Discipline in Faith, Discipline of Self, Discipline with Church: How a pastor learned from a same-sex marriage and what came after – Tara Spuhler McCabe

In the past year, I’ve come to know something about discipline. But the experience has helped me see that disciplines are how I have navigated and interpreted my life and ministry for as long as I can remember.

Back in the fall of 2011, through a neighbor, I met two women who asked me to perform a religious wedding ceremony for them in the District of Columbia. They both were Catholic and, more importantly, so were their families. They were seeking a religious terrain that would affirm their love for each other, their love from and for their families, and their faith in God’s great love for which they, to this day, are still grateful. I said yes and officiated a religious marriage ceremony for them, in a restaurant, in the District of Columbia. During this same period, I also agreed to stand with my friend and colleague, the Rev. Neal Presa, as his candidate for Vice Moderator of the General Assembly. I never informed him of my action with this particular couple because, though it seems strange to say now, I did not recognize that what seemed so removed from denominational debates would end up affecting others so drastically.

Someone (I still don’t know who) published evidence: my signature on the license and a picture of me standing with the women. Neal and I decided I would continue to be his candidate for vice moderator. He was elected, and I was confirmed by the General Assembly. Three days later, out of concern for distracting tension in the church and the risk of damage to the office of Moderator, I resigned as Vice Moderator. Later, I was informed that a written allegation had been filed against me by a group of Presbyterians that included no one from my own presbytery. Since August, I have been through an investigation and disciplinary process. National Capital Presbytery’s Investigating Committee and I agreed to a censure* that was read aloud at our January Presbytery meeting.

I have experienced discipline at a new level to be sure, but even in this process, I see the disciplines of my life coming together for such a time as this.

Three disciplines

Discipline in faith is, for me, the practice of navigating and relishing the mystery of it all. It is daily acknowledging that I am a part of others within the embrace of the Sacred. For me, faith has always been. Faith is not nothing and never just something. It is a cultivated awareness of how the intricacies of creation are connected to one another. Disciplined faith is not unlike the way I have taught kids to be with the ocean while at the beach: Always be in awe of its beauty and power. You get to be a part of this and enjoy it, but you are never more powerful than it. Know your place within the beauty and power of it all.

This discipline in faith leads directly to discipline of self: Knowing my place within it all. Not arrogantly but relationally. There is wisdom to offer and to gain. There is humility to learn and to teach. My discipline of self is the practice of connecting to the great creation I experience in my faith. My filter and lens have always been “What celebrates this life we have? What builds up my relationships and community?” Therefore, my actions, while sometimes for me, are never just about me. My actions have to stand in relationship with the whole, building up or breaking down in relationship to all. And to live faithfully as self, I have always been blessed to live that life in the church.

Discipline with church hems in what can be, at times, the madness of it all. But it also magnifies the incredible beauty of it all. The great mysteries that go beyond what I can manage, comprehend and explain are ordered and practiced in a day-to-day reality. My church has been and continues to be the place where I can undertake the other practices, being my self in a faith that encompasses all.

This understanding of disciplines of faith, self and church was cultivated throughout my life, beginning with my growing up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood and school while attending the mostly white downtown Presbyterian church. On the surface, the two places had nothing to do with each other–except when my parents invited friends from our ’hood to join us at church or friends would invite me to theirs. I found then a faith that was consistent, and a self that was fully realized only when we were living life more fully in relationship with whole.

Fast forward to today. I love being hemmed in with a church and called into ministry as a pastor. This is my place, my part, in the whole of faith. Living into my calling, with a church and a faith that are greater than me, struggle and tension are regularly present. This is not a bad thing! Church discipline comes out of a history of people stepping beyond their ordered church, sometimes with great faithfulness and conviction. This historical reality helps me as I seek to live into a call that could pull me beyond the practices of my church, but never away from the discipline with church.

Standing at the intersection

I offer that any one of us can never know when we will have to stand at the intersection of our disciplines and then need to step forward into the next moment engaging all three, even with tension and conflict. When the moment came to me, officiating a wedding for a same-sex couple, as a pastor, I could not turn away. My conviction of faith, of my humble place before the mystery of it all, was deeper than I have known before. I acted with full integrity in that faith and true to the self I am called to be. This is why I can accept the discipline of the church with whom I have committed to be in relationship. I could not deny the call as a pastor to a gap where two people, seeking to have their love explained and professed through the ordering of worship, would celebrate and praise God’s work in bringing them together as no civil union or priest of their own tradition would do.

Not often do I find deep tension with our ordination vows. But here I did. I am a teaching elder in a church that baptizes children of couples and grandparents. Nowhere do we require the parents of children being baptized to be of different genders. Our polity and our liturgy speaks to them as people of faith, parents or grandparents—no other qualifications. We also serve communion to all people who have been baptized. We confirm our baptized children as they make a profession of faith, never singling out sexual orientation as a matter for their confirmation discernment. As Presbyterians, we discern a calling to ordered ministry, ordaining leaders in our congregations and denomination, not based on sexual orientation but on commitment to Christ and the church. And that commitment is a high and honest bar! In all of these decisions and moments, as a pastor, I am to engage fully in the spiritual nurture of the people and offer ritual and ordered worship that celebrates their lives in response to God’s presence.

