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[PCUSANEWS] Presbyterian minister faces charges over same-sex marriage

From News Service <newsservice@CTR.PCUSA.ORG>
Date Thu, 14 Sep 2006 11:28:18 -0400

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06469 September 14, 2006

Presbyterian minister faces charges over same-sex marriage

Committee says Edwards broke church law by joining lesbian couple

by Evan Silverstein

LOUISVILLE * A Presbyterian minister in Pittsburgh, PA, says she has been charged with violating the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) constitution for officiating at a same-sex marriage last year.

The Rev. Janet Edwards, 56, came under scrutiny from Pittsburgh Presbytery in Aug. 2005 after she married Brenda Cole, 52, and Nancy McConn, 65, who live near Wheeling, WV.

Edwards said a special investigating committee appointed by Pittsburgh Presbytery ( to examine complaints against her filed charges with the middle-governing body on Tuesday (Sept. 12).

She said the panel accused her of "knowingly and willfully" performing a marriage ceremony for two individuals of the same sex that was "contrary" to the PC(USA)'s constitution.

Edwards was also cited for omitting references to the Trinity, Bible readings and intention to enter into a Christian marriage, and misstating the authority by which the ceremony was performed.

The denomination's Book of Order defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and church courts have ruled that Presbyterian ministers many not utilize the marriage liturgy in same-sex ceremonies.

If convicted, Edwards could face a number of punishments including removal from ordained ministry.

The case will be heard by the Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) of Pittsburgh Presbytery. Its verdict can be appealed by either side to the Synod of the Trinity PJC and eventually to the General Assembly PJC, the highest court in the PC(USA).

No court date has been set.

The Rev. James E. Mead, Pittsburgh Presbytery's executive, declined to discuss the case Wednesday (Sept. 13), including whether an investigative committee had been looking into Edwards or if charges had been brought against the minister.

"At this point I'm not free to comment at all," he told the Presbyterian News Service. "It just would not be appropriate."

In March, the Rev. Daniel Merry, Pittsburgh Presbytery's acting pastor and head of staff at the time, confirmed that a committee had been appointed to investigate Edwards.

Edwards, who is a direct descendant of legendary Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, said she doesn't think she violated her ordination vows by performing the ceremony. She met with the presbytery's investigative committee last March to discuss the accusations.

"I'm disappointed that the investigative committee did not recognize that marriage between two men or two women is not prohibited by the church," Edwards told the Presbyterian News Service. "I am going to plead not guilty and see it as an opportunity to show how my actions were in accordance with my vows as a Presbyterian minister and that marriage between two men or two women is within the bounds of Christian understanding of marriage."

Edwards, a member of the presbytery for nearly 30 years, acknowledged that she married the two women in a Pittsburgh-area ceremony on June 25, 2005. She said the rite was called a "wedding" and integrated the couple's Buddhist and Christian traditions.

McConn is a lifelong Presbyterian and a longtime member of Dallas Presbyterian Church in Dallas, WV. Cole was raised Methodist but now is a practicing Buddhist.

The liturgy followed recommendations of the PC(USA) for interfaith weddings, Edwards said.

"The Bible talks about the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control," Edwards said. "These are the qualities all humans should aspire to be known by. It is clear to me that Nancy and Brenda's marriage embody these virtues. Nancy and Brenda demonstrated a strong commitment to each other and to God. I saw no reason not to publicly recognize their commitment because they happen to be two women."

The PC(USA) is among several Protestant denominations embroiled in a bitter debate over what roles gay people should be permitted to play in church life.

Edwards, who was ordained by Pittsburgh Presbytery in 1977 and served as its moderator in 1987, is currently an "at large" minister. She works primarily as a parish associate through the Community of Reconciliation (, an interracial and multi-denominational congregation that is open to sexual minorities.

Based in urban Pittsburgh, the reconciliation church is a combination of five Protestant denominations: Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, United Methodist, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and American Baptist.

Edwards said she was aware of five written complaints registered with Pittsburgh Presbytery. She said the investigative committee gave copies of the grievances to her defense team, in accordance with the Book of Order, although the names of the accusers were redacted for confidentiality purposes.

In describing the judicial process, Edwards' attorney Steve Paschall of Pittsburgh said the PCJ must hold a pretrial conference no later than 30 days after receipt of the charges from the presbytery's stated clerk and must notify Edwards, her counsel and the prosecuting committee of the time and place of the pretrial conference.

