April 2008

The Rev. Jane Spahr responded on her Web site to the Permanent Judicial Commission decision that cleared her conviction. The PJC claimed that she couldn’t be convicted of conducting same sex weddings, because there is no such thing under the PCUSA constitution. She interpreted the decision as saying that she’s free to conduct same sex weddings. Really:

Today the Presbyterian’s General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (GAPJC) reversed the two-year-old Synod decision to censure Rev. Dr. Jane Adams Spahr for her role in marrying same-gender couples. Today’s decision held that the Presbyterian constitution contains no prohibition against marrying same-gender couples.

“I am grateful that the Commission let stand the Presbytery’s original ruling which affirmed my ministry,” said Rev. Spahr. “The Church is a place of welcome and hospitality in which I will continue to honor relationships of love and commitment, regardless of sexual orientation.”

This Through-the-Looking-Glass approach to the decision–appropriate given that the decision itself has a Lewis Carroll-like feel to it–doesn’t mean that Spahr and her allies are satisfied:

“We are deeply troubled by the majority’s insistence on reading any language into the constitution that renders these marriages anything less than fully equal.” said, Sara Taylor, Rev. Spahr’s attorney. “By this act, the majority exceeded its judicial authority with respect to marriage in this denomination.”

Scratch the Carroll reference–this is positively Orwellian. War is peace, up is down, a prohibition on clergy performing same sex weddings is not a prohibition against same sex weddings, and citing such language from the text of the PCUSA constitution is reading such language into the constitution. Needless to say, Jane Spahr isn’t going to be deterred from doing what she’s got to do:

“I will continue to honor my calling to perform marriages for all couples who love one another and are committed to one another,” said Spahr. “To not perform these marriages would go against my faith, my conscience and most importantly, against God.”

Except that, according to the PJC, she isn’t performing marriages (ministers actually perform weddings that solemnize marriages, but there’s so much linguistic violence surrounding this case, what a little more?), so it isn’t possible for her to go against her faith, her conscience, or God–or is it? Truth be told, I’m beginning to wonder if any of this has actually happened, or if it’s all a Bob Newhart dream that we’re all going to wake up from at some point.

The Layman Online has an extensive analysis today regarding the situation in the PCUSA’s Presbytery of South Louisiana. In addition to quoting much of yours truly’s opinion (found here), it has further details on the letter from PSL members to the Synod of the Sun that resulted in the hostile takeover of the presbytery’s constitutional privileges by the synod. It also has reactions and analysis from other members of the Consistory (see sidebar for member bloggers) as well as others. Well worth a read if you wish to keep up with events in the bayou country.

The Permanent Judicial Commission of the PCUSA has issued a bizarre decision in the case of the Rev. Jane Spahr. You may remember that she was convicted of violating the PCUSA constitution by performing same sex “marriage” ceremonies for two pairs of lesbians back in 2006. The PJC has essentially said that she couldn’t be convicted of this, because what she did was impossible:

Spahr was charged with and found guilty of violating W-4.9001 and the 1991 AI by performing “wedding service[s] in the marriage of” two same sex couples. The S PJC determined that Spahr was guilty based on her actions in performing “wedding” services for two same sex couples.

There is no prohibition in W-4.9001 against performing a same sex ceremony. The 1991 AI acknowledged that there is no mention in the Book of Order of same sex unions or ceremonies. The 1991 AI states that it is not “proper” for ministers to conduct ceremonies represented as marriages between persons of the same sex.

The ceremonies that are the subject of this case were not marriages as the term is defined by W-4.9001. These were ceremonies between women, not between a man and a woman. Both parties acknowledged the ceremonies in question were not marriages as defined by the Book of Order. It is not improper for ministers of the Word and Sacrament to perform same sex ceremonies. At least four times, the larger church has rejected overtures that would prohibit blessing the unions of same sex couples. By the definition in W-4.9001, a same sex ceremony can never be a marriage. The SPJC found Spahr guilty of doing that which by definition cannot be done. One cannot characterize same sex ceremonies as marriages for the purpose of
disciplining a minister of the Word and Sacrament and at the same time declare that such ceremonies are not marriages for legal or ecclesiastical purposes.

