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Minister's Case Puts All Marriages on Trial

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David sat down beside me, muttering over the trial we were waiting to witness -- and about the church conducting it. "Medieval ... despicable ..." he said; " ... retrograde, fearful, vindictive ..."

He was visibly angry as a Presbyterian panel prepared to try an Oakland minister, Rev. Janet Edwards, for performing a same-sex wedding. If convicted, Edwards might be sanctioned or lose her vocation altogether. If she were acquitted, it might mean a step toward acceptance of homosexuality by a Christian denomination in America.

David had left this church 40 years ago, he said. You might think the church's power to affect his life was far in the past. Yet here he sat, drawn to the fray -- and, as a gay man, still concerned about revealing his full name.

The Grand Hall at the Priory, a former German Catholic Church on the North Side, was packed with people who felt a similarly close connection to the decision, however removed they were from its official reach.

"This is as close to church as I've been in eight years," said Barry Ralph of Observatory Hill. "I don't want anything to do with the church." And yet there he stood, an ex-Lutheran minister, drawn to these proceedings.

"[To] all these people in this room, I have to ask: What in Christ's name are you doing?" Ralph said. "They have the nerve to pile up the firewood out back for Janet. ... When it's over, these bastards are going to go back in the backroom and sing 'Kumbaya' and go right on with their prosecutions."

Betty and Andrew Schwarz, a married couple who attend the Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church nearby, were "just curious ... if there would be any breakthrough" for Presbyterians, Betty said. Their own church already supports "all kinds of equality," she added.

Presbyterians, like other large Christian churches, are still struggling with the notion of equality for homosexuals. The Episcopalians are edging closer to a worldwide split on the issue, while the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a new statement last week, "Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination," which takes the untenable "love the sinner, hate the sin" stance to new heights.

Janet Edwards hoped that some part of this afternoon would prove a permanent move forward for her own church.

"The judicial process ... would not be my choice, because it's pretty tense," she said during a break. "But to go to trial would give me an opportunity to lay out the way Scripture teaches me" -- that couples like the women she married "and many others who are here today display the love and commitment that many of us recognize as marriage.

"There are people here who disagree with me," she acknowledged. "And this is very precious to me. Presbyterian ministers who disagree with me, it takes a lot of courage [for them] to be here. I took an invitation to one of my accusers and sent it in the mail to two others that I know. I'm going to walk and see if any of my accusers are here."

She had a lot of time to look. Soon after the trial began, the panel withdrew to consider dismissing the charges on a technicality. "I am sure [the assembled] are disappointed in this anticlimactic outcome ... and in some ways so is the accused," said Edwards' co-counsel, Robert Patton. "But we do not waive any defenses."

It took 90 minutes to dismiss the charges on that blessed technicality. But just before the panel returned, Rev. Randy Bush of East Liberty Presbyterian Church stood up. "I'd like to take a time now to be a people of faith ..." he began his prayer.

A people of faith. It's a common phrase, yet it suddenly had new meaning.

When I married my Presbyterian wife in a Presbyterian ceremony, 20 years ago next month, there were those who said it couldn't last -- because I'm far from Presbyterian. Now, in this crowd, among people of so many different faiths, not to mention sexualities, I finally figured out how my marriage has been threatened in this debate.

The threat, I realized, was from those who didn't believe in us. My marriage was under siege by panels like this one. They have so little faith.

So happy anniversary, baby, a little early this time. Let's not waive any defenses yet.

But we can keep the faith.

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