PJC decides Stamford church may install gay elder

PJC decides Stamford church may install gay elder

The Presbyterian Layman, March 8, 1999

HAMDEN, Conn. – In a 4-1 decision released over the weekend, the Permanent Judicial Commission of Southern New England Presbytery ruled that First Presbyterian Church of Stamford may install a gay man on its session. The trial was held Feb. 26 in Hamden, Conn.

The case involves Wayne Osborne, 38, who was elected to the session of Stamford First in defiance of G-6.0106b, the “fidelity and chastity” clause of the PCUSA’s Book of Order.

Osborne, already an ordained elder, was elected to the session on May 17, 1998, despite having openly admitted during the nominating process that he was “in a relationship with another man.”

When asked during the examination process by the session if this was a sexually active partnership, Osborne declined to answer the question.

When asked if, “Having read what our Constitution requires of those who are ordained and installed in office of the church, do you acknowledge any unrepentant practice which violates these provisions?” Osborne answered “No. … However there are many ‘sins’ mentioned in the confessions that I believe are out-dated or out-of-step with current teachings and beliefs. I find it difficult to say with integrity that I will repent of those particular sins listed when I don’t acknowledge them to be sin.”

The ruling
Four members of the PJC found that the “process of discernment followed by FPC up to and including Osborne’s examination and election by Session was conducted ‘reasonably, responsibly, and deliberately within the Constitution of the Church.'” The irregularities cited by the complainants were “not sustained.”

In a part of its decision headed “Facts Found by the Commission,” the PJC declared that “Osborne has not ‘self-affirmed’ or ‘self-acknowledged’ any practice which the confessions call sin,” that “Osborne has not refused to repent of any self-acknowledged practice which the confessions call sin,” and “at the time of the events underlying the complaint, Osborne was in a same-sex relationship.”

In failing to sustain the claim that FPC’s own documents show that the church knew Osborne’s installation would violate the Constitution, the PJC “accepts as credible FPC’s explanation of these documents. Beyond doubt, with the advantage of hindsight, these documents could have been more carefully worded…”

“Although arguably imperfect,” the PJC found the session satisfactorily discharged its duty to inquire, and that while Osborne acknowledged his homosexual orientation, the disclosure “falls short of the self-acknowledgment of an unrepentant homosexual practice established by Amendment B as bar to church office.”

The PJC decision states, “… first Osborne was asked to describe his gay relationship and then was specifically asked whether he was engaged in a sexually active partnership. In response to this inquiry, Osborne implicitly, then explicitly, declined to self-acknowledge an existing sexual practice. At this point the Session had discharged its duty to inquire.”

Rev. David Van Dyke, associate minister of FPC and a member of the PJC was involuntarily recused from the case. A second PJC member, Elder Lois Yohe, was unable to attend the trial due to inclement weather.

The dissenting opinion
William P. Showalter cast the lone dissenting vote in the case. Showalter felt that count one – the session’s examination of Wayne Osborne – was irregular, should have been sustained since “the session was not adequately prepared for the examination. It was apparent from the testimony of several elders who were part of the examination process that they possessed insufficient knowledge of the meaning and interpretation of pertinent parts of the Book of Order, namely G-6.0106b and G-6.0108B.”

Showalter said the FPC Co-Pastor Blair Moffett “also indicated a lack of knowledge of the meaning of G-6.0106b … he indicated that he did not realize until quite late in the process that the examination of Mr. Osborne would involve questions about his sexual orientation or his practice.”

“It is apparent from the testimony of a session member and the documents presented as evidence and agreed to by both parties, that there was prior knowledge on the part of one member of the church that in Mr. Osborne’s relationship with his partner he was sexually active. … [in session minutes] it is recorded that the session discussed ‘the nominating committee’s decision to lace in nomination for Session membership an elder who is an a same sex-relationship, contrary to Amendment B,” said Showalter. He said there must have been some knowledge of Osborne’s sexual activity, otherwise, “such a statement would be slanderous.”

Showalter cited several documents which were entered into evidence that referred to the session nomination of a man who is in a same-sex partnership, contrary to Amendment B.

In his final paragraph, Showalter wrote, “If there was any prior knowledge or assumption of knowledge of Mr. Osborne’s sexual activity as a single person, the Session was remiss in not pursuing further its examination of him. His response to the question ‘Is this a sexually active partnership’ – to which he responded ‘I decline to answer this question’ – should not have been allowed to stand. Further questioning was required because of prior or assumed knowledge. At no time through the entire nominating, electing, and examination process did Mr. Osborne attempt to correct the assumptions raised by the above documents.”

The complainants
The complaint was brought by two members of Stamford First, Mairi Hair and James McCallum. They were represented by Walter E. Baker, an elder at the Presbyterian Church of Old Greenwich, Conn., William A. Prey, elder of the same church and Marilyn Abbazia, an elder at Stamford First at the time of the election. She cast dissenting votes during the election and has since resigned from the session.

The complainants called two witnesses, the clerk of session and the chair of the nominating committee at Stamford First. Documents entered into evidence included letters to the congregation, session minutes and congregation meeting minutes.

One document was a letter to the Stamford congregation signed by nine members of the 1998 nominating committee which admits that “The Nominating Committee is fully aware, by one candidate’s own declaration, that this individual is a gay person living in a committed loving relationship. … Blair Moffett, sitting as the clergy advisor to the Nominating Committee when this nominee’s candidacy was discussed, clearly explained to the Committee that the installation of this candidate would be in conflict with the Book of Order and outlined the implications of that action.”

“Ours is not a cafeteria constitution. You can’t pick and choose what you like and don’t like,” said Baker during the trial.

Baker continued “If we do not let ourselves be governed by the historic principles upon which our constitution was founded, if we choose not to resolve matters of disagreement by seeking God’s will through our connectional church process, like any institution that does not live by its constitution, we will fail. Our mission and ministry will bear no fruit.”

The respondents
The respondent’s counsel included John Harter, Debbie Hurrell and Meg Nosenzo, all elders at Stamford First. They called three witnesses, including Moffett, Janna Bellwin, an elder who served on the church’s nominating committee; and Richard Spierling, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Leonia, N.J. and an adjunct professor in polity at Auburn and Union Seminaries.

In their brief, the respondents said, “Wayne’s acknowledgement of his sexual orientation presents no problem under G-6.0106b or any other constitutional provision. It does create an obligation for the Session to examine him concerning related concerns. …The Session found neither evidence of homosexual practice nor acknowledgement of homosexual practice, despite a remarkably open and thorough process from nomination through approval for installation.”

The brief continued, “Wayne Osborne has acknowledged that he is a gay man and that he is engaged in a committed, loving, faithful relationship with a friend who is a man. While some may assume from this acknowledgement that Wayne is engaged in homosexual practice, it is only assumption. Wayne has not affirmed any homosexual practice. He has merely acknowledged his sexual orientation and that he is involved in a relationship with a man. Wayne Osborne is not an unrepentant self-acknowledged practicing homosexual.”

Prey, spokesman for the complainants, said a decision has not been made as to whether to appeal the decision of the Synod of the Northeast PJC.

The full text of the majority decision may be read online at The Presbyterian Review web site.