Let me get this straight. Spahr said that she was doing marriage ceremonies. (She unequivocally makes that claim on her Web site. There, she has a press release she issued at the time of her conviction in which she says, ” “I am deeply saddened that our church has chosen not to recognize the loving relationships of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender members of its own family. It continues to be my honor as a minister to perform marriages for loving, committed couples, no matter what their sexual orientation.”) She doesn’t say she was doing some kind of same sex commitment ceremony, which apparently is permitted in the PCUSA. She says she was doing weddings.

The PJC, however, says that she wasn’t doing weddings, and the reason she wasn’t doing weddings is because under the definition of marriage given in the constitution, what she was doing can’t be a wedding, because there is no marriage involved. So despite the statement of the 1991 Authoritative Interpretation “that it is not ‘proper’ for ministers to conduct ceremonies represented as marriages,” it is apparently not possible for a minister to do that. It isn’t possible for a minister to represent a commitment ceremony as a marriage ceremony because there can’t be a marriage involved. This, of course, raises the question, “then what was it that the AI supposedly prohibited?” Apparently, it didn’t prohibit anything, because the thing it prohibited doesn’t exist.

The PJC has essentially used a linguistic trick to deny that what Spahr, the couples involved, the prosecution and the defense all admitted happened, happened. With a wave of a magic wand, they have reached the results they wanted, and in the process make a mockery of the PCUSA constitution and common sense.

(Hat tip: Toby Brown.)

Bay Presbyterian Church in Ohio is trying to get out of the PCUSA, but it seems that the Presbytery of the Western Reserve is determined to make it cost them an arm and a leg, according to the Cleveland Plain-Dealer:

The largest Presbyterian church in Northeast Ohio is offering a $550,000 buyout to its denomination so it can move to a more-conservative church body.

Bay Presbyterian Church in Bay Village wants to become part of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, joining other congregations upset with what they consider liberal theological trends and growing acceptance of gay and lesbian clergy in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Unlike the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio, which this year sued several local churches seeking to leave the denomination that approved a gay bishop, the Presbytery of the Western Reserve is negotiating with Bay Presbyterian. Bay spokesman John Fuller said the church has more than 2,000 members, representing about 14 percent of the total membership of nearly 14,000 in the Western Reserve area.

The presbytery negotiating team initially asked for $3 million to be paid over 10 years as compensation for the loss of giving and membership with Bay’s departure. The Rev. Elizabeth Hendricks, general presbyter, said Friday the group is still discussing a revised offer.

Bay officials, who want to keep the building and land, said that the presbytery negotiating team is insisting on more than $1 million but that the church’s final offer is $550,000 over 10 years.

“Compensation for the loss of giving and membership.” Like Bay should be apologizing for the PCUSA’s drift from biblical orthodoxy, and paying for the right to leave it behind.

“We would like to avoid the civil court process if at all possible,” Hendricks said. “All of us think it is not what the Bible instructed us to do, at least not as a first resort.”

Yes, that’s exactly what Paul meant when he excoriated the Corinthians for taking one another to court. They weren’t supposed to do so as a first resort. After they didn’t get what they wanted out of each other (for instance, an extortionate ransom for the release of property), then they could sue the daylights out of one another.

UPDATE: The Bayou Christian has more on this situation. Read his analysis carefully, and Mac McCarty’s follow-up comment as well.

The United Church of Christ has a “news story” up at its Web site regarding Jeremiah Wright’s appearances yesterday. It would tend to indicate that “United Church of Christ” is an anagram for “whitewash”:

God enjoys diversity and desires transformation. That was the message brought by Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. in one of his first public appearances since his sermons stirred up controversy for the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama….

