This post is part of a blog series on Pomomusings, discussing pastoral identity. To read about the series, as well as get a full schedule of participants, click here.
Lessons from Janie
As I write this, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has just amended its Constitution to acknowledge that marriage is a covenant between “two people,” not just-and-only between “a man and a woman.” The regional presbyteries have been been in the year-long process of ratifying the amendment passed at last summer’s General Assembly, and last Tuesday night with a voice vote in the 86th presbytery to vote, we reached a majority “yes.”
As I think of how we got here, it occurs to me that — just last night — the PCUSA has caught up with an understanding of the gospel that Rev. Dr. Jane Spahr (Honorably Retired) has been living out for 40 years of ordained ministry. From the very earliest days of her ministry, Janie — an out Presbyterian lesbian minister and evangelist — has been clear in her vision that the gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for all people, including LGBTQ people, and that this understanding of the gospel requires the full gospel welcome of all people. Long, long before most had imagined legal recognition of marriage for same-gender couples, Janie stood as a pastoral presence in the marriage of couple after couple — saying yes to so many of us, when the church kept saying no. And the denomination has prosecuted her — several times — for her pastoral commitment to celebrate, and honor, and support the marriage of same-gender couples.
In my ministry, I stumbled into the opportunity to serve as part of the legal team that represented Janie through these church prosecutions. I’ve been able to travel with Janie and observe and learn as she has faced some of the worst of what the church has to offer — and as she has stood steady and full of love and grace.
On this day, my spirit is full of gratitude for Rev. Dr. Jane Spahr, and for her pastoral witness. And as I take up my friend Adam Walker Cleaveland’s invitation to write about “pastoral identity,” I can’t NOT look toward Janie’s example and her strong, lived-out sense of her own pastoral identity. So, I thought I’d share just a few things I’ve witnessed and learned about pastoral identity from Janie along the way.
1. Because Jesus
As Janie has endeavored to live out her calling faithfully, the denomination has prosecuted her and charged her with all manner of things. In the most recent (and final) prosecution, Janie had celebrated a number of marriages of same-gender couples when those marriages were legal in California. The couples had come to Janie and asked her to celebrate those marriages with them and with their families, and Janie said, “Yes.” In its prosecution, the denomination (through the local presbytery and its appellate courts) said that Janie should have said no; that she improperly represented legal marriages of same-gender couples as marriages, when that was “impossible” to do in the PCUSA. The denomination found her “guilty” even as the courts in the very same decisions called Janie’s pastoral ministry “faithful” and as they thanked her for her witness to the church. The prosecutions were hard on Janie and on her family and on the community of supporters that loves her. The denomination and others in the church said some pretty awful things. And through all that, when Janie was on the witness stand and asked, “Why?” — “Why did you marry these couples?” — she said this: “Because to say ‘no’ to them would have violated my ordination vow to be obedient to Jesus Christ. To say ‘no’ to them would go against everything that I understand about Jesus Christ.” And I can say that in those makeshift church courtrooms, I don’t think there is person who doubted the truth of that testimony. Janie grounds her pastoral identity in Jesus Christ — in her understanding of the radical welcome and love of the gospel, as she has come to that understanding in conversation and community.
2. Don’t bifurcate yourself.
I will be honest. When I first heard Janie say, “I will not be bifurcated,” I didn’t have a clue what she meant. But she said it often, again and again. And then I began to see — as I listened to what she said, and then watched her live it out in ministry. You see, the church asked Janie — and not just Janie, but many of us — to bifurcate the life she lived from who she was and from what she believed the gospel required her to do. The church said, You can be gay, just don’t “practice” being gay (whatever that means). The church said, You can do a ceremony for a same-gender couple, you just can’t call it a marriage (even when that is, legally and for the couple and their family, precisely what it is). The church said, You can pastor LGBTQ folks, you just can’t celebrate their marriages and their families — according to the rules of the church; indeed, if they come wanting to marry, you must turn them away from the church. And to this Janie would rise up in her seat, or stand even taller, and say — loving and fierce — “I will not be bifurcated.” And then over time, I saw her live that statement out, again and again: Janie lives out what she says and what she believes about Jesus and who she knows herself created to be. If you want to understand something about Janie’s pastoral identity, look at the life she lives.
3. “If you ever have the chance to get in trouble for the sake of Jesus — Do it.”
That Janie gave this advice should surprise no one. (See items 1 and 2 above.) In 2008, when marriage became legal in California, and couple after couple came to Janie, asking her to celebrate their marriages, Janie said “yes,” knowing that there would be prosecutions. She had been through it before (again and again), and she knew the cost. There was that heartbreaking day in the late summer of 2010 when — after couple after couple had testified as to Janie’s pastoral care and their love in marriage — the presbytery judicial commission held that Janie’s ministry was faithful to the gospel and a blessing to the church, but that they “were constrained” to find her guilty. Deep, deep pain. And then the denomination’s judicial commission affirmed. But then the whole of our presbytery (the Presbytery of Redwoods) rejected the national church’s decision and refused to deliver any rebuke — and stood with Janie. For so many of us, those days with Janie — painful and liberating — have changed our lives. We know that Janie’s pastoral identity invites us (and the whole church) to be people of love and courage for the sake of the gospel and for the blessing of all people and all families.
So, here are just a few things that I have gleaned from Janie’s lived-out example: Our pastoral identity should be grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and obedient above all else to Jesus. We should live as whole persons — not bifurcated — saying and living what we believe the gospel requires of us. And we should do so boldly — never alone, always in community — but also never fearful.
Now, I must confess that, for me, these statements are aspirational. Much more often than not, I fall short. But this morning, they feel like firm ground to stand on, as we wake to a church that is just a bit more loving, and more gracious, and more welcoming — a church still with so much to do.
Scott Clark is the Chaplain and Associate Dean for Student Life at San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS). Scott is a graduate of SFTS, and also has worked with the seminary’s Program in Christian Spirituality. Before going to seminary, Scott practiced law for twelve years in Birmingham, Alabama, where he worked mainly on cases involving employment discrimination and constitutional law. In addition to his ministry at the seminary, Scott preaches frequently in Bay Area churches. Scott is an advocate for the full inclusion of LGBTQ people within the full life of the church and broader community. Scott had the privilege of serving on the legal team that defended the ministry of the Rev. Dr. Jane Spahr as she was prosecuted by the Presbyterian Church (USA) for celebrating the marriage of same-gender couples, and he currently serves on the board of More Light Presbyterians.