Gay Marriage, Civil Unions, and the Church

June is a big month for marriage equality. In the UK, it’s now clear that the House of Lords will approve the Marriage (Same – Sex Partners) Bill, in the USA, the Supreme Court will make two rulings that will most likely further advance the cause (while stopping short of declaring a full right to marriage). The Church of England has accepted that it has now lost the political battle against the gay marriage bill, and will instead concentrate on improving the detail. Already this year, three countries and three US states have legislated for equal marriage, and the Brazilian court has confirmed that even without legislation, gay couples have the right to marriage.

This political progress to full equality, and the fierce opposition that it has encountered, has obscured an even more remarkable movement, of greater significance for queer people of faith – extensive acceptance of civil unions/ civil partnerships, and of our relationships. This chart from the Pew Research Centre illustrates how strong this has been, in the USA. (Similar growth applies elsewhere).

PRC_Legal_Agreements

Polls on gay marriage have become commonplace, especially in the US, done frequently by a wide range of polling firms. The Pew polls are particularly notable, because they’ve been doing it for a long time, and so have a powerful collection of comparable data with robust sample sizes, and also because of their specific interest in religion, as indicated by the name. (“Pew Research Centre” is associated with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life). For any Pew poll, it is worth digging into the detail, for cross-tabs on religious denomination. This graphic illustrates the results for the question on “allowing gays and lesbians to enter into legal agreements with each other that would give them many of the same rights as married couples?”

% in favour of legal unions

Civil Unions, Support 2013

For American White Catholics in particular, these results are remarkable: just more than four out of five support legal recognition – even more than for the “unaffiliated” group (essentially, those with no religion). In the UK, a similar pattern was observed in the House of Lords debate on the equal marriage bill. The interventions by Catholic peers included some from all sides – in support of the bill, in opposition to the substance but in favour of advancing to committee stage debate on detail, and opposition that was so strong as to reject even progressing to a second reading. But in all interventions, there was clear support for the principle of equality and non – discrimination – opposition was based only on concerns about the word “marriage”, and that civil partnerships or similar provided sufficient equality.

It is against this backgrounyd that we must assess recent declarations by Catholic bishops for some form of legal recognition and protection for same – sex couples. As os so often the case with Catholic bishops, like Gilbert and Sullivan’s renowned Duke of Plaza – Toro, they lead their regiments the church from behind, following where ordinary Catholics have already gone. Those speaking up now, are simply catching up with the real church. This catching up, what is more, goes well beyond the simple matter of supporting legal contracts to protect gay couples – it challenges the whole of church teaching on same – sex relationships. The same Pew poll shows it clearly – the majority of American Catholics no longer believe that “engaging in sinful acts” is sinful (once again this is up sharply from ten years ago), and even more now believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society:

However, opinions among Catholics have changed substantially. In 2003, more Catholics said homosexual behavior was a sin than said it was not (49% vs. 37%). Today, a third of Catholics (33%) say it is sin, while 53% disagree.

and

….. wide majorities of Catholics (71%) and white mainline Protestants (65%) say homosexuality should be accepted by society. And those without religious affiliation favor societal acceptance of homosexuality by roughly five-to-one (79% to 16%).

 Pew Research Centre

The Washington Post had a story last week headlined “The political war over gay marriage is over. The culture wars continue” (or something like that). Change “culture” to “religious”, and that’s my position, exactly.

The political wars will take time to reach completion, but it’s only a matter of time. The churches must now deal with the implications, for themselves. The cardinals and bishops who are speaking up publicly are only those will to show their noses. There are many more, just waiting to do likewise. Once they start talking about legal recognition, they will have to start talking also about the inherent value of these relationships – and then, of the need to find some way to recognize and celebrate them, in church congregations. That can’t be done, without accepting that same – sex love in itself, is not intrinsically sinful. Exciting times, ahead.

As the old platitudes for against gay marriage fade away, we need to create a more reasonable, constructive debate about the real meaning and value of marriage – and other forms of relationships. But this needs to look at the realities, not nonsense about labelling opponents as “homophobes” on the one hand, or dire warnings about the destruction of the institution of marriage, on the other. The fact is, that marriage has constantly evolved (been “redefined”) over many centuries, and taken countless forms in different societies. As Mark Jordan observes in his superb  ”Blessing Same-Sex Unions“,  many so – called “traditional” weddings today are far removed from any real religious content,  with the chief presider over ritual no longer a priest or pastor, but the wedding planner – closely followed by the photographer, caterer and the florist. There’s as much of real Christianity in these marriages, as there is in the modern “traditional” Christmas, which has been equally debased by commercial interests.

Our experience as gay and lesbians in loving, committed relationships, without the distortion of these commercial weddings and based on real partnerships, freed from artificial and customary role models and patriarchal assumptions, will be useful in teasing out a new, revitalized understanding of the real value of marriage and other committed relationships  – .useful for the whole church.

A continuing constructive debate about the religious value of marriage, as distinct from the secular protection in law, may well result in further redefinition of marriage – for the better.

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