The Church is Silent

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I wonder why it is in Australia that not a single national Church head, or Commission for Social Justice of any of the Churches has come out unequivocally in support of same-sex marriage?

Are they worried about dissenters?  That has not stopped the church speaking up in the past about our nation’s refugee policy or when the climate-change skeptics seemed to hold sway on government policy.  There has always been dissenters in the church.

Do they think that because the social contract of marriage between a man and a woman is a Biblical thing it cannot be changed?  That has not stopped many churches from promoting the equality of men and women in leadership in the church.  We did the same two centuries ago when social attitudes to slavery were changing.  Social structures change and we reinterpret the Scriptures to discover a way of moving with that social change.  And the sky didn’t fall in, nor did society fall apart when these changes became normalised.

Do they think it is proper to impose the Christian views of a very small sector of society on the whole nation?  Perhaps they are so used to sitting cosy with the powers that be that it is hard to give up the seat.  I really like the Kingdom of God parable about the Yeast but I do not think that this is what it means.

Are those who want to keep marriage as only for man and woman couples being selfish?  Why are they unwilling to allow others to share in the joy they have in relationship?

I just wish my church – or any other church – would come out and say unequivocally that extending the social and legal privileges of marriage to all people is something that will do no harm to the vast majority who will still choose to marry a person of the opposite sex, nor will it harm the children of any family where they are loved and cared for.

I support Marriage Equality.  I gladly walk in the Pride March each year if I can.  How is it that I can do that when I have grown up in the church for all my life and so should be completely saturated by what it means to be a Christian?  I have been an ordained member of the leadership of the church since 1981.  If opposition to Marriage Equality is such a no-brainer to most people in the church, how can I stand on this side of that line?

Let me outline just a few reasons:

We live in a Democracy not a Theocracy

We live in a society, a nation state that is secular – and so it should be.  This does not preclude any of us from having particular religious views or participating in any particular religious practices insofar as those practices do not breach the laws of society – in the way, for example, that female genital mutilation – a religious practice – is considered to be extreme child abuse because it generally is undertaken on children and so is a criminal offence.

Secular states very often hold legal positions on moral issues that are contrary to sincerely held religious views.  Abortion is a clear example.  The fact that the sate permits legal abortion does not force anyone to have an abortion.  It simply offers an option.  Many religious people continue to oppose this and that is their right.  Some states in the USA continue to exercise Capital Punishment for serious crimes as does our near neighbour, Indonesia.  Interestingly, some Christian people see no problem with this because capital punishment is part of the legal code in the Old Testament, while others lobby very energetically to have capital punishment done away with as a sanction in the legal system.

If the Australian Government was to make same-sex marriage possible I suspect the opposition of churches to it would continue.  I suspect that many Churches would continue to only marry men and women in heterosexual relationships.  Some might even opt out of all forms of civil registration of marriage, offering only a religious ceremony which would have to be supplemented by the couple attending a Registry Office or Civil Celebrant to complete the legal requirements of registering the marriage.

Community polling to date suggests that nearly 75% of the nation’s people support the legal changes necessary to allow for marriage equality.  Out politicians would do well to pay attention to that and act accordingly.

But I have more than social reasoning behind my position on this matter.

Jesus sat with the Marginalised

Jesus once sat by a well and talked seriously with a marginalised and scandalised woman.  She had been divorced.  She was living illicitly with another man.  She was a social outcast in her village.  That conversation transformed her life.

Jesus once invited himself to lunch with another social outcast.  Zacchaeus listened and his heart was transformed.

Jesus had a reputation among the religious elite of being a glutton and a drinker, “a friend of tax-collectors and outcasts.” (Matt 11:19).

So I have no problem marching with Gay people in the Pride March.  One man, a couple of years ago, spoke to me of the welcome he received in an Anglican Church in Perth where after 20 years of exile from his Roman Catholic faith he felt safe and welcome to receive the holy sacrament of Communion again.  I rejoiced with him in that and I thank God for the priest involved in that parish.

René Girard rightly observed that humans are highly predisposed to observing the differences between us and others and using that as a basis to ostracise or marginalise those who are different.  We do this on the basis of race.  We do this on the basis of religious views.  We do this on the basis of wealth (or the lack of it).  we do this on the basis of sexual orientation.  For many generations Gay and Lesbian people have been so marginalised that they have been fearful about revealing to others that they are attracted to people of the same sex, and many of them have struggled with confusion and doubt because society has insisted that they were ‘not normal’.  Christians and others in society have even justified the vilification of gay and lesbian people and have demonised them in such a way that they are no longer thought of as real people.

Some Christians, when faced with a moral dilemma, like asking the question “What would Jesus do?”  My bet is that if Jesus were here today, he would be hanging out with gays and lesbians, with trans and intersex people.  He would be listening to their stories and he would be affirming their humanity.  But most importantly he would be letting them know that, contrary to popular opinion in the Church, they are loved by God as they are.

Marriage as an Icon of Christ and the Church

Much opposition in the Church to same-sex marriage comes from a misguided notion of the relationship between Christ and the Church.  A metaphor of this relationship that is found in the Bible proposes that Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church is the Bride.  And the church has given this metaphor eschatological meaning by speaking of the end-times as the final coming together of Bride and Bridegroom at the heavenly banquet – also referred to as a wedding feast.

The metaphor is etched deeply and has been used to justify a rigid stance against any change of marriage from that between a man and a woman.  Why has this been so?

I suspect that the indelible understandings of what marriage ‘really means’ is based more on the words of the Form for Solemnization of Matrimony as found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer 1662.  There it says that:

  • holy Matrimony..is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is between Christ and his Church;
  • [marriage] is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men: and [should not be undertaken in order] to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God;  

It fulfills three primary functions:

  • First, It was ordained for the procreation of children,
  • Secondly, It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication;
  • Thirdly, It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity. 

This first function gets a lot of press in the debate.  It seems that if one is supposed to have babies then there has to be a man and a woman.  Yet we know that medical advances today, as well as changes in social norms, mean that same-sex couples can and do have children.  Adoption laws have changed permitting such couples to adopt children, and some couples come together with children from previous relationships.

And what about older men and women who want to be marriage.  If the woman is beyond child-bearing age, does that mean they don’t qualify to be properly married?

As a result many today have been rethinking the theological basis for marriage in a Christian setting.  For me there are some very simple inclusive ways of looking at the meaning of marriage that still reflect the mystery of the relationship between Christ and his Church.

God is Love

Firstly, John’s Gospel affirms in many places that God is love.  All agree that this is a central concept in our discussion of the nature of God.  John says in his first letter that love comes from God (I John 4:7) and that those who live in love live in union with God and God lives in union with them (I John 4:16b).

How can we then say  that the love between a same-sex couple, which is, they claim, identical to the love between a man and a woman, be said to be anything other than an expression of the union between that couple and God?  I suspect that such a claim might sadden God.

Faithfulness is Gender Neutral

The aspect of God’s love that is most often interjected into the meaning of marriage is faithfulness.

Again and again, the Prophets of Israel spoke of the unfaithfulness of the people of God to their covenantal relationship with God as adultery.  One even married a prostitute to exaggerate the point.  