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Validating Ministry in the Presbytery of Southern New England

On May 1st 2010, The Presbytery of Southern New England voted to revalidate the ministry of the Rev. John Merz. The decision creates a precedent for several issues of concern to Presbyterian Promise, GLBTs, friends and allies. Those issues include whether Presbyterian polity does in fact prohibit same gender marriage in localities where it is legal, the nature of validation, and whether it is appropriate for a presbytery to invalidate a person as a minister without a judicial review. 

John and his partner were married according to Connecticut law in 2008. He wrote about this in the March 2009 issue of Presbyterian Promise News. The marriage was performed in Presbyterian style, but not in a church. 

This article became the basis for a challenge to his ministry. In June 2009, PSNE's Committee On Ministry received a letter signed by five sessions, six clergy, and eleven elders from our presbytery raising questions about PSNE's process and criteria for validated ministry and members at large and also about John's marriage, the minister who officiated at it and about John's partner's being elected a Deacon.
 
COM has worked diligently on this. They have presented PSNE with policies on both validated ministry and members at large. These were adopted by the Presbytery at the May meeting where John's validation was considered. They have also twice met with John and Rev. Graham Robinson, his pastor. Representatives of the questioning parties and from Presbyterian Promise were present when they met with Rev. Mark Tammen, from the Office of the General Assembly, on the relevant polity. During the course of their deliberations, Rev. John Webster, COM co-chair, prepared two background papers, available here and here, that describe the issues raised as they understood to be before them. 

A key question is whether Presbyterian polity does, in fact, speak to same gender marriage in localities where it is authorized by the state. This matter is currently under judicial review in the case of Rev. Jean Southard v. Presbytery of Boston. See the Boston PJC decision here. Related cases concern ministers in New Jersey and California. Southard will be reviewed by the Synod of the Northeast PJC at the end of June. These are not established, settled matters, but there is a strong case being made that while our Directory of Worship (W-4.9...) focus on different gender marriage, at no point does it prohibit same gender marriage where allowed by the state. 

PSNE's COM understands validation to involve both determining the appropriateness of the work and whether it is appropriate for him to continue as a member of this Presbytery. No questions have been raised about John's work. He is Executive Director of the Connecticut AIDS Resource Coalition, a position and ministry he has held for many years. John is also well known in this Presbytery. He has been a member for a long time, and has served four three year terms on the COM (not continuous)! So the issue comes down to whether his Connecticut marriage to his partner somehow invalidates his ordination.

COM co-chair Webster also prepared the report presented to the Presbytery. His co-chair pointed out that the committee had not approved the report, and that it did not reflect the thinking of all members of the committee. 

COM recommended "that the Presbytery validate the ministry of the Rev. John Merz." A motion to recommit was offered that would have instructed COM on its activities regarding validation. (The Presbytery had in fact adopted the policy for Validated Ministries, so those instructions would have had immediate effect.) This motion was defeated 82 no/24 yes.

PSNE voted to accept the COM recommendation 81 yes/23 no.