Battleground Of Faith

Crusades: Presbyterians Like Janie Spahr, A Minister And A Lesbian, Believe God's Love Doesn't Bar Them As Leaders. Others Disagree And Are Writing Church Law To Guarantee It.

April 26, 1997|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

The flickering light of five score candles fills the sanctuary of Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church as the Rev. Janie Spahr rises and speaks these words of benediction:

"Friends, go out in the world rejoicing, for we are the light of the God."

The words are so simple, so much a part of a Christian service. Yet this was no ordinary service. This was "a service of grief, prayer and commitment to inclusivity." This service was filled with anger and tears, a sense of rejection.

Spahr, 54, was here to ease some of the pain she knows all too well. Nearly 20 years ago she "came out" as a lesbian, and ever since she has fought to serve in the church of her youth, the church to which she has dedicated her life.

She does this despite the Presbyterian Church's recent approval of an amendment to its constitution that bars practicing gays and lesbians from leadership roles. What had been a matter of church policy is about to become law.

Some members say this decision has pushed them to the brink of deserting a church they love. Others see it reaffirming the will of God. For Spahr, the move adds an urgency to her crusade.

"What this is doing is encouraging people to lie. I'm not angry at my friends who are in the closet. I'm angry at anything that invites them to lie," she says later, at a friend's home. "Look at this: If they lie, they can serve. If they don't lie, they can't serve. It's so duplicitous."

Though the final tally is not in, 90 of the nation's 172 presbyteries approved the amendment, which codifies a 1978 statement of "definitive guidance" from the General Assembly, the church's policy-making body.

"We think it says all the right things in all the right ways," says the Rev. Jack Haberer of Clear Lake Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas. He coordinates the Presbyterian Coalition, which backed the amendment.

"All sinners are welcome in the church, because it's there that we come to terms with recognizing our sins and moving toward changing our lifestyle," says Haberer. "However, to serve as public leaders while avowedly practicing behaviors contrary to what Scripture teaches would be contrary to the faith of the church."

Like the greater society, the 2.7 million-member Presbyterian church is struggling with ancient debates over the nature of sexuality, the will of God, the interpretation of the Bible.

In the secular world, there is the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, Supreme Court hearings on gay marriages, and the media attention given to Ellen DeGeneres' proclamation that she and the character she plays on television are lesbians.

In the Presbyterian Church, there is a search for answers.

"We are living in a very tumultuous time, and the great verities and certainties we thought would never change are being changed and it's very scary," says the Rev. Herbert D. Valentine, executive presbyter of the Baltimore presbytery, which voted against the amendment. "People want to grab on to what they know, even though a better future may be out there."

Spahr's journey onto the battleground of faith began with a realization that ended her 13-year marriage to James Spahr, but not their friendship. She presided at his marriage 15 years ago, and has kept in close contact with him and their two sons.

"He knew by how much we loved each other that something was not right," she says of her coming out. "He knew that night when I came home."

The family has since collaborated on a video: "My Mom's a Lesbian. Have a Nice Day. Here's Your Lunch."

She became an ordained minister, worked with youths through the First Presbyterian Church in San Rafael, Calif. She later became council director for Oakland's Presbyterian churches. Her coming out ended that, though, and she resigned.

"It was very painful because I loved the work," she says. "Then it hit the paper and everything. I realized, though, when that happened, that there was a whole ministry."

She worked in a nursing home, counseled gays, lesbians and their parents. She spent two years ministering in San Francisco's Castro district, where she says she "really fell in love with what it meant to be a lesbian and a Christian." She helped form the Spectrum Center for Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Concerns in Marin County. She never left her church.

"I've wanted to do this since I was a little girl," she says of her ministry. "I had a sense of calling that would not be denied."

In 1991, the Downtown United Presbyterian Church in Rochester, N.Y., picked her to be one of its four ministers, knowing she was a lesbian. The local presbytery agreed, but 10 area churches challenged the decision. The case was heard in the church's courts, where it was finally determined that she could not stand in the pulpit of Downtown United.

But the Rochester church did not reject her. Along with Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tiburon, Calif., it formed a ministry called "That All May Freely Serve" and hired her as evangelist.

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