Pastor who wed gay couple is cleared
A church court of Pittsburgh Presbytery ruled 9-0 that the Rev. Janet Edwards did not violate scripture or the constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) when she conducted what she has always said was the marriage of two women in 2005.
Since church and state define marriage as between a man and a woman, she cannot have done what she was accused of, the court ruled yesterday.
"It can't be an offense to the constitution to attempt to do the impossible," said the decision, read by the Rev. Stewart Pollock, chairman of the Permanent Judicial Commission of Pittsburgh Presbytery.
In 2005 the Rev. Edwards, a parish associate at the multi-denominational Community of Reconciliation in Oakland, conducted the ceremony in McKees Rocks. The Presbyterian Church (USA) says clergy may bless same-sex couples but "should not" offer a service that could be mistaken for a marriage. She argued that "should not" doesn't mean "must not."
The testimony at The Priory, a North Side hotel, was lopsided on the side of the defense. The prosecution called one witness, a church official who had told her that she could bless a gay couple, but not marry them.
The defense presented three biblical scholars and theologians who testified that her acceptance of same-sex marriage was within the Presbyterian tradition of interpreting scripture in its cultural context. They also called an authority on church law who said that it did not prohibit same-sex marriage.
The prosecution "offered no evidence that the accused violated [eight Bible passages it cited] or any other Scripture passages," the Rev. Pollock said.
The presbytery has 45 days to file an appeal. Even though the decision did not affirm gay marriage, the Rev. Edwards said the trial was an opportunity for dialogue.
"My ministry has been that of reconciliation," she said.
"I love the kind of conversation that was had in these two days, when Christians were able to talk together about our understandings of the church and how to engage in the world."
Asked if she would conduct similar ceremonies, she said, "I am glad we are all allowed to have the space we need to respond to God's call."
At her side were Nancy McConn and Brenda Cole, the Wheeling, W.Va. couple whose wedding she performed.
Even if the court called their marriage impossible, "it was the happiest day of my life. I'm so grateful that Janet was courageous and compassionate," Ms. McConn said.
One of those who brought the accusations, the Rev. James Yearsley, attended the trial but flew back to Tampa, where he has since become a pastor, before the verdict. Before leaving, he said an acquittal would signal collapse of church discipline. But he said he would not push for an appeal or leave the denomination.
"This is the church I was called to serve," he said. "I'm a Presbyterian and I'm going to stay and contend for what I think the church should be."
The Rev. Bob Anderson, interim pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery, said he knew some local Presbyterians would be disappointed in the verdict.
"It's a very sensitive issue. We in the presbytery offices are very sensitive to those concerns and we will keep this as a matter of prayer as we go into the future," he said.
First Published October 3, 2008 12:00 am