Others acknowledged that although many had been scouring the Twittersphere and blog sites, evidence of the so-called bullying that prompted McCabe’s resignation from the post, have not been found. Those present wanted to hear and see evidence because they genuinely desired not only justice for their vice moderator but a restoration of trust in the assembly. References to rumors, hear-say, innuendo, accusations and cyber-bullying had been heard, but no evidence produced.
In response to questions and concerns raised across all quarters of the denomination for the so called bullying that culminated in the resignation of the 220th General Assembly’s Vice Moderator, Rev. Tara Spuhler McCabe, Moderator Neal Presa offered a Town Hall Meeting over the dinner hour on Thursday (July 5).
Although it looked like a press conference, Presa hoped it would be “a family conversation.” As the assembly had voted not to allow this conversation to take place in plenary, the goal was to offer those who so desired “space and time” to ask questions and “process sadness and anger.” About 50 people were present.
The stated clerk of the presbytery of New Brunswick was the first to speak. Addressing the now former vice moderator, he said, “I have spoken to 5 people who, although they voted against you, would not have acted to unseat you.” Others in the room affirmed the sentiment.
Another commissioner then shared that “I did not vote for you (Tara) because I did not vote for you,” indicating Presa. The laughter that followed broke the tension and the speaker went on to share that “I am absolutely disheartened.” And referring to the vote of the assembly to refuse itself the option of docketing time to discuss the issues at hand, she said, “we can’t even talk to each other about it.” She indicated that “we’ve got to be hearing the truth” because “until the truth comes out, this assembly will feel the pain in every vote we take.”
Others acknowledged that although many had been scouring the Twittersphere and blog sites, evidence of the so-called bullying that prompted McCabe’s resignation from the post, have not been found. Those present wanted to hear and see evidence because they genuinely desired not only justice for their vice moderator but a restoration of trust in the assembly.
References to rumors, hear-say, innuendo, accusations and cyber-bullying had been heard, but no evidence produced. One speaker put it plainly, “tell us where that Twitter and blog material can be found,” adding that the GA should then name an investigatory body to discover the bullying and deal with it through a policy and practices that would hopefully limit future abuse.
Based on the continued attempts throughout the meeting to gain greater clarity, the answer offered was unsatisfactory. McCabe acknowledged that she is not on Twitter and so the two tweets she had read were shared by others or in one case, cut and pasted into an email. The discussion apparently centered around the concern of whether or not she could legitimately serve in the second highest elected office of the denomination. Why might that question have been raised? a speaker inquired, “what did you do?”
The TEC from National Capital presbytery, flanked by her Executive presbyter and the GA’s Moderator, answered carefully, “I signed a marriage license for two women in the District of Columbia where it is legal.”
That prompted further inquiry by a theological student advisory delegate who said, “I’m hearing other TE’s say ‘if I had I done that, I would have been subject to disciplinary action.'” The TSAD then asked, “have you been subject to disciplinary action?” Adding, “if not, why not?”
Those attending the town hall meeting.
Wilson Gunn, Executive presbyter for National Capital Presbytery where McCabe is a member, sought out a stated clerk in the room to answer. The formal disciplinary process was discussed, but no information whatsoever was shared about the case at hand. It remains unknown whether or not charges are pending and one participant in the Town Hall style meeting pointed out that “it may yet happen.”
The TSAD had a follow up question for the former vice moderator. In relationship to the ten ordination questions all PCUSA officers take, “what was it that you did that others feel was against your ordination vows?” Instead of answering the question asked, McCabe described the experience of entering into relationship with the two women at whose wedding, according to court documents, she officiated. She concluded that “God’s love and justice” is in tension with “our order.” In those moments, McCabe says, “I breathe and pray and move into a relationship.”
Other participants shared their feelings of pride for McCabe, their confusion, their grief and their sadness. Applauding what she described as McCabe’s “witness and grace,” a TSAD from Louisville acknowledged that “just that this happened in the way it did is tragic.”
McCabe responded that “the pastor in me is aching for you – thank you for speaking your truth.” Then she shared, “the olive branch” she’s feeling on this. McCabe said, “One of the open letters that went out awhile after I made my decision,” indicating that “no one knew about (the decision to resign) except us,” McCabe continued, “the person who wrote it found me personally and then really did reach out and through a personal Facebook message offered a deep apology for not speaking with me first. The person tried to find me and then unable to do that, put the letter out there. He’s in Ohio … I appreciate that that apology came before I my public statement. I recognize his personal intent to want to talk with me. I am so grateful that he took a risk to find me personally.”
The story stirs again the question of just what evidence of bullying exists that would have resulted in both the Moderator and Vice Moderator of the General Assembly accusing those present of spreading “pernicious poison” in the body.
Jim Berkley, serving this week as a writer for The Layman, TE from the Seattle area, spoke. “What I have heard and felt a lot is the casting of vague blame on those that talked about your” actions. “You did something that was ecclesiastically not permitted and yet those who talk about it or question whether or not that was right are being called bullies. There’s a difference between speaking in opposition to something and being a bully.” Berkeley surfaced the concern that “two tweets and an open letter where the person apologized prior to your resignation” does not descend to the level of bullying.