Here is the rub and the theological bankruptcy I feel I am “pastoring” in. I am not permitted to order worship and celebrate the love of God in the covenant of marriage for the same folk whom I have baptized, confirmed, served communion, and even ordained as pastors. There is a gross error in how we as pastors and congregations are then honoring the whole child of God whom we have started with in baptism.

And so, with this struggle and love of church, I enter willingly in faith into the discipline of church. I trust these relationships. This, too, was a vow: That as individuals we will offer our whole selves to this church constantly navigating the realities and complexities of our faithful living. Out of discipline in faith and discipline of self, I and we can stand with the discipline of our church. And as I have noticed these last few months, there is transformation within the discipline. In my particular disciplinary process, there has been honest wrestling with the integrity of our embodied community. Our conversations were able to honor the importance of my sense of call in officiating this marriage while also needing to embrace and be embraced in the judgment of my presbytery. In living out my sense of call, I have risked offending the constitution of my church. We remain in relationship and the church keeps struggling. And the church and I can both go on stronger from this threshold moment.

Discipline—and specifically my disciplines of faith, in self and with church—have prepared me for such a time as this.

The Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe is an at-large member of National Capital Presbytery.

*The Censure, as read on the floor of National Capitol Presbytery, including the Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe’s statement

Whereas you, Tara Spuhler McCabe, admit the offense of officiating at a same-sex marriage ceremony on or about April 28, 2012, and admit that by such offense you have acted contrary to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA); now, therefore, the Presbytery of National Capital, in the name and authority of the Presbyterian Church
(USA), rebukes you. You are enjoined to be more watchful and avoid such offense in the future. We urge you to use diligently God’s grace and to be more obedient to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Furthermore, we encourage you to continue to provide pastoral care to all couples, including the blessing of same-sex couples who have previously been married by civil authorities.

From Rev. Spuhler McCabe: I, personally, am at peace with this. I am not at peace with the gap and tension that still exists for congregations and pastors who are open and affirming within our denomination and who serve communities where same-sex marriage is legal. With this reality, I feel it is important to be in hard conversation with one another about the tension. This is why, in negotiation with the IC, i asked for the censure to be read aloud at Presbytery. We want to offer honesty and transparency, as best as we could. I cannot speak more highly of the work that myself, my lawyer (Saint Timothy as we say in our home), and the Investigating Committee (IC) has done for the past 5 to 6 months. Many folks have been put through some incredibly tense moments and conversations in this process. National Capitol Presbytery has shown great dignity towards me in holding space for all the necessary steps to take place.

I do want to lift up that no one in National Capitol Presbytery ever filed an accusation against me. This specific process was brought to the Presbytery. And in our relationship as a connectional church, National Capitol, through our Permanent Judicial body and the IC, needs to
honor and uphold the lines and tensions we face within our denomination. With profound respect, I have witnessed ruling and teaching elders in this presbytery honor a pastor’s personal
story and the role of our church discipline. I know what I have gone through has not been the same for other sisters and brothers in the pastoral ministry with LGBTQ members of our congregations and communities. I so wish this was different. And it is not. All I can offer is that I am at peace mainly because once I knew I was to be in this process, I found myself working with incredibly faithful people: Ruling Elder, Timothy Cahn as my lawyer; Ruling Elder Doris Mabry; Teaching Elder Mary Beth Lawrence; Ruling Elder J. Mills Williams; and Teaching
Elder Henry Brinton who treated me with dignity as well as upholding and honoring our church and it’s work within discipline. Members of the IC, and myself, are open to hearing questions and sharing our experience. I ask that all of us respect this decision, as I do and, with dignity and figure out how to move forward together.

8 thoughts on “Discipline in Faith, Discipline of Self, Discipline with Church: How a pastor learned from a same-sex marriage and what came after – Tara Spuhler McCabe

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  • February 7, 2013 at 11:37 pm

    Rev. McCabe you continue to fail in your understanding of the Constitution of the PC(USA) – it is not sexual orientation that our denomination, in accordance with Scripture as the rule of faith and life, recognizes as sin, it is the practice of same-gender sexual relationships. So that is what drives the distinction between the elements we include in worship and ministry, and those we do not.

    Certainly we joyful baptize children of couples and grandparents. As parents/grandparents they must acknowledge their own sinfulness and dependency on Jesus for salvation. You are correct that nowhere does our Constitution require the parents of children being baptized to be of different genders, and indeed our polity and liturgy speaks to them simply as people of faith – parents or grandparents with no other qualifications but a desire for the child to be part of the Church.

