I am really not used to dealing with anger to any great measure. Sure, I have it from time to time. As a person and a pastor, I struggle to use it in productive ways when it takes hold. Generally, with prayer and the help of friends, I get beyond it and move a bit further in what some of my friends refer to as “character building.”
However, I have been spending the last several days struggling mightily to understand the anger in me generated by the guilty verdict of Janie Spahr by the Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) of The Presbytery of the Redwoods. It been anything but an exercise in “character building.”
Janie was charged by an anonymous complainant for her officiating at more than a dozen same gender weddings in California during a time when they were legal in the State. The PJC found Janie guilty of violating her ordination vows, the church constitution, and other rulings – while commending her on her prophetic ministry to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community. The accuser was never named nor ever appeared.
This decision and procedure was enough to generate disappointment and dismay. But there was more to this anger of mine this than just disappointment.
I have been going over the events of the four days of hearings in Napa, trying to find the reason for the near sickness I have been feeling. A thousand questions I’ve asked of myself.
Was it the failure of the PJC to notify the defense counsel that a seventh member of the PJC had days before said they would not be able to participate in the trial? Janie’s defense team found this out only hours before the trial began. This changed the PJC from a 7 member to a 6 member board; changing the necessary votes for a verdict of guilty from 5 to 4 (a 2/3rds vote was necessary for the decision). The guilty verdicts were all by a 4-2 vote.
Was it the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission's (GAPJC) refusal of a request by Rev. Spahr and her counsel? They had gone to the GAPJC for guidance in the marriages before she officiated at them, in which she and her counsel noted that the civil laws of the State had changed, following their last ruling. She had been told she had "no standing" to make such a request. (The ruling in question was the outcome of an earlier hearing against Dr. Spahr. No standing?)
Or, maybe it was my own sense of fairness that the PJC should have included someone who is openly a member of the LGBT community. Certainly, there was someone in The Presbytery of the Redwoods that could have stepped forward and been fair in their deliberation. Or do we only trust heterosexual individuals to make the best judgments in the church of those who are on trial, in part, for being Lesbian?
Perhaps my anger came from the absence of any apparent sense of prophecy or awareness of the moment in history that was in the PJC’s hands, or from the dismissal of the heart-wrenching and courageous stories of the same gender couples who allowed themselves to be examined and cross-examined, stepping into a place of great love and vulnerability to witness for all.
Perhaps it was the prosection who called no witnesses, narrowing the case “into the head” and away from the heart, as she suggested. If this isn’t a matter of both – what have we become?
All of this contributed to my distress, but still there was more to it. Of course, I admit to holding Janie as best friend, prophet, mentor, and example of who we are and what can be in the church when at our very best. Even the PJC didn’t contradict that. They commended Janie on her prophetic and exemplary ministry and then failed to exercise any of the same prophecy or courage they so lauded.
I know that’s getting close to the anger, because the quiet voice inside me almost cries out, “How dare they?!”
And then to say they love Janie as they handed down the verdict. To apologize for the church and all it has done wrong to the LGBT community. To thank the power of the witnesses and their hearts, thanking them for sharing their lives in ways no one has been asked to do in being accepted in this church, and then to succumb to the injustice of a constitution they referred to as confusing and in conflict with itself…was almost too much to process in any rational way. To say we love you in such a way is to really say, “We don’t want you.” It was stunning in all the wrong directions.
That’s when it started to hit me. I knew from the start that PJC had the power that seldom comes to people to make an incredible change in an unjust system. Had they voted acquittal and stood as tall as the accused, stating for all to hear that there was no way they could find this minister and these couples guilty of anything except faithfulness and enhancing this church – what an amazing day it could have been! Had they ruled in alignment with their hearts and their heads, they could have sent a message to the church, society, and the whole nation that this church, this PC(USA) would not stand for this attack on one of their own (their own) or the LGBT community they considered family, if they had anything to say about it. And, if as I believe is true, they were convinced as they said that this ruling would move the discussion forward – then why do it in such a hurtful way? Why not vote 6-0 in favor of acquittal. I promise you that such a verdict would have produced appeals in a heartbeat. Instead of beating down those you say you love and admire - you would have lifted them up for the first time in this church in a way that truly had meaning.
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King said, “Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” That’s the measure of just how wrong this all was.
And there it is. Although I have felt opposed, marginalized, mischaracterized, and demeaned, I have never experienced such blatant degradation in all my time in the PC(USA). And what made it worse, what made me angrier is that this decision degraded an entire community of people. It did it in accordance with the law, as they saw it. Did anyone say, "Gospel"?
And, it’s here that the anger takes a deep dive through what I had just imagined to be fear on the part of others toward our community. This verdict and the subsequent rationale and comments of the PJC and others articulated a deep and institutionalized aversion to us, a feeling of dislike for us that is so strong that it produced this institutionalized reaction. My free fall of anger to utter sadness is hinged here, hinged on the meaning of deep aversion and intense dislike, for sadly this is a definition of hatred. I must have been naïve for I never once thought this was at the root of all our struggles in the church. How could we follow Christ and be so distant, at the same time?
While I call no one on the commission or otherwise involved hateful, we need to acknowledge that the reason that the LGBT community is not fully integrated in this PC(USA) is because of such irrational sentiments and the distance that fear produces. Not a fear of those of us who are LGBT, I suggest, but a fear of calling this illness what it is.
So, as Dr. King also once said, “Where do we go from here?”
Dr. King’s response was, “…we must first honestly recognize where we are now.”
Where we are now is a church divided. We are not divided by people who are LGBT who want to belong. We are divided by the culture of hate that has invaded us from all around us. We have embraced the hate of sectarian interests and cobbled it together to represent the PC(USA) in judging the lives of our sisters and brothers who are LGBT. Instead of leading by the gospel against the violence and damage of institutionally degrading this community, we have mislead ourselves by our aversion to others. And in the process, to protect our own failings, we have marginalized others.
Folks, we cannot wait for institutional change to address these injustices that are creeping us closer and closer to no return from hatred and violence. If we as a church cannot rise up with the leadership of those like The Rev. Dr. Spahr and stand by them fully – we will continue to feed the culture that surrounds us with our own witness of fear and acquiescence. We seem to willingly replace justice and prophecy with doing things “decently and in order” – and fail to treat those we accuse with anything like the decency and primary order of ours being the Church of Jesus Christ.
It is not enough to look at the things which we do well as church, which are many. We also need to enter into the wrong we are doing others – and address them now. If we can accept the disharmony and degradation of others as an acceptable price to pay for the years it will take to right this abomination of exclusion of the people who are LGBT, then indeed we have no idea what this is all about. It may be that the mountain of such pain we have caused over the years has made us immune to the complicity of this sad state in which we now find ourselves.
From that place, loving us…means nothing at all. It’s enough to make one angry…and very sad.
But just in case you might be hoping, it’s no where near enough for us to give up. Folks are fond of asking, why don't you find another denomination. The answer is simple, "This cannot be a whole church without us, and we love you too much to leave you."