“These two foci of liberation and transformation have been at the very core of the United Church of Christ since its predecessor denomination, the Congregational Church of New England, came to the moral defense and paid for the legal defense of the Mende people aboard the slave ship Amistad,” said Wright, speaking to a crowd of vocal supporters and a multitude of reporters at a National Press Club breakfast, part of a two-day symposium put on by the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference.

He went on to say that the theology of the black church is also one of reconciliation, hinging on the idea “being different does not mean one is deficient.”…

While Wright makes no visible effort to be politically correct, he and his supporters say the remarks were taken out of the context of his sermons and of the black church’s traditional prophetic role.

“If you think that’s bad, you oughta read the original Jeremiah,” said Bernice Powell Jackson, UCC clergywoman and World Council of Churches president for North America, referring to the biblical Old Testament prophet in a talk at a teach-in Monday afternoon, part of the Proctor conference events.

“We haven’t done a good job in the United States teaching the difference between patriotism and nationalism in religion,” Powell Jackson said….

Wright came off as defensive, even flippant, in some of his responses. When asked about his comment that America’s chickens had come home to roost in the attacks of Sept. 11, Wright asked the moderator if she had heard the whole sermon. When she admitted she had not, he quipped: “well, that nullifies that question,” before further explaining the comment….
Wright’s talk and comments were met with vigorous applause and at least a few standing ovations from his audience at the press club.

“I thought it was an amazing teaching moment for the broader society,” said John Deckenback, conference minister of the Central Atlantic Conference of the United Church of Christ.

Delores Carpenter, senior minister at Michigan Park Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a professor at Howard University Divinity School, described the talk as “vintage Jeremiah Wright” in its willingness to critique what is wrong in American society and to stand up for the disenfranchised. “I thought it was just great,” she said.

The speakers shared a strong sympathy for Wright’s situation and an understanding that most Americans have a limited grasp of the history and prophetic tradition of the black church

Many at the conference saw the controversy as an opportunity to clarify who they are and what they believe in. Asked what Wright’s talk would lead to, Carpenter said, “I hope a more enlightened discussion on race.”

Please notice what’s missing here: no Louis Farrakhan, no AIDS conspiracy-mongering, no racial stereotyping, and no hint of anything amiss. This isn’t a news story, it’s a press release.

There has been talk in the media that Wright could sink Barack Obama’s campaign for president. I don’t know about that, but I do believe that when all is said and done, he may have done more damage to the United Church of Christ than all of its previous left-wing political activism and liberal theology put together. The UCC is getting unprecedented publicity, virtually all of it bad, and if this “new story” is any indication, its leadership is utterly clueless about how it is being perceived in the broader culture. It may make them feel good about being “prophetic” (since they assume that the yahoos never get “prophets”), but from an institutional and even missional standpoint, the last couple of months have been nothing less than disastrous. More and more, the UCC is going to be seen as politically extreme, completely out-of-touch with most Americans, and complicit in a racialist agenda that is abhorrent to the vast majority of people. Which is another way of saying that it will be seen for what it really is by people who didn’t previously know much about it or have anything against it.

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright seems determined to stay in the news. Over the last couple of days, in speeches to the Detroit NAACP and at the National Press Club in Washington, Wright has only strengthened the perception that he is an unhinged racist, according to ABC’s Jack Tapper. First, there’s the NAACP speech:

The bulk of his remarks addressed, however, different groups seeing each other as deficient. He acted out the differences between marching bands at predominantly black and predominantly white colleges. “Africans have a different meter, and Africans have a different tonality,” he said. Europeans have seven tones, Africans have five. White people clap differently than black people. “Africans and African-Americans are right-brained, subject-oriented in their learning style,” he said. “They have a different way of learning.” And so on.

After jokingly mocking the Boston accents of former Presidents John F. and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., Wright said, “nobody says to a Kennedy, ‘You speak bad English,’ only to a black child was that said.” Wright said that he believes “a change is going to come, ’cause many of us are committed to change how we see others who are different.”

