The Trials of Janie Spahr

Ecclesiastical trials conjure up images of hooded inquisitors torturing poor souls, demanding them to recant on penalty of being burned at the stake. Although church hearings no longer result in a sacrificial barbecue, the tradition of the ecclesiastical trial is alive and well in many modern denominations, and in recent years the hearings have evolved as a blunt means of debating social issues in the churches.

One veteran of several church judicial hearings is the Rev. Jane Adams Spahr, known to her friends as “Janie,” who finds herself facing the ire of the Presbyterian Church (USA) for the third time for her continuing ministry to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. This time, some members of the church have taken offense to a series of marriages she performed for same-gender couples in California during the brief period in 2008 when such unions were legal in the state. The trial will take place under the auspices of the Redwoods Presbytery, the local church governing body for Spahr’s ministry, at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Napa, California, starting August 24.

Janie Spahr is a grandmother with a shock of short gray hair and piercing blue eyes that simultaneously express pastoral kindness and prophetic fire. She is officially retired from the ministry, but continues to find fascinating ways to spend that retirement—this is her second case in three years involving marriages of same-gender couples. The last case ended up before the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly (the highest court in the denomination), which did not recommend any censure for Spahr but ducked the larger issue by ruling that these ceremonies were not “marriages” per se, since they were not legally recognized by the state or the church.

That ruling brings out the fire in Rev. Spahr’s eyes, “It was a denial of the ministry that I do, but most of all a denial of the relationships of the couples. That was unconscionable. Do anything to me, but don’t say their relationships don’t count!”

This time, the marriages were legally recognized by the state of California, and eleven same-gender couples that she married will be stepping forward as witnesses to testify on her behalf.

After going through a personal odyssey of coming out as a lesbian in her position as minister, Spahr had her first run-in with the powers of the Church in 1991. When she was called to co-pastor Downtown United Presbyterian Church, in Rochester, NY, her case ascended to the highest court, which ruled she could not take the position because she was openly lesbian. “It was all right with the church when I was doing outreach to the LGBT community, but when I was invited to be a pastor and preach and teach in a church, that was a different matter.”

Spahr and various members of Downtown United and Westminster Presbyterian in Tiburon, CA, conceived a new kind of ministry called That All May Freely Serve, in which she would travel around the country as a “lesbian evangelist,” spreading the gospel of inclusion of LGBT people in the Presbyterian church. Spahr retired from that ministry in 2008, and it is now being led by Lisa Larges, an openly lesbian woman who has been trying to get ordained in the church for more than twenty years.

Although Spahr’s Presbytery is largely supportive of her work, any church member may file a charge under the denomination’s constitution, or Book of Order, if they feel she has carried out her ministry in a way that is not in accordance with church polity. (The charge in this case was filed by one member of a congregation in the Redwoods Presbytery.) Having received a complaint about one of its ministers, the Presbytery must investigate the allegation, and if they believe the case has merit, they refer it to the Presbytery’s Permanent Judicial Commission, made up of lay leaders (elders) and ministers, for a hearing.

What follows looks a lot more like Perry Mason than the Spanish Inquisition, with witnesses being examined and cross-examined by legal teams familiar with the church’s polity. The judicial commission will make a ruling, along with any recommendations for sanctions. Decisions can be appealed to upper levels of the church, all the way to the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly whose decisions are binding nationally.

Spahr and her legal team believe there is no explicit prohibition of same-sex marriage in the church’s Book of Order; but she may face an official rebuke, or a temporary suspension of her credentials if the church disagrees with her.

The system is orderly, but lacks a certain humane quality for dealing with disagreements about church governance. It’s set up like a court to create clear winners and losers, which is a problem in a denomination as evenly split on LGBT issues as the Presbyterian church (USA). Speaking of the church judiciary process, Spahr says, “The farther away you get away from the grass roots and the Presbytery, they don’t know you and it becomes more of a system.” Rev. Spahr would prefer a more personal approach to those who disagree with her. “I say to them, ‘come with me for a day and meet the people I work with.’”

The church is also dealing with contradictory notions of what it means to meet pastoral needs. With same-gender marriage being legalized in several states, and plaintiffs from Massachusetts and California challenging federal prohibitions against equal marriage rights for same-gender couples, the Presbyterian church (USA) risks finding itself out of touch with the times, their pastors unable to practice the full range of their ministerial duties under the law.

“The church used to ask me to stay in the closet over my sexual orientation,” Spahr says, “but now they are asking me to deny the faith part. I was called, God called me, and sent me into the LGBT community, then I am not supposed to take these relationships seriously?”

Although the trial process will be stressful, Spahr hopes to use it as an opportunity to spread her gospel of inclusion. “Anything we do, it is always twofold for me. It is to get at the institutional heterosexism in the church and in society, but also to bring spiritual healing to LGBT people who have been hurt by the church and society. For LGBT people to be told over and over again that we are not spiritual beings is an atrocity. It is so against a God of love and justice.”

Furthermore, the trial, which has received considerable attention inside and outside the denomination, will be an opportunity to put human faces on the issue of same-sex marriage. Rev. Spahr says, “They are going to hear these amazing stories of these eleven couples, and they are going to be touched and moved, because it is God’s story.”