Janie SpahrIn 1991, Rev. Janie Spahr received a call to return to parish ministry, but then the gatekeepers and an overreaching Presbyterian “Supreme Court” stepped in.

She had been ordained a Presbyterian teaching elder (minister of word and sacrament) in 1974 and had previously served in parish ministry in Pennsylvania and California , but then she came out: first to herself, then her family, and then her congregation. She and her husband amicably divorced and remained close friends (she refers to herself as “wife emerita”), but her Oakland congregation asked her to leave. For the next two years, because her own denomination didn’t quite know what to do with this “lesbyterian,” she worked with the Metropolitan Community Church in San Francisco’s Castro district. In 1982, Pastor Spahr co-founded the Ministry of Light, which became the Spectrum Center, in Marin County, California, and she continued to serve as director.

The Presbytery of the Genesee Valley approved the 1991 call to serve as co-pastor of Downtown United Presbyterian Church of Rochester, NY, but then a coalition of one elder, fourteen pastors, and the sessions of nine congregations of the presbytery brought charges, which ultimately wound their way to the Presbyterian “Supreme Court.” At that time, the policy of the Presbyterian Church was summed up in the “definitive guidance” dating to Bill Silver’s failed attempt at ordination and the actions of the 1978 General Assembly. This 1978 “definitive guidance” stated, “homosexuality is not God’s wish for humanity” and “unrepentant homosexual practice does not accord with the requirements for ordination.” Yet, as part of the same assembly and the same action, a “grandparent clause” had been added that said that the definitive guidance “shall not be used to affect negatively the ordination rights of any United Presbyterian deacon, elder, or minister who has been ordained prior to this date.” Rev. Janie Spahr had been ordained four years “prior to this date.” Despite the clear language and intent of the “grandparent clause,” the ecclesiastical court blocked the call to parish ministry by ruling that the clause only applied to repentant homosexuals, who would receive “amnesty for past acts but not license for present or future acts.”

Undeterred, the congregation called Spahr to be a roving evangelist for the cause of full inclusion, and she became the Presbyterian poster lesbian going forward, building and leading an organization/movement called “That All May Freely Serve.”

In the following decade, Spahr would again have her ministry litigated by the Presbyterian courts, and the reason was her persistent willingness to officiate at same-gender weddings. To summarize the winding trail through the thicket of Presbyterian jurisprudence, the Presbyterian Supreme Court issued its final decree, calling upon her local Presbytery of the Redwoods to censure her. The presbytery meeting was scheduled for May 16, 2012. The presbytery voted 74 to 18 to defy the determination of the highest Presbyterian court. The presbytery would not censure the Rev. Dr. Jane Adams Spahr and instead voted to support her. It would be the most extreme act of ecclesiastical disobedience in the entire history of the PC(USA). Never before had a presbytery openly defied a ruling of the highest court.

At the next General Assembly of the church in Detroit in 2014, marriage equality will be front and center of the plenary sessions.

The book is now available!

This is the sixteenth installment in the series Cast of characters countdown, which are biographical snippets and summaries of the stories of the iconic pilgrims and prophets on the road to full inclusion who are featured prominently in Queer Clergy. As with all these posts, this is merely a summary of the full story, which is woven into an overarching narrative in the book. This is the first installment following the release of Queer Clergy, which is now available here or from your favorite online bookstore.

Here’s the list of prior posts:

1968 Troy Perry (founder of the MCC)

1970 Robert Mary Clement (gay priest who marched in the first Gay Pride parade)

1972 William Johnson (first out gay man to be ordained by a traditional denomination)

1974 James Siefkes (Lutheran pastor behind the formation of Lutherans Concerned)

1974 David Bailey Sindt (founder of More Light Presbyterians)

1975 Steve Webster (organized the first gathering of gay Methodists)

1975 Dr. Louie Clay (founder of Episcopal Integrity)

1976 Chris Glaser (longtime Presbyterian activist)

1977 Ellen Marie Barrett (first out lesbian ordained to the Episcopal priesthood)

1978 Loey Powell (early UCC lesbian pastor and activist)

1980 Mark Bowman (founder and leader of RMN and editor of Open Hands Magazine)

1982 Melvin Wheatley (Methodist bishop and straight ally)

1987 Ann B. Day (Led the UCC ONA for twenty years)

1990 Jeff Johnson, Ruth Frost, Phyllis Zillhart (Extraordinarily ordained Lutherans)

1990 John Shelby Spong (leading straight ally in the Episcopal House of Bishops)