoods Presbytery planning to do about it? What are your plans to bring a defiant minister of Word and Sacrament into compliance with the will and practice of our denominational? Such ordinary discipline is best accomplished informally, collegially, relationally, and locally. What might you be planning to do to see that it happens?

I await your reply. Thank you.


James D.
Minister Member
Presbytery of Seattle
Bellevue, WA

That inquiry--concerning Rev. Spahr's scofflaw activities that the presbytery obviously knew about already and had been just winking at--set off an actual investigation by the presbytery, the filing of charges, and, nearly two years later, a trial.

ALL of that process, by the way, was the presbytery's business, the presbytery's doing. As is the proper procedure, I have played no role in that process, other than briefly answering questions posed by the investigating committee of the Redwoods Permanent Judicial Commission. I have followed the trial in the news, like everyone else.

Still, former stated clerk Joan Runyeon and Rev. Spahr's self-serving publicity pieces have frequently tried to make it seem as if I were the one pressing the case. I am not, but they must have felt it to their advantage to make it look like some "outsider" were pressing the case and not Rev. Spahr's offended presbytery colleagues, as was the case.

Well, the question my curiosity first caused me to ask in the e-mail has been answered. Redwoods Presbytery felt it right and necessary to charge and try Rev. Spahr. Six of the seven members of the Permanent Judicial Commission, however, must have felt it right and necessary to nullify the law in order to exonerate Rev. Spahr.

I find it truly amazing the lengths some people will go in twisting plain meanings to get the result they want. The radical rationalizations of the majority of the PJC are astounding in their magnitude.

Presbyterians are not happy about this obvious "jury nullification." The law was never on trial; Janie Spahr was. The Presbyterian Coalition has written a fine response. Members of Redwoods Presbytery are disturbed with this turn of events.

What remains to be seen is if our judicial system can be so flagrantly misused. As of last June because of a newly approved constitutional amendment, a presbytery PNC prosecuting committee may file an appeal. It will be interesting to follow what Redwoods Presbytery will do in this case.

In the mean time, it is fortunate that this rogue decision holds absolutely no weight of precedent for other presbyteries or sessions. Only decisions at the General Assembly PJC level become precedent. Our law remains, despite the best efforts of some Redwoods PJC members to negate it with the bold disregard previously displayed only by Rev. Spahr.


Blogger Pastor Lance said...

Keep up the good work.

Many have said that the denominational era is over. This is just the lastest example that the above statement is true. Presbyteries ordain unrepentant, practicing gays and lesbians. Nothing happens. I am afraid that I am not long for this use-to-be denomination.
Lance Williamson
Pastor, Evergreen Presbyterian Church
Graham, Washington

3:21 PM, March 13, 2006  

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