Anyone white who said that “white people clap differently than black people” or that blacks are “right-brained” (implying whites are “left-brained”) would be assumed to wear sheets and hoods in his spare time. Individuals may be right-brained or left-brained; races may not. Individuals may have different musical abilities or styles; races do not. Having a Boston accent doesn’t make one a poor speaker of English; bad grammar does. For one who claims to have been prophetically fighting racism his whole career, Wright looks like a mirror image of what he supposedly has been fighting.

Then there’s the speech at the Press Club this morning, in which Wright reiterated his most lunatic charge:

On his contention that the U.S. government had created AIDS as a method of committing genocide against African-Americans, Wright referred to a hotly-disputed 1996 book Emerging Viruses: AIDS And Ebola : Nature, Accident or Intentional? by Leonard G Horowitz, which contends that AIDS and the Ebola viruses evolved during cancer experiments on monkeys.

He also referenced Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet Washington, and said based on the Tuskegee experiment — in which the U.S. Public Health Service conducted a 40-year study on 400 poor black men in Alabama with syphilis whom they did not properly treat — “I believe our government is capable of anything.”

There’s no doubt that the Tuskegee experiments were a horrible episode, a black stain on the federal government and the medical professionals who participated. But those experiments no more prove Wright’s AIDS allegations than the Holocaust proves that Germany is currently exterminating Jews. For proof, Wright turns to tinfoil hat dentist Leonard Horowitz, whose Web sites paint a picture of a genuine crackpot. On Wikipedia he’s described this way:

Author of more than sixteen books, Dr. Horowitz is globally known as the most outspoken critic of what he calls “the ongoing genocide committed by the ‘military-medical-petrochemical- pharmaceutical cartel,’” (a phrase he coined). He has been a staunch proponent of natural healing using sound, color, oxygen, nutrition, and water-based therapies.

Many persons internationally recognize Dr. Horowitz as a prophet. Including Rev. Richard S.C. Kirby, President and Chaplain of the Kepler Academy, Inc., and Chaplain in the World Network of Religious Futurists, wrote extensively of Dr. Horowitz’s prophetic calling in the Foreword to Dr. Horowitz’s book, Walk on Water. A few Bible scholars even say he is an Apostle for his revealing works that are changing generations.

In this regard, Dr. Horowitz claims to be guided by the revelatory angel of the Messianic community in Philadelphia (Rev. 3:7-13) to herald the “key to the House of David” that opens doors no man can close, and closes doors no human can open. That “key,” Dr. Horowitz insists, has everything do do with the Divine and sacred nature of water, increasingly proven by advances in water science, to fulfill the prophecy of Revelation 14:1-6 for hosting the concert for the 144,000 required to secure Peace on Earth.

Sorry for the extended digression (I just thought that stuff about Horowitz too funny to pass up). The point is that this is the sort of cross-fertilization between nutcases that causes the rest of us to shake our heads and wonder why the United Church of Christ continues to defend Wright. There’s yet another example of that defense today at the Washington Post‘s “On Faith” page, where UCC seminary president Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite again takes Wright’s critics to task:

I have spoken to many white Americans regarding this controversy and it has become evident to me that while many are shocked by the language of judgment on America, it is the form of the sermon presentation that is more upsetting. People can come to accept that Rev. Wright is interpreting the judgment on the nations represented by the biblical prophet Malachi and yet still be unable to get past the form—the image of what appears to be an angry African American man in African garb shouting and waving his arms. It is the seemingly angry African American man that is shocking white America and I think, at bottom, this is what I think many white people can’t get past.

Actually, what I can’t get past is the image of a man with an earned doctorate swallowing the patent medicine of nutballs like Horowitz whole, and spewing out racist nonsense at which white liberals like Thistlethwaite don’t bat an eye. That the UCC’s leadership continues to defend this man is a testimony to the politicized depths to which all too many in mainline leadership have fallen.

UPDATE: Dana Milbank of the Washington Post adds to what’s above:

Speaking before an audience that included Marion Barry, Cornel West, Malik Zulu Shabazz of the New Black Panther Party and Nation of Islam official Jamil Muhammad, Wright praised Louis Farrakhan, defended the view that Zionism is racism, accused the United States of terrorism, repeated his view that the government created the AIDS virus to cause the genocide of racial minorities, stood by other past remarks (“God damn America”) and held himself out as a spokesman for the black church in America.

