A local Presbyterian minister is acquitted for conducting a same-sex wedding by the church; but don't call it an endorsement of the practice. | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A local Presbyterian minister is acquitted for conducting a same-sex wedding by the church; but don't call it an endorsement of the practice.

Even before the not-guilty verdict in the Oct. 1 Presbyterian Church trial of Rev. Janet Edwards -- accused of violating church and Biblical rules by performing a same-sex wedding -- other sympathetic ministers of the denomination were predicting the outcome.

"They're nice people, they don't like conflict, they want it to go away," said the Rev. Jim Rigby, speaking about church panels who have been ruling on similar complaints this decade, such as the nine ministers and elders set to rule at the front of the Grand Hall of the Priory on the North Side.

A pastor of a Presbyterian church in Austin, Texas, Rigby has faced three similar complaints after performing several same-sex weddings. Each was dismissed on technicalities before a trial could begin. The result is that the accused "get a reprieve, but the discrimination stays intact." By such dismissals, he says, church investigators are saying, "'Because the relationships don't count, [the minister] didn't do a marriage.' They demean the relationship."

Edwards "is trying to use this privilege she has on the inside to open the door to other people," he added.

Edwards, a Presbyterian minister serving the multi-denominational Community of Reconciliation Church in Oakland, performed a same-sex wedding ceremony for Nancy McConn and Brenda Cole in McKees Rocks on June 25, 2005. The first set of charges was dismissed when her accusers missed a filing deadline. But 13 accusers, from Pittsburgh and around the country, filed a second set of complaints, which resulted in new charges. Edwards, their complaint contended, was guilty of "willfully performing a purported ceremony ... contrary" to the Bible and the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), as well as "knowingly and willfully engag[ing] in an act of defiance."

Edwards pled not guilty, though she herself did not testify. The prosecution's chief evidence was her ceremony notes. "It is my honor to officiate at the wedding ...," they opened, concluding "I announce you to be a married couple." The sole prosecution witness -- John Matta, a top official of the Pittsburgh Presbytery -- said he talked to Edwards about the church's view of same-sex ceremonies prior to 2005, but recalled her speaking only "hypothetically."

"This is really not about Janet Edwards," said one of the accusers behind both sets of charges, the Rev. Jim Yearsley, a former Penn Hills pastor now preaching in Tampa, Fla. "It's about the church." Edwards' decision was "an absolute weakening of the ability of the church to minister. We are accommodating culture at the expense of faithful orthodox Christian practice. I think the prohibitions [against same-sex ceremonies] are quite clear. We don't need to be changing."

Edwards' lawyers used theologians and scholars to contend that understandings of marriage and homosexuality have changed over the centuries, and continue to evolve. No longer is marriage "a legal act of property," explained Deborah Krause, a theologian from St. Louis. Bible passages with seeming condemnations of same-sex love should be read in their contexts, such as the beginning of Romans, which uses sexual practices in pagan temples to condemn not sex but the judging of others "because you, the judge, are doing the very same things."

Krause also testified that the New Testament includes strictures against the divorced remarrying. But these, she noted, had been bypassed by the church in the 1950s "through the process of pressure" -- heterosexual divorced people asking to marry in the church, just as gay and lesbian couples are doing today.

Defense witnesses argued that the church has put aside other Bible-based marriage rules -- the rules for taking concubines, for instance, or those calling on a childless widow to marry her husband's brother.

"We have the laboratory of couples" today in same-sex relationships, argued Chris Elwood, a professor of historical theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. "Do they witness to God's grace? These are the things the Reformed [Presbyterian] tradition has always embraced."

It seemed to make little difference in the end. The nine-member panel unanimously found Edwards not guilty -- on the grounds that gay marriage simply doesn't exist. "[It] can't be a violation of the [church] Constitution to purport to do the impossible," said judicial panel moderator Stewart Pollock.

"This did not settle the disagreement in my church," said Edwards afterwards, who was nonetheless visibly happy. "But we can give one another the space to listen to God's call. The most important thing is the conversation that was furthered today."

Indeed, prior to the verdict, Edwards embraced Yearsley, her accuser, whom she said she had been meeting for the past year. Both volunteered that the other was certainly acting out of "conscience."

Edwards wouldn't say whether she would ever perform another same-sex marriage ceremony. But to her allies, such as Austin's Jim Rigby, the struggle was clearly not finished.

"I feel like heterosexuals need to challenge the church," he said. "We need to lay our ordinations on the line. If you're on the inside of a discriminatory organization, you have to create tension in that organization until it applies the same principles to everyone across the board. That's Martin Luther King 101."

The Edwards verdict, he concluded, is "definitely a mixed bag. Every time it happens it encourages people to be more courageous."

But, he added, "to me this is like in the last days of slavery, where you're having all these conversations and trials where people are considering whether [other] people are fully human. To me, it's really sad that we're having the conversation."

click to enlarge The Rev. Janet Evans was acquitted for holding a same-sex wedding ceremony. - HEATHER MULL
The Rev. Janet Evans was acquitted for holding a same-sex wedding ceremony.

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