A trial cannot be scheduled any sooner than 30 days after the pre-trial conference, Paschall said.

"We are at this point submitting to the judicial process of the church," he said. "Janet is waiting for the next steps, which are in the hands of Pittsburgh Presbytery."

Edwards, who declined to name her accusers, said two Pittsburgh pastors were among the complainants. One, she said, sent her a copy of his complaint, and the other approached her during a presbytery meeting to tell her that he'd taken up the matter with the presbytery.

The accusations came about after a local newspaper announcement informed readers of the marriage of the two women and Edwards' role in presiding over the ceremony.

The announcement in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette appeared three days after she conducted the same-sex marriage at Pittsburgh's Cathedral Hall, a former Catholic basilica near downtown that has been converted into an elegant upscale banquet and meeting facility.

McConn and Cole were married legally in Vancouver, Canada, several days later.

McConn, who grew up worshipping at Dallas Presbyterian Church, a small country church near the couple's Wheeling home, said she and Cole desired a religious ceremony because spirituality is important to both of them.

"Before being married by Rev. Edwards, Brenda and I already had demonstrated our love and commitment," said McConn, a retired employee of Xerox Corp. "What our marriage ceremony offered was the opportunity for Brenda and me to finally be spiritually joined, and to have family and friends witness the blessing of our union. That meant the world to us."

Cole, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, said she felt personally affronted by the accusations of wrongdoing against Edwards.

"I guess what I want to say to the people who would bring charges against Janet and for me against our marriage is to come into our home and into our hearts and that of the goodness that you will see there really will be compelling," Cole said. "So maybe this is the way that that needs to happen through the court process that Janet's engaged in now."

Edwards, a Pittsburgh native, is a direct descendant of Jonathan Edwards (, one of the greatest and most influential American evangelical theologians in history.

Jonathan Edwards, born in 1703, is best-known for his fire-breathing sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," which roars from start to finish with the threat of hellfire and eternal anguish for the unrepentant.

"Presbyterians come from a tradition of reform that we are called to continue," said Janet Edwards, adding that Jonathan Edwards raised his voice to challenge the church's practices of his time, namely the subjugation of Native Americans.

"Reform is how God's infinite mystery and presence is revealed to us, whether in our marriage rites or other church practice," Edwards said. "Opening our hearts and our doors to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters is just the next chapter of our centuries-old tradition of reform."

The charges against Edwards followed another church court ruling earlier this year involving the marriage of same-sex couples.

The Rev. Jane Adams Spahr, a Presbyterian lesbian activist, was found not-guilty of misconduct last March after a trial on charges that she violated the PC(USA)'s constitution by performing weddings for two lesbian couples.

In a 6-1 decision, a Permanent Judicial Commission of Redwoods Presbytery found that Spahr of San Rafael, CA, acted within her rights as an ordained minister when she married the couples in 2004 and 2005.

Because the section of the Book of Order that reserves marriage for a man and a woman "is a definition, not a directive," Spahr "was acting within her right of conscience in performing marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples," the tribunal said in a written ruling.

Redwoods Presbytery has since appealed the acquittal by its PJC.

The appeal will be heard by the PJC of the Synod of the Pacific, and seems likely to be headed to the General Assembly PJC, the highest court in the denomination.

Spahr, who was ordained in 1974, also in Pittsburgh Presbytery, is minister director of That All May Freely Serve, which works for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) Presbyterians in the life of the church, including their ordination as officers.

Edwards has retained one of Spahr's attorneys, Sara Taylor of San Francisco, as a consultant in her case.

Edwards has been married for 25 years to her husband, Alvise, and is the mother of two sons aged 20 and 22.

She earned a bachelor's degree in government and international studies from Harvard University in 1972 and her M.Div. from Yale Divinity School in 1976. She has served on various presbytery committees, including a committee on preparation for the ministry, and another on worship and theology. From 2003 to 2005 she was coordinator of a presbytery task force on ministry with sexual minorities.

Edwards is also a board member of More Light Presbyterians, which works for full LGBT participation in the church, including ordination as officers. She served three different small churches in Pittsburgh Presbytery during the 1980s.


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