In Celebration: Rev Jane Spahr, “Lesbyterian”

With the widespread press attention to the gay and lesbian bishops in the Episcopalian church, the ECLA decision last year to recognize openly gay and lesbian clergy in committed and faithful relationships, and this summer’s decision (not yet ratified) by the Presbyterian Church of the USA to do the same, it is too easy to overlook the fact that gay and lesbian clergy have been around for a long time – right from the start of ordained ministry. Of the earliest years, I have written before, but I am now finding numerous reports of openly gay or lesbian clergy in modern times, going back a lot further than I had recognised. (The earliest clear example I have found so far is of Rev. Phebe Ann Coffin Hanaford, who was ordained a Universalist minister in 1868 – claiming to be the first woman to be ordained in New England.) The problem is not that there were not gay or lesbian clergy, but getting them recognised. Recognition, however, is important, and achieving it has been a major problem, with many courageous men and women making stands, suffering persecution, and securing a series of breakthroughs along the way.

In the Presbyterian Church, one of these pioneers has been Rev Jane Spahr, who was in the news this week for her appearance in a church court for conducting same sex marriages in California in 2008, during the few months when they were fully legal in California law- but not sanctioned by the church’s own regulations. I will come back to the weddings, and the trial, later. First, I want to go back a little further.

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What the mainstream press reports have omitted, is Rev Spahr’s long history of standing up for sexual justice in the church- and the price she paid. She was ordained back in 1974, but soon found herself in a spot of bother because she was lesbian – and the church simply did not know how to handle it.

Janie was ordained a Presbyterian Minister in December 1974 to the Hazelwood Presbyterian ministry in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, serving with mentor and friend, Wanda Graham Harris. She served 1975-1979 as Assistant Pastor of First Presbyterian in San Rafael, California. In 1979-1980, Janie became Executive Director of Oakland Council of Presbyterian Churches in Oakland where she was encouraged to resign because of being lesbian.

Janie began her “out” liberation work with and for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as the Minister of Pastoral Care in the Castro area of Metropolitan Community Church in San Franci.sco from 1980-1982 when her own Presbyterian denomination did not know what to do with this “lesbyterian”.

(More from LGBT Religous Archives)

The church may not have known what to do with her, but that did not apply to Jane herself. Deprived of conventional ministry, she created an unconventional one, as co- founder of Ministry of Light which became the Spectrum Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns and a focus of ministry in Marin county, California, serving as their Executive Director for over 10 years.  Later, she was again called to serve within her own Presbyterian denomination, was again denied the opportunity by church authorities, and again found her own path:

In November of 1991 Janie was called to serve as one of four Co-Pastors at the Downtown United Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York. She was denied that call by the denomination’s highest court in November 1992. In March of 1993 The Downtown United Presbyterian Church invited Janie to become their evangelist to spread the good news by “personing the issue” and challenging exclusive church policies. Janie has traveled throughout the country, educating and informing Presbyterians and others working on behalf of greater inclusiveness for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.


(More from LGBT Religous Archives)

The important point here is to note just how far PCUSA has come, in the thirty years since they first “did not know what to do” with an openly lesbian pastor. This year, the General Assembly debated and approved a resolution to provide for the recognition of openly gay or lesbian pastors. While we wait for formal ratification, there are many such clergy already serving in different capacities, right across the country. This would not have been possible without the courageous stand in conscience of Rev Jane Spahr, and others.

Against that background, the trial itself is significant on two counts. In the same way that her own ministry as an openly lesbian pastor was pioneering thirty years ago but is now entering the mainstream, church wedding for lesbian and gay couples are now pioneering but will in time become mainstream – just as they are already in the Swedish Lutheran church. Also, consider the intriguing outcome of the trial. The facts are clear. Rev Spahr plainly did officiate at same sex weddings, which plainly are no sanctioned by church regulations. It is hard to see any outcome could have been possible other than a “guilty” verdict, which indeed was the case. The sentence, however, was the lightest that they could have handed down – no more than a “rebuke”.

Several commentators have noted that in reality it was not Jane Spahr who was on trial, but the church itself. Those presiding over the trial appear to have recognised this, and done their best to avoid dragging the church into further disrepute. Gay, lesbian and trans pastors are already serving in substantial numbers in all religious denominations. With every passing year, more will be doing so openly.

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