Presbyterians Try a Gay Man

Years ago, I was sitting on an airplane, reading the USA Today that had been dropped at my hotel room door that morning.  In a little snippet, I read that a lesbian pastor had been called before a grand jury of the United Methodist Church.  What shocked me was not that there was a lesbian pastor in the UMC.  What shocked me was that the UMC had a grand jury.

Yesterday, just a few miles from my house, the Presbyterians (USA) did something similar.  It’s convoluted, so try to bear with me.  It seems that a Presbyterian clergyman, Erwin Barron, was put on trial at a church in Bloomington, Minnesota.

Erwin Barron (photo by Jeff Wheeler, StarTribune)

Barron does not live in Minnesota.  He was a pastor at a church in Minneapolis in the 1990s.  At the time, it seems from the article in the StarTribune, “he was coming to terms with both his sexuality and his future.”  That line, I think, implies that he was not actively gay at the time.

But he left Minnesota, attended graduate school, and married a man in the days before Proposition 8 passed.  Now he’s a college professor.

But, because of the byzantine Presbyterian rules, he’s still accountable to the Presbytery of the Twin Cities, and it was they who put him on trial.  From the Strib:

The unusual hearing, held in a church community room, featured defense and prosecution lawyers who were Presbyterians who volunteered their services. About 25 people attended, most of them Barron supporters from Westminster. The six-person judicial commission — three pastors and three church elders — sat with files and copies of the church constitution at a table facing a witness table and a lectern, where the lawyers argued their case.

There are so many confusions for me in this story, but primary among them are,

  • Why do Minnesota Presbyterians care if a former pastor who is now a college professor got legally married in California?
  • Why does Barron care if Minnesota Presbyterians want to put him on trial?

I suppose that a defrocking of Barron would remove him from the pension program of the PC(USA), so there may be financial interests on both sides.  Or maybe it’s simply a matter of principle.  The article doesn’t make that clear.

The article does, however, note that this is probably not the end of the line for Presbylegal process:

The Rev. Neil Craigan, a White Bear Lake pastor who was on the prosecuting committee, said his group will consider an appeal. The case could rise to the synod level and possibly to the national church for final disposition.

And herein lies the biggest problem for me: How do Methodists and Presbyterians theologically defend systems of justice that seem to reflect not theological categories and patterns, but those of the American legal system?  Why constitutions, by-laws, lawyers, and grand juries?

Who’s got a theological defense of these practices?


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