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April 29, 2008: Deciphering the GA PJC

My suspicion is that there is a large part of the church that is thinking, "What does that mean?"

The Decision(s)

The GA PJC's decision in the Rev. Jane Spahr's disciplinary case is the kind of thing that we hope and pray does not happen -- a decision with multiple concurrences and a dissent. In short, here's my reading of the decision:

1. Primary decision: Same-sex union ceremonies do not fit the definition of marriage (marriage being defined specifically in W-4.9001 as between a man and a woman). Therefore, the Rev. Spahr cannot be disciplined for performing something it was not possible to do.

2. First concurring opinion: The Rev. Spahr could not be disciplined for anything that has happened previously; however, because the GA PJC has decided this case, any similar attempt to perform what cannot be done is now subject to disciplinary accountability.

3. Second concurring opinion: Someone who has the appearance of a conflict of interest needs to carefully weigh whether he/she should participate in the decision-making. (A procedural issue regarding someone at the Presbytery PJC level.)

4. Third concurring opinion: "a minister may find the call to compassion and advocacy in tension [with] rules of the church. The church's structure and discipline are to be heeded, even while the minister's faithfulness to Christ is unquestioned."

5. Fourth concurring opinion and Dissenting Opinion: The primary decision to not find a disciplinary offense was correct; the reasoning of this and previous GA PJC decisions were beyond the authority of the GA PJC and do not make any sense. The GA PJC should get out of this question and the General Assembly ought to take up the issue to clarify.

 

So, what's the story?

a. This case: The Rev. Spahr has now been cleared of the disciplinary charges filed against her. There will be no disciplinary censure for her performing ceremonies she described as "same-gender weddings."

b. Other cases: Going forward, it is difficult to know what is the standard -- whether the first concurrence or ithe fourth concurrence will hold a majority of the GA PJC. In other words, is a minister of Word and Sacrament who presides over a ceremony constructed as a "same-gender wedding" subject to disciplinary accountability?

The first concurrence says yes; the fourth, no; and the primary decision is unclear.

The primary decision says, "We further hold that officers of the PCUSA authorized to perform marriages shall not state, imply, or represent that a same sex ceremony is a marriage." That is a "shall not" phrase in an Authoritative Interpretation of the Constitution. The next sentence is, "Under W-4.9001, a same sex ceremony is not and cannot be a marriage." The confusion arises when you try to apply these consecutive sentences to the final outcome of this case --

On the one hand, officers "shall not" equate a same gender ceremony with marriage,

On the other hand, the Rev. Spahr did what officers "shall not" do, and was not disciplined. She was not disciplined because she performed something that could not occur.

The third concurrence recognizes a tension and says that church rules should be heeded. But if not...?

In sum: Can I do a same-gender wedding? No.

What happens if I do? You can't, you shouldn't; but if you do -- well, that's a good question.

Posts older than April 22, 2008: Archives

(P.S. If this decision is so convoluted about the meaning and significance of the definition of marriage, imagine what things will be like if the nFoG's commitment to flexibility and ambiguity are enacted.)

(P.P.S. This is the first time I have seen the GA PJC or any other governing body recognize "ecclesiastical disobedience" as an appropriate expression within the life of the denomination. The primary decision includes this: "The role of a prophet carries consequences. It is the burden of a church officer to accept the consequences of his or her actions that are the ecclesiastical equivalent of civil disobedience."

Contrast this with the footnote to G-6.0108b. No provision for "ecclesiastical disobedience" is contemplated,

Very early in the history of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, even before the General Assembly was established, the plan of reunion of the Synod of New York and Philadelphia contained the following sentences: “That when any matter is determined by a major vote, every member shall either actively concur with or passively submit to such determination; or if his conscience permit him to do neither, he shall, after sufficient liberty modestly to reason and remonstrate, peaceably withdraw from our communion without attempting to make any schism. Provided always that this shall be understood to extend only to such determination as the body shall judge indispensable in doctrine or Presbyterian government.” (Hist. Dig. (P) p. 1310.) (Plan of Union of 1758, par. II.)

It is difficult to reconcile the GA PJC's affirmation of ecclesiastical disobedience -- even with the notion of accepting consequences -- with behavior that is forcing a "yes/no" schism. The original Authoritative Interpretation of the Constitution regarding same-gender weddings was approved in 1991. I would submit that seventeen years is "sufficient liberty modestly to reason and remonstrate.")