Gay marriage and a crisis of authority

May 17, 2012

By Jeff Gissing / @jeffgissing

There seems to be something of an authority crisis today. Let me explain. It seems increasingly difficult for contemporary Americans, even American Christians, to recognize any authority outside of themselves. The self is conceived of as the ultimate frame of reference and what appears to be deference to rightly constituted authority is often simply an internal calculus of cost verses benefit. Where there is little to no cost to defiance the chances increase that we will follow our own decisions regardless of the authority that tells us otherwise. I’m not able to trace the history of the rise of the self as a sort of unimpeachable moral authority, but I’m sure that consumerism has cemented a  previously developed understanding that places the “I” as the ultimate moral agent and authority.

An interesting example comes in the form of a sort of Constitutional crisis in the Presbyterian Church USA (via: Mary Naegli). You can read news coverage here.

The Presbytery of Redwoods (PCUSA) has refused to carry out a lawful order by a higher court, the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission. This is the church equivalent of a trial court judge deciding that a decision of the Supreme Court of the United States is “wrong” and s/he therefore will not act on it.

Incidentally this actions falls into the category of “schism” so eagerly used when churches wish to leave the denomination, but not when governing bodies refuse to abide by the decisions of higher church courts.

Here’s what happened (in brief). From June to November 2008 the State of California recognized same sex marriages. During that period of time Jane Spahr (a Presbyterian minister) conducted sixteen (16) same sex marriages despite the fact that the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) defines Christian marriage as between a man and a woman exclusively. The narrative of facts from the decision is copied below.

Spahr was brought on charges before the Presbytery of Redwoods for violating her ordination vows by representing as Christian marriages unions that were not. That conviction was subsequently upheld on two appeals (to the Synod and General Assembly). According to the highest court of our church the presbytery did not err in convicting Spahr nor in rebuking and enjoining her from doing same sex marriages.

Earlier this week the Presbytery of Redwoods met and its docket (agenda) included carrying out the lawful order of its own Permanent Judicial Commission to rebuke and enjoin Jane Spahr for and from performing same sex marriages. It refused to do so.

Instead it resolved to “oppose the imposition of the rebuke” as such an imposition is “inconsistent” with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. (read the resolution below). In other words: it refused to carry out a lawful order by a higher court purely and simply because it did not agree with that order.

What is really going on here? This is actually a short-circuiting of due process. A presbytery is claiming that it has no duty to act in accordance with the authorities that it has vowed to respect and obey. The presbytery has said to the church that it will comply with lawful orders only when such orders meet with its approval. The presbytery has said that it is the sole authority and will respect no others in the making of this decision.

Some observations:

  • With this action, the presbytery has shown itself to no longer be meaningfully presbyterian in its polity. Unchecked, each presbytery will become further balkanized a disconnected from the rest of the church.
  • This action mirrors the larger culture where there is an increasing polarization and lack of respect for authority which necessitates greater use of coercive power.
Authority is conceived of as resting on the ability to coerce, but in reality it rests on integrity.  Should this define by a lower court not be checked, then our church’s higher courts will have lost more authority by showing a deficit of integrity in handling this matter.
This is a troubling development for the Presbyterian Church (USA) and occurs in the same week that saw 20% of the churches in the Presbytery of Tropical Florida be released to other denominations (ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians and The Evangelical Presbyterian Church).
God help us.

Additional Information

1. Here are the facts a reported in the decision of the General Assembly PJC (Order 220-08):

On April 28, 2008, this Commission issued its Decision and Order in the case of Jane Adams Spahr v. Presbytery of the Redwoods. That decision stated that a same-sex ceremony is not a marriage and that officers of the PC(USA) shall not state, imply, or represent that a same-sex ceremony is a marriage. On May 17, 2008, the Supreme Court of California ruled that same-sex marriages were legal under California law. Same-sex marriages were sanctioned by the State of California from June 20, 2008, through November 4, 2008. During that time period Spahr performed wedding ceremonies for approximately sixteen same-sex couples.

In 2010, a prosecuting committee of the Presbytery brought charges against Spahr for officiating at these ceremonies and a three-day trial was held before the PPJC in August 2010. At the conclusion of the trial the PPJC found her guilty of three of the four charges, issued a Rebuke, and enjoined her “to avoid such offenses in the future.” The PPJC also declared that the “rebuke and injunction shall not be imposed” until any appeals were complete. Spahr appealed to the SPJC, which affirmed the decision of the PPJC on March 25, 2011. That ruling was appealed by Spahr, and on February 20, 2012, the GAPJC sided with the Synod to say that the change in state law had no effect on the church’s definition of marriage that can be authorized by the PC(USA).

2. Here is the language of resolution from the Presbytery of Redwoods:

The Presbytery opposes imposition of the rebuke as set forth in the decision of the Presbytery Permanent Judicial Commission, dated August 27, 2010 (which was stayed by its terms until the present day), by declaring and resolving as follows:

WHEREAS, our primary ordination vow as Ruling and Teaching Elders is to be obedient to Jesus Christ, the Word of God, as the Scriptures bear witness to him, (F-1.02; W-4.4003 (a);

WHEREAS, the love of God in Jesus Christ is for all people, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people;

WHEREAS, the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the constitution require that full inclusion and pastoral care be extended to all members of the church;

WHEREAS,  this Presbytery called the Rev. Dr. Jane Adams Spahr to a ministry in outreach to- and in community among and with – lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people;

WHEREAS, the 38-year ministry of the Rev. Dr. Jane Adams Spahr has been faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to her calling;

WHEREAS, the decision of the August 27, 2010, by its terms, acknowledges and apologizes (1) that the rules of the church “are against the Gospel,” and (2) that the decision and rebuke continue the grievous harm “that has been, and continues to be, done” by the church to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people “in the name of Jesus Christ”;

Be it RESOLVED that the Presbytery of the Redwoods opposes imposition of the rebuke set forth in the decision dated August 27, 2010, as inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the faithful life of ministry lived out in this Presbytery.