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The Presbyterian Church (USA) and homosexuality

Part 3:
The trial of Rev. Laurie McNeill.

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This is a continuation of the previous essay

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Rev. Laurie McNeill's case progressed from the congregation level to the denomination's highest court:

Her "crime" was that she fell in love, formed a loving committed relationship with another woman, and married her. They were married by a minister of the United Church of Christ and two priests of the Episcopal Church, USA at Christ Episcopal Church in Harwich Port. MA. Marriages by same-sex couples had been legal in Massachusetts since mid-2004.

The denomination's response to her marriage has been mixed:

  • 2010-JUL: Her congregation, Central Presbyterian Church, in Monclair, NJ voted her out of her church leadership position.

  • 2011-JAN: Her case was appealed to the Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) of the Presbytery of Newark. There were two charges against her:
    1. She had participated in a same-sex ceremony and thereby married her partner, Lisa Lynn Gollihue. She represented to her congregation and others that the ceremony was a "marriage." Both actions were violations of the denomination's constitution.

    2. She "... did commit the offense of being involved in a relationship described as a 'happy marriage'," which also violated the constitution.

    She was acquitted on both charges.

  • 2011-DEC: An appeal to the PJC of the Synod of the Northeast also upheld her acquittal.

  • 2012-OCT-26: An appeal was made to the Permanent Judicial Commission of the General Assembly of PC(USA). This is the denomination's "Supreme Court.". 1 Again, she was acquitted.

The PJC's prosecutor's brief reads in part:

"This case is about a Teaching Elder, the Rev. Laurie McNeill, who deliberately chose to do what was right in her own eyes rather than stay true to the Word, the Confessions, and the Constitution of which and by which she was called to be a pastor."

The Presbyterian Church USA defines marriages as limited to voluntary unions of one woman and one man. McNeill was legally married in another denomination in Massachusetts. Still, she was charged with participating in a same-sex marriage, even though the denomination does not recognize the existence of same-sex marriages. She was also charged with living in a relationship that is not condoned by the PC(USA).

Meanwhile a 2012 poll of church members shows that support for same-sex marriage has increased from 23% in 2005 to 34% in 2012. Support among pastors has increased from 35% to 49%. Like national polls, membership and clergy support is increasing steadily, year by year. However the general membership is almost 20 percentage points behind national polls of American adults while. Pastors are only a few percent behind. More details.

On 2012-OCT-28, the Permanent Judicial Commission for the denomination sustained the decision of the Permanent Judicial Commission of the Synod of the Northeast. She was acquitted on both charges, by a vote of 6 to 1.

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Two written opinions by five Commissioners:

The commissioners present at the trial gave their written opinions, either individually or in a small group.

For example, the Concurring Opinion of Commissioners Michael Lukens, Meta Cramer and Terry Epling said:

"We concur with the majority in this Decision.

Within a strong affirmation of the majority opinion, it must, nonetheless, be asserted once again that the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) needs to respond to the urgent need for definitive legislation on issues regarding marriage. For too long, this Commission has been burdened across a large range of conflicts with argumentation based on oblique, obfuscating, and indirect citations rather than clear directive, which is frustrating to the Commission as it seeks to promote the peace, unity and purity of the church and confusing to the whole church. This range encompasses the Reformed theological understanding of the nature of marriage, the authority and boundaries of teaching elders in conducting and participating in marriage ceremonies within the life of the church and in secular life, and the framing bases in Scripture and Confessions for assessing pastoral accountability.

Given the enormous cost for the spiritual health of the church, the strife that tears at the unity of the church, and the excessive expenditure of limited resources in the adjudication of a continuing stream of cases, it is critical that the General Assembly exercise its responsibility to deal definitively with these questions." 1

The Dissent of Flor Vélez-Díaz and Robin Roberts said:

"The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is, and has been for quite some time, conflicted with respect to the topic of marriage. There is great appreciation for the faithfulness, respect and love that all Presbyterians share for the Word of God; however they may interpret it. There is equal concern for the peace and future of our church, mission and witness, when faced with difficult cases such as this one. A great deal of the issues presented in this case, creates a struggle within our soul.

First of all, it would make sense to presume that married people do engage in sexual acts with one another.
All presumptions are rebuttable with evidence to the contrary, but in the context of a disciplinary case, it cannot be expected that such evidence would be provided given that the person alleged against has the right to remain silent. (D - 10.0203c)

Second, the argument that the Directory for Worship, which is an integral part of our Book of Order, does not provide grounds for which to regulate the conduct of our officers outside the context of worship, is also troublesome given that this 'Directory for Worship reflects the conviction that the life of the Church is one, and that its worship, witness and service are inseparable.' (Preface).

It also states in Section W-1.1005 that 'a Christian’s personal response to God is in community' and that 'the Christian community worships and serves God in shared experiences of life, in personal discipleship, in mutual ministry, and in common ministry in the world.'

How can any officer of the church, or any member for that matter, separate his or her life as being within the church in part, and outside the church in part, or as was argued in this case, single in the eyes of the church and married in the eyes of the state? Our life as Christians is integrally a part of the church, or as stated in W-1.1005, 'A Christian’s personal response to God is in community.'

Third of all, although the controversial G-6.0106b provision in our Book of Order is no longer in place, it was when the charges were brought in this case. It is perfectly understandable that not all Presbyterians can agree with all aspects of our Constitution and that there is, and must be, freedom of conscience within our community to foster discussion and growth within its members.

By the same token, all officers and members of the PCUSA have willingly agreed to uphold the Constitution of the PCUSA as a manifestation of order based in Scripture. Any and all differences and objections that we may have with the expressions within that document must be channeled in such a way as to continue fostering upholding it. Efforts to amend the Constitution should be made in a way that builds the body of Christ as a whole. There is concern that the divisions within the church which have brought about cases like this one, might not encourage conversation within the church; more likely, [they will] bring about division of the body of Christ.

Christians have a responsibility, in fact a duty, to our brothers and sisters in Christ, to promote the peace, unity and purity of the church. This responsibility is a two way street and is better achieved by dialogue than by litigation.

Although we cannot agree with the outcome of the case, we are convinced of the integrity of all the members of this Commission and of the faithful and prayerful consideration that was given to this matter in reaching the decision.

May Christ be with us always." 1

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Internet and media references used:

The following information source was used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlink is not necessarily still active today.

  1. Presbytery of Newark v. McNeill: Decision and Order, Disciplinary Case 221-02," The Presbyterian Layman, 2012-OCT-28, at: http://www.layman.org/ This is a PDF file.

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Copyright © 2013 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Latest update 2014-JUN-26
Author: B.A. Robinson
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