Saturday 9 October 2010

Gay Marriage: Coming (Soon?) to a Church Near You.

It is now widely recognized that the move to marriage equality is irreversible. From polling evidence, the trend is clear. Politically, candidates for office are increasingly recognizing the dangers of homophobic rhetoric, and some are starting to see the value of declaring openly for equality. Courts are ruling that discrimination, in marriage law, in military service, and in adoption law, is plainly unconstitutional. As some US states and countries of Europe, Latin America and elsewhere move towards recognizing queer families, the greater visibility that follows erodes resistance easing the path to equality for those that follow.

All this is well known - for civil marriage. What is less widely recognized is the extent of change that has also been taking place in the churches. Inevitably, this will lead in time to acceptance also for same-sex church weddings. From the position just a few years ago where almost all major denominations were strongly against homosexual relationships, and public condemnations passed without comment, this claim may seem hard to swallow, so let us review the evidence.

Already, there exist some religious groups and local congregations that openly conduct same sex marriage services. In the US, the United Church of Christ (UCC) has done so since the 2oo5 synod voted to do so. They have also been joined by Unitarian Universalist, and in Sweden by the Lutheran Church, where the national legislation in 2oo9 provided for both civil and religious same sex marriage. Other Scandinavian Lutheran churches have been considering following suit, and will surely do so in time. The only real uncertainty, is when.

In the UK, where legislation provides only for civil partnerships and not full marriage, the British Quakers have taken a clear decision that they want to celebrate religious marriages without discrimination, and have been actively lobbying government. When the British law changes, as it will, the Quakers will certainly offer religious weddings for gay and lesbian couples.

Other denominations and faith traditions have not yet taken such clear cut decisions, but the trend is demonstrably in that direction. There is active debate on the issue in many Mainline Protestant denominations, and specific or tacit agreement in many that local congregations can take their own decisions on performing either full weddings or at least blessings for same-sex unions. Even where there is not yet approval for such local decisions, an increasing number of pastors are simply going ahead and conducting them without approval. The debates and movement in the Christian churches are also mirrored in some Jewish groups, both Orthodox and (especially) Reform Judaism.

The inevitability of further progress in some denominations is neatly illustrated in the case of the ECLA, which last year approved the full inclusion in ministry of openly gay or lesbian, non-celibate pastors - provided that they were in committed, monogamous and faithful partnerships, on exactly the same basis as more conventionally married pastors. The Assembly did not approve a parallel proposal to provide for gay church weddings - but simple logical consistency will ensure that Lutherans must recognize that if all pastors are to be held equally accountable, equal opportunities for publicly declaring those monogamous, faithful and committed relationships must be provided - which will mean marriage where it is legally possible, and blessings for less formal unions where it is not. Furthermore, the increasing visibility of partnered and respected gay clergy in many congregations will further erode any remaining opposition. We can confidently expect that the ECLA will soon follow their Swedish counterparts.  So will the Presbyterian Church of the USA, which is repeating the process of the ECLA, but a few years later.

The rapid growth of acceptance for (civil) gay marriage by Mainline Protestants and Catholics in the US is dramatically illustrated by information from Pew Research, which has been tracking the issue for years. In the latest survey, conducted in two phases this year with a large total sample of 5ooo respondents, particularly strong increase in support was shown among Mainline Protestants.
Meanwhile, by a 49 percent to 41 percent plurality, white Catholics support same-sex marriage.Nearly six in 10 (58 percent) people under the age of 50 support same-sex marriage compared with 33 percent who do not. Women approve of same-sex marriage by a margin of 57 percent to 33 percent. Men are evenly divided with 45 percent both approving and disapproving of such cases.
A similar increase in support for same-sex marriage since the last survey was reported among white mainline Protestants with a 49 percent to 38 percent plurality offering approval. The results represent a significant change from polling in 2008-09 when 40 percent approved and 49 percent opposed such marriages.
Let me stress that figure for younger Catholics: nearly 60% support of Catholics under 5o support full marriage for same-sex couples! It is not possible to segment that result still further for the very youngest age groups, but extrapolating from the results for all young people, it is safe to assume that their support will be still higher. IT is obvious that simple demographics will mean that in a few years, a similar survey will show that support by Catholics for marriage equality will be overwhelming

There is a well-known disjunction between Catholic laity and bishops on sexual ethics. Even if there is overwhelming popular support from Catholics, will there be any movement by the bishops? Surprisingly, it is at least possible. Already, some senior church leaders are at least starting to talk about it. Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna has said the Church should begin to place the emphasis in its teaching on the quality of gay relationships, and not simply on "homosexual acts." Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, when asked if he could see a time when the Catholic church would conduct church blessings for same-sex unions, refused to rule out the possibility.  These are only two bishops, admittedly, but they are the heads respectively of the Church in Austria and in England and Wales, and these were public statements. How many more are thinking the same thing privately?

I find that one of the most fascinating features of the gay marriage debate is how the ground has shifted. At one time, it could have been described simplistically as one that pitted supporters of civil rights against religious belief.  Now, it is more accurate to say that the big battles are within the churches. (Among non-believers, the battle has already been won.)

The high-profile debates are within the Mainline Protestants, but there are clear divisions even within the other, traditionally more conservative denominations. Consider for instance, the obvious divisions within the Catholic Church over the bishops' interventions in Maine last year, and in Minnesota currently, or the outcry in Utah over Boyd Packer's recent speech, which highlighted differences within the Mormon leadership. Even some Baptist congregations are breaking ranks with their mainstream, and moving to embrace equality.
Already there are some congregations conducting same sex weddings, and rather more which are conducting church blessings for couples committing to civil marriage or civil unions. The numbers are still small, but their simple existence represents a sea-change over just the past quarter century. Legal provision for civil marriage or civil unions is spreading rapidly across the globe, and many churches are fundamentally rethinking their positions. Those that have not yet done so, will soon be forced to follow suit.

Looking ahead to the next 25 years, I would expect that same sex church weddings will not yet be universal - but they will surely become commonplace.

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