Marriage definition vote shows divide in church
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In an unprecedented move that reflects the deep divide in the Presbyterian Church (USA) over gay unions even as the church prepares to vote on amending its definition of marriage this week, the vice-moderator of PCUSA General Assembly resigned her position Wednesday afternoon under pressure for having performed a same-sex marriage.
The Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe of National Capital Presbytery wed two women on April 28 in the District of Columbia in violation of the PCUSA constitution, which currently defines marriage as between one man and one woman. The General Assembly, meeting at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown, will vote Friday on a resolution recommending that the church change its definition of marriage to a union between "two people." The resolution narrowly passed out of committee.
From the start, Rev. McCabe's nomination as vice-moderator was mired in controversy. After the Presbyterian Outlook reported June 18 that Rev. McCabe had officiated at a same-sex marriage, the Rev. Neal Presa, a candidate for moderator who had chosen Rev. McCabe as his running mate, said that though he hadn't known that Rev. McCabe had wed a same-sex couple, her support of same-sex marriage was "precisely why I asked her to stand with me." He retained her as his vice-moderator nominee, though he says he supports the church's definition of marriage.
After Rev. Presa was elected moderator Saturday, the general assembly proposed breaking rules and challenging Rev. McCabe's nomination, even though vice-moderators are typically confirmed without opposition. The assembly voted by 55 percent to 44 percent to question Rev. McCabe, just short of the two-thirds majority needed to break standing rules.
Now, for the first time since at least 1967, a vice-moderator has resigned midway through a General Assembly. PCUSA communications director Jerry Van Marter, who has attended 38 general assemblies since 1967, said there had "never been a resignation of a vice-moderator nor moderator" in his time.
In a speech before the assembly explaining her resignation, Rev. McCabe said there had been "pervasive poisonous activity" in opposition to her appointment. She mentioned people who were "blogging and tweeting unhelpful and frankly divisive comments" and others who might "use parliamentary order among other things in a way that will ... [keep] us from tending to vital business."
She said she embodied a growing number of pastors "caught between being with couples in those sacred moments when they make their vows to one another and having a polity that restricts us from living out our pastoral calling."
After her announcement, the crowd erupted "No!" and offered Rev. McCabe a 30-second standing ovation as she wiped away tears.
Rev. Presa told the committee he was saddened by "suspicion and mistrust" that had "reared its ugly head." He said his goal for "the unity of our broken Presbyterian family" remained unchanged.
Rev. McCabe's decision offered a stark picture of the divisions that prevail in a church struggling over the question of gay marriage. A recent Presbyterian Outlook survey showed that about 800 of the current 10,000 congregations would leave if the church voted to approve gay marriage.
The Rev. Janet Edwards, a Presbyterian minister from Squirrel Hill who had church charges brought against her for officiating at a gay marriage in 2005, said pastors are in a bind between fulfilling their pastoral responsibilities and following church rules.
"In some ways this situation has provided a blessing to the church because it's put real people before us," she said. "It's about real people, not just theoretical any more."
Carmen LaBerge, president of the Presbyterian Lay Committee and an opponent of gay marriage, recalled watching church members decline to stand in respect when the vice-moderator walked into a committee room earlier this week, breaking with historical precedent. She said Rev. McCabe's resignation was "the right thing to do in our current environment."
"I don't think she performed the wedding as a political act, but that act bears out meaning right now in our denomination that is much bigger than what happened on April 28," Ms. LaBerge said,
Assembly members and observers expressed shock and sadness at the development. Maggie Hayward, a teaching elder at the same National Capital Presbytery where Rev. McCabe presides, said Rev. McCabe's resignation represented "a setback" for young adults who were excited about her nomination. The Rev. Jim Brown, a retired pastor from Harrisburg, said the move casts a "pall that hangs over the rest of the proceedings."
Later in the day, the assembly voted to approve a new translation of the Heidelberg Catechism, which among other changes removed a reference to homosexual perversity that was not present in the original German. The assembly also voted to adopt the Confession of Belhar, a document written by the Dutch Reform Church in South Africa in the 1980s that takes a stand against racism, oppression and injustice.
The assembly will vote Friday on whether to change the church's definition of marriage to include same-sex couples. If the change is adopted, it would allow pastors in states where gay marriage is legal to conduct marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples.
Harrisburg's Rev. Brown said Rev. McCabe's resignation would stay in his mind for a long time."To see her crying becomes a symbol of all the pain this church is in over these issues."
First Published July 5, 2012 12:00 am