News 2009


22August 2009, Natick MA -- Today the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Presbytery of Boston tried the Rev. Jean Southard on the charges of violating the PC USA Constitution by performing a same sex marriage and in so doing also failing to fulfill her ordination vow to be governed by our church's polity. Four members of your board attended most of the trial: Dan Blackford, Dick Hasbany, Ralph Jones and Pat Wales. It was a rewarding, educational experience. Lisa Larges from TAMFS, Tricia Dykers Koenig from the Covenant Network, Janet Edwards from the MLP board and Janie Spahr are just some of this movement's leaders also present.

The Ministry

On March 1, 2008, Rev. Jean performed the marriage in the sanctuary of her church, First Presbyterian in Waltham, MA. The two women who were married were among the leaders of that congregation, actively involved in youth and adult education. In her testimony, Jean eloquently described how the Waltham church's ministry was life-giving, not just in a spiritual sense, but  in the literal sense. Waltham's ministry with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people often provided the place they finally found genuine acceptance. For some, prior to finding Waltham, suicide had seemed the option. To say no to this couple would have effectively destroyed the trust and promise of God's community not just for the couple, but for the whole congregation.

The Polity

The PC USA Constitution doesn't have much to say about marriage, but what it does say refers to it as "between a man and a woman." While this language is based on Scripture and our Confessions, most of the discussion at the trial concerned the few, key sentences in our Directory for Worship [see W-4.9000].

Dr. Christopher Ellwood, professor of reformation history at Louisville Theological Seminary, testified that the "a man and a woman" language was developed during the Reformation as a response to certain sects who were using Scripture to justify polygamy. The possibility of same sex marriage just was "not on the radar." In his view, the reformers were not expressing an opinion about an understanding of marriage that has developed in recent years.

Other testimony pointed out that the Preface to our Directory for Worship says it "uses language about worship which is simply descriptive." [Preface b] Thus the polity issues before the Boston PJC were:

  • whether the words describing marriage are also definitional and even if they are,
  • whether they are obligatory, as the language our Book of Order designates as required is not used, and
  • whether acting out of a pastoral understanding that reflects other understandings of marriage also expressed in the Directory for Worship would constitute a disciplinable offense.
On a three to two vote, the Boston PJC dismissed the charges against Jean. We do not know whether the presbytery will appeal that decision.

The issue doesn't quite end here. Just two months after Rev. Jean performed the marriage in question, the General Assembly PJC issued a ruling in a similar case involving the Rev. Jane Spahr. That ruling makes two important points which, while not applicable to Jean's earlier actions, do bear on future Presbyterian same sex marriages. The points are

  • "By the definition in W-4.9001, a same sex ceremony can never be a marriage" and
  • "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." [218-12 Spahr v. Redwoods]
This latter is the first time the PC USA's mandatory "shall" language has been used concerning marriage. This is, in other words, a decision that changes what may be permissible within our polity. The authors of this decision are clear there is no prohibition on performing same sex ceremonies that aren't marriages, and speak at length about the importance of pastoral ministry with all people who are marginalized. One may surmise they personally wish our Constitution were written differently. But they nevertheless rule that what the church may do for same sex couples is distinct from the Christian marriage of a man and a woman.

GA PJC decisions are binding on PC USA members. They have the same authority as constitutional language. However much we may agree with Dr. Ellwood and others at Jean's trial that the emphasis in "a man and a woman" should be on the "a" (meaning "one") and that in any case it's a description rather than a definition, the Spahr GA PJC decision creates significant issues unless it is altered. That could happen when they hear a subsequent case, or if the General Assembly and the presbyteries vote to revise our Constitution to provide Christian marriage for both same and opposite sex couples.


The basic problem with the Spahr decision is that it creates two classes of union worship services -- ceremonies for same sex couples and marriage for heterosexuals. Separate cannot be equal. It cannot be right to refuse Christian marriage to couples who are members of our churches, qualified in every way except that they are of the same sex. Just as it is a betrayal of the gospel to deny ordination to people God has clearly gifted and called, so it is a betrayal of our faith, hope and love to deny Christian marriage to same sex couples who are members of our churches and present themselves for marriage.

It was true a privilege to be present with Rev. Jean and to hear more about the faithful ministry and witness of the Waltham congregation. I learned a lot.

Along with people in several other presbyteries, Presbyterian Promise is exploring the possibility of constitutional amendment. Please let us know if you'd like to help. Let us know if you'd like to discuss this issue further!

Ralph Jones
10 August 2009 -- Presbyterian Promise News number 25 is published.

20 June 2009 -- Presbyterian Promise partiicpates at RI Pride. See the report in the August Presbyterian Promise Newsletter.

6 June 2009 -- Presbyterian Promise participates at Hartford Pride.

12 March 2009  -- The 24th issue of Presbyterian Promise News goes to the printer. Read it here.

25 January 2009 -- New Haven, CT. 
Presbyterian Promise held its Eighth Annual Meeting at First Presbyterian Church in Hartford. New officers were elected and programs discussed. This year's panel discussion of Civil Marriage and Presbyterians was led by Anne Stanback, president of Love Makes a Family CT and Rev. Bill Goettler. See the details here>

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