Wedding Day in Court | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Wedding Day in Court

A local minister faces charges for performing a same-sex wedding



Rev. Janet Edwards is well aware of the double-bind she faces in the two charges leveled by her church on Sept. 12. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has accused her of going against church rules by performing a same-sex marriage ceremony here in 2005 ... and of not performing the ceremony correctly.



On June 25 last year, Edwards conducted the wedding of a lesbian couple in a former church in McKees Rocks. This month, she was charged with performing the wedding "contrary to the Scriptures and the [church] Constitution," and also with failing to mention the Trinity or include Bible readings. She is also accused of not having the couple "declare their intention to enter into a Christian marriage," even though the church makes provisions for interfaith ceremonies that she says she followed. Finally, she is charged with not identifying the authority under which she performed the marriage, even though neither the church nor the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania gave it a stamp of approval.


"But I am hopeful that I will be found not guilty," Edwards says, "because there is no prohibition in the constitution of the church or the [church] cases decided before me against marriage of two men and two women. It's cautioned. It's not prohibited. It allows openness to the Holy Spirit to move. It allows God the possibility of doing a new thing."


Her accusers apparently differ. But after complaining about her actions, these ministers from two other local Presbyterian churches won't be part of the official proceedings, Edwards says, so she is hesitant to name them.


Church rules prohibit anyone but the accused from speaking out about the case; Rev. Jim Mead, pastor to the church's local governing body, the Pittsburgh Presbytery, told City Paper, "It's just not appropriate for me to comment on the case."


Edwards, of Squirrel Hill, is a parish associate at the Community of Reconciliation at Bellefield and Fifth avenues in Oakland, which is run by five different denominations together. She has been a Presbyterian minister for 29 years.


The Presbyterian Investigating Committee is recommending that she receive "a censure of rebuke," the mildest possible punishment, but Edwards says the toughest penalty, removal of her ordination, is also possible.


"Pittsburgh Presbytery is one of the most conservative in the country," she notes. "There are a lot of people in the Pittsburgh Presbytery who disagree with me."


Brenda Cole and Nancy McConn, who live in Triadelphia, W.Va., says Edwards took six months to decide to perform their marriage.


"It was important to me that I be married in what is church to me ... in a ceremony that deeply reflected our spiritual life, by someone who embodied the expression of spirituality," Cole says. For several years, until 2006, Cole was chair of a local group of gay-rights leaders examining spirituality in their community. "And [it was] important for me that the person who facilitated the ceremony could orchestrate it so that both our spiritualities were celebrated, and Janet did that beautifully."


The ceremony was held in Cathedral Hall, a former Catholic church in McKees Rocks that's now a reception hall.


"We had to bring in things that helped to create the spiritual atmosphere," says McConn ... such as a statue of Buddha and a cross for the altar.


Edwards is hoping that the charges related to ceremony specifics will be dropped. She says, for instance, that the service mentioned Christianity's triune God, "but the investigative committee may not have seen this, because this was an interfaith service." The charge of not including passages from Christian scripture in the ceremony "may be correct," she allows.


"I do not shrink from the opportunity this gives me to participate in this discussion," she says. "Disagreement is not a bad thing in the Presbyterian Church. It's the ground out of which our reform takes place."


The pre-trial conference will be held within 30 days of her charges, or prior to Oct. 13. The trial can begin 30 days later, at the earliest.


Presbyterians are just one mainstream denomination struggling with whether to accept gay marriage. Gay-rights proponents argue that same-sex couples deserve the same legal protections as straight married couples, at the very least, but that was never the issue for Cole and her partner.


"How many times have I thought back on the day we signed our civil power of attorney?" Cole asks. "Never for a split second." But on their wedding day, she says, "The love that poured through that room was palpable. It's just never going to be there with other options," such as civil unions.


Next April, Edwards and her husband will be married 25 years. She says she recognizes in same-sex marriages the things she sees in her own union: "Scripture has taught me that the heart of marriage is the love and commitment between the partners," Edwards says. "And experience in life has taught me that gay and lesbian partners show absolutely that love and commitment that we all understand to be marriage."

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