The moderator answered, “I never used the term bullying.” Clarifying his comments from the plenary platform the day prior, Presa said, “my use of the term pernicious poison was in reference to suspicion and mistrust on both sides.” He shared that it was “folks on the left” that “distrusted the testimony that this (indicating his close personal friendship with Tara) is real.”
Seeking to satisfy the desire of those present for further substantiation, Presa said that “the 60/40 vote was evidence of mistrust.” He also identified one individual blog posted by Mateen Elass entitled, Does integrity still matter? Presa identified Elass as “the president of PFR” and criticized the fact that the blog “placed a question on the confirmation.” The moderator then said, “I received an email that I forwarded to the Outlook from a pastor who urged me to ask her to resign.” He shared that “rumors” had been received that people “were planning to move to reconsider her confirmation.” Then, he said, “we met with Gradye.” Continuing, Presa said that “Wilson had received word of potential judicial complaints.”
In sum, Presa said to those gathered, “For those who questioned why, now you know the story.”
He said that “the totality presented an overwhelming cloud” that would not only affect the work of the assembly this week but threatened to shadow the hope of unity he envisions himself building in the denomination.
Leslie Scanlon, from the Presbyterian Outlook, pursues the issue saying, “there are lots of issues that people debate and disagree about…but the language both of you used yesterday was very strong.” Scanlon then asked, “What do you think is fair criticism and what is unfair? To say we should reconsider, is that crossing the line? Why isn’t it fair to raise questions, even after the fact?”
McCabe thanked Scanlon for the question and then acknowledged, “Part of this is personally what my heart can withstand –with integrity and a non-anxious presence to moderate meetings.” She said that the questions being asked “are totally appropriate in terms of our polity.” But the questions raised like “why is she so corrupt,” were too personal for her to continue in the post.
Other lines of questioning were also explored.
What McCabe continues to refer to as “standing with two women in their sacred moment,” others at the Town Hall meeting publically celebrated as a part of a larger movement of “ecclesiastical disobedience.”
Ruth Hamilton, McCabe’s fellow TEC from National Capital presbytery said that the performance of same-sex weddings by Presbyterian ministers Is “normal.” She said, “These are acts of ecclesiastical disobedience that I am doing and,” she indicated, so are many others. Hamilton admitted that as the pastor of a PCUSA church “we have been ordaining openly gay elders and deacons for years,” knowing all the while that disciplinary action was possible. She said that she was publically acknowledging her multiple acts of departure from the constitutional rules now because “I feel obligated to do so.” She said, “I can’t stand here and act as if Tara is the only person doing this.” Hamilton suggested that it might be helpful to generate a list of all those across the country who are doing likewise. She concluded that “ecclesiastical disobedience is a valid option that we have in the current situation” where PCUSA ministers find themselves wanting to do what the constitution does not permit.
Hamilton’s comments were echoed by Ray Bagnuola, TEC from New York City presbytery. He said that “Not officiating at same-gender weddings would be a violation of our ordination vows; not the other way around.”
Two people addressed the question raised by the moderator’s reference to the 60 percent confirmation vote of his first vice moderator. Marilyn Daniel from Transylvania presbytery said that she didn’t know either Presa nor McCabe prior to arriving at the assembly. But that through her time with them at the Riverside Conversation on Saturday morning she had learned about the issues surrounding McCabe’s candidacy.
She said, “those of us who voted for you knew at the time we voted.” Then directing her comment to the moderator she said, “my recognition is that you won by 52 percent on the fourth ballot.” Then, to McCabe, “60 percent is pretty good.” That moment of levity was then punctuated by the speaker’s assertion that those who were allegedly responsible for somehow leveraging power outside of the process to accomplish McCabe’s stepping aside were actually the ones who should be brought up on charges. “I think that those people violated the Book of Order and we could file against them – but I don’t know who they are.”
Concluding her lament, commissioner Daniel said, “My biggest disappointment is that we weren’t able to name this. This is injustice and … now we have no women in the top leadership position in this church for the next two years. ”
Former GA moderator Rick Ufford Chase said that he was “troubled by using that vote as evidence of turbulent waters,” but then added that his primary concern is that now “many people don’t feel safe.” The moderator’s accusation that the assembly is infected with pernicious poison has itself fueled that fear.
The moderator responded, “I don’t know what it means to be bullied for being LGBT but I know what it is not to belong. Regardless of our official positions, everybody belongs in the family. Whatever I can do to facilitate that conversation, with all the resources that are attendant to this office, that’s what I’m about.”
Carmen Fowler LaBerge is president of the Presbyterian Lay Committee and executive editor of its publications. This article first appeared on The Layman website and is used with permission.
[Editor’s note: Original URLs (links) referenced in this article are no longer valid, so the links have been removed.]