His views on Farrakhan and Israel? “Louis said 20 years ago that Zionism, not Judaism, was a gutter religion. He was talking about the same thing United Nations resolutions say, the same thing now that President Carter’s being vilified for and Bishop Tutu’s being vilified for. And everybody wants to paint me as if I’m anti-Semitic because of what Louis Farrakhan said 20 years ago. He is one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century; that’s what I think about him. . . . Louis Farrakhan is not my enemy. He did not put me in chains, he did not put me in slavery, and he didn’t make me this color.”

Do I really have to cite quotes from Louis Farrakhan in which he spoke of Jews, not Zionism, in the most hateful and incendiary ways? Here’s just one:

“Do you know some of these satanic Jews have taken over BET?… Everything that we built, they have. The mind of Satan now is running the record industry, movie industry and television. And they make us look like we’re the murders; we look like we’re the gangsters, but we’re punk stuff.”

Ed Morrissey of Hot AIr has more, if you’ve got the stomach for it.

One of my correspondents has sent word of an extraordinary decision by the PCUSA Synod of the Sun regarding the Presbytery of South Louisiana. That decision essentials suspends the right of the presbytery to make decisions about whether churches may be dismissed to another denomination with their property, which means, as I read it, that the provision of the PCUSA Book of Order that allows presbyteries to do just that has been usurped by the Synod through its appointment of an administrative commission. Here’s the entire text of the letter:

In response to the April 8, 2008, letter from pastors and elders in the Presbytery of South Louisiana to Synod Executive Fletcher and to the April 22, 2008, letter from the Council of the Presbytery of South Louisiana, the Synod of the Sun approves the establishment of an Administrative Commission under the general provisions of G-9.0500.

A commission is empowered to consider and conclude matters referred to it by a governing body. The appointing body shall state specifically the scope of power given to a commission. A commission shall keep a full record of its proceedings, which shall be submitted to its governing body to be incorporated in its minutes and to be regarded as the actions of the governing body itself. (G-9,00502)

The decision of an administrative commission shall be the action of the appointing governing body from the time of its completion by the commission and the announcement, where relevant, of the action to parties affected by it. Such decision shall be transmitted in writing to the stated clerk f the governing body, who shall report it to the governing body at its next meeting. A governing body may rescind or amend an action of an administrative commission in the same way actions of the governing body may be modified. (G-9.0505).

This commission, by the review of records and by whatever face-to-face conversations the commission deems helpful, shall determine the validity of the presbytery’s procedures and decisions (past, present, and future) regarding various congregations and their properties. All pending and future decisions regarding property in the Presbytery of South Louisiana shall require the approval of the commission. This commission also shall listen to other expressions of concern and/or dissatisfaction with presbytery leadership and make suggestions as to ways the presbytery can move toward a fuller expression of the ministry of Christ’s church.

This commission shall make either an “in progress” or a final report to the adjourned meeting of the Synod, October 24, 2008, and at each stated meeting thereafter until the work is completed.

I could be wrong, of course, but I suspect that the Synod would not have taken such a provocative, indeed potentially destructive, course of action without approval from Louisville. As it is, they have encouraged an entire presbytery to consider itself disciplined by higher authority simply for allowing churches to do what they are constitutionally permitted to do. They’ve also, not incidentally, confirmed what lots of observers including me have thought all along, which is that for much of the PCUSA’s leadership, it is all about the property, and little if anything else.

One other thought. If I understand Presbyterian polity, this strikes at the heart of it. In Presbyterian polity, the presbytery, not the denomination, is the basic unit of governance, which is why decisions such as forming and dissolving churches, ordaining ministers and approving pastoral calls is vested in the presbytery. This action runs utterly contrary to that approach to church governance. This is a dark day for the Presbyterian Church (USA).

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