Prayers for the Rev. Janet Edwards (Presbyterian Church, USA)
by Evan Silverstein, Presbyterian News Service
The Rev. Janet Edwards, a Presbyterian minister in Pittsburgh, could face new charges for officiating at a same-sex union ceremony even though a complaint against her for performing the nuptials was thrown out by a church court last year.
The Rev. James C. Yearsley, a Presbyterian minister who filed a complaint against Edwards shortly after she married two women in June 2005, is gathering the signatures of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) ministers and elders who want to join him in pursuing the case.
“I am indeed continuing to pursue the case against Janet,” Yearsley told the Presbyterian News Service Jan. 3. “I’m going to file a new accusation against her. I will not be the only one filing it this time.”
On Nov. 15, Edwards appeared in church court for marrying Brenda Cole and Nancy McConn only to have the Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) of Pittsburgh Presbytery drop the charges, saying they had been filed four days after the statute of limitations had expired.
“The system didn’t work,” Yearsley said. “The presbytery failed to act effectively in this case. As a result the trial was not held. Janet was not given her day in court. The system was not allowed to function. I am disappointed by that and want to use the process appropriately.”
So far, about 15 people from across the PC(USA) have added their names to Yearsley’s new complaint, which he said he hopes to submit to Pittsburgh Presbytery officials within the next 7 to 10 days.
Yearsley, 55, said the new accusations would not mean double jeopardy since Edwards was never actually tried the first time.
“She hasn’t been put before the PJC,” he said. “So in essence it never happened.”
The Rev. James Mead, pastor to Pittsburgh Presbytery, could not immediately be reached for comment.
Yearsley, who is a Pittsburgh native, has been pastor of Village Presbyterian Church in Tampa, FL, since last February. Before that he served churches in Pittsburgh Presbytery, most recently as pastor for five years at Mt. Hope Community Church, a Presbyterian congregation in suburban Pittsburgh.
The PC(USA)’s Book of Order defines marriage as between a man and a woman, and church courts have ruled that Presbyterian ministers may not utilize the marriage liturgy in same-sex ceremonies.
“The point here is that the Rev. Edwards, I believe, acted in defiance of the constitution, violated her vows and pretty much did so intentionally,” Yearsley said. “We have a system in place to deal with these things and I want that system to work.”
Edwards, 56, admits to conducting the marriage but says she does not believe she violated her ordination vows by marrying Cole and McConn, who live near Wheeling, WV.
McConn is a lifelong Presbyterian and longtime member of Dallas Presbyterian Church in Dallas, WV. Cole was raised Methodist but now is a practicing Buddhist.
Edwards has steadfastly argued that there is no prohibition on same-sex ceremonies in the PC(USA) because the ruling said clergy “should not” conduct them — language she believes falls short of a ban.
“I am adamant that there is no prohibition against presiding at the wedding of two men or two women in the directory for worship or in the tradition of the Presbyterian Church or in scripture,” Edwards told the Presbyterian News Service. “There is absolutely no prohibition. So I will make my case as I have the opportunity to do that.”
Edwards was ordained by Pittsburgh Presbytery in 1977 and served as its moderator in 1987, and has been an activist for gay people in the church. She currently is assigned as an “at large” minister working primarily as a parish associate through the Community of Reconciliation, an interracial and multi-denominational congregation that is open to sexual minorities.
According to Edwards, the PC(USA)’s court system is also no place to debate issues of human sexuality, such as the role of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) people in the church.
“I really did learn over the past year and a half that our judicial process is not there for engaging in a disagreement like this one over the place of GLBT people within the church and within our culture,” she said. “It’s not made for that. It’s made for other things.”
Yearsley said he had considered whether there were grounds to bring a complaint against Pittsburgh Presbytery for mishandling the case but concluded he did not have evidence of deliberate wrongdoing.
“I don’t think anybody could make the case that there was intentional misbehavior,” Yearsley said. “I don’t see any evidence of it. That seemed excessive to me.”
Edwards, who is a direct descendant of legendary Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards, could face a number of punishments, including removal from ordained ministry, if the case goes to trial and she’s convicted.