    As a denomination of the Reformed tradition, we also serve communion to all people who have been baptized, and in baptism we all have acknowledged our sinfulness and need for Jesus as Savior. In approaching the Lord’s Supper we regularly affirm our need for repentance of sin.

    Yes, we confirm our baptized children as they make a profession of faith, never singling out sexual orientation as a matter for their confirmation discernment, but we do affirm that whatever sinful actions we undertake must be confessed and forgiven by Jesus as Lord of all our life. Furthermore, we affirm that God is the one who draws the mark of holy living, and reveals that call through Scripture.

    As Presbyterians, some of us discern a calling to ordered ministry; and in ordaining leaders in our congregations and denomination, we do not take into account sexual orientation, but rather commitment to Jesus Christ and to Jesus’ church. And yes that commitment is a high bar, requiring honest discussion with a council of the denomination (a Session or Presbytery) to determine if our life is lived in joyful submission to Jesus and in accord with the Scripture and our Confessions and Book of Order, as reflected in the Constitutional questions of ordination.

    In all of these decisions and moments, as a Teaching Elder with a call as a pastor of the PCUSA, you are to abide by the Constitution of the PCUSA as you engage in the spiritual nurture of the people under your care In your offering of ritual and orderly worship celebrating their lives in response to God’s presence, you must be instructed and governed by the PCUSA Constitution. The Confessions and Book of Order apply the Scripture and make clear that same-gender sexual relationships are not God’s intentions for God’s people. Your continued desire for an alternative situation, should lead you to consider a denomination that concurs with your perspective. It is only then that you will not be at odds with the constraints of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and free to act in ways contrary to the theology and polity of your current denomination.

  • February 8, 2013 at 1:11 am

    I am grateful for Rev. Spuhler McCabe’s huge pastoral heart which led her to fulfill her promises upon ordination by presiding at the wedding of these two women. I grieve our present moment in the PCUSA when her presbytery feels the need to rebuke her for doing her job.

    I also want to comment on Ruling Elder Thomas Fultz’s thoughts. His premise seems to be that there is only one interpretation of Scripture regarding LGBT relationships. The articulate presence of faithful Presbyterians with a different view testifies to a variety of understandings in our church. I respectfully as that Ruling Elder Fultz recognize the range of faithful interpretations of Scripture sitting at the PCUSA family table.

    Our ancestors named freedom of conscience as an historical principle of our faith and this was affirmed in the revision of our standards for ordination in 2010. The next step is to expand the definition of marriage in our Directory for Worship in order to honor the freedom of conscience of the host of Presbyterian teaching elders who see Rev. Spuhler McCabe’s pastoral act as one we have already engaged in or would if asked.

  • February 8, 2013 at 1:25 pm

    I found Rev. Spuhler McCabe’s actions disturbing, not because I am opposed to same-sex marriage, but because she deliberately went against her denomination’s policy in this matter. Interpretation of Scripture aside, if she wanted to perform a same-sex marriage, she should not, at this time, be a Presbyterian minister. It is that simple. If she wishes to argue against the church’s strictures, she is free to do so, but not to countermand cnurch policy in the way she did. As part of our ordination, whether as Teaching or Ruling Elder, we agree to be governed by the rules and regulations laid down by our denomination. Right now, one of the rules is that we do not sanction same-sex marriage. Should that change in the future, Rev. Spuhler McCabe – and any other ordained minister – will be free to do this. Until then, we are not, no matter what our personal feelings may be.

    • February 8, 2013 at 9:25 pm

      Katherine, I agree with you that all PCUSA elders promise to be governed by the rules of the church. My difficulty is that there was no rule against pastors presiding at same-sex marriages until the 2010 Spahr decision in which the GAPJC turned W-4.9001 of the Directory for Worship–a definition–into a rule. Three PJC decisions prior to that, two of them of the GAPJC, itself, recognized that a definition is just that, not a prohibition, leaving open to pastors the freedom of conscience to preside at same-sex weddings. The GAPJC’s responsibility is to interpret the Constitution, not to make rules.

      No GA, in an AI, nor GA and presbyteries together, through overture and vote, has established a rule prohibiting pastors officiating at same-sex marriages. I think it is arguable that the GAPJC in 2010 was the one who violated the rules by legislating from the bench, particularly violating the historical principle of freedom of conscience by cutting off the exercise of the conscience of the teaching elders who understand same-sex marriages to be integral to their call to Christian ministry. The key to harmony in the PCUSA is to revise the definition of marriage in our Book of Order to reflect the range of interpretations of Scripture and God’s will present in the church. I hope we are all working in some way to hasten that reformation.

  • February 9, 2013 at 4:35 pm

    Thank you for that clarification, Janet.
    When I was ordained, it was clearly explained to me that in the PCC, marriage was between a man and a woman. This has been debated at various levels, and will no doubt continue to be debated. I guess that I was basing my response on OUR rules, assuming that yours were the same. It will be interesting to see what happens should there be a change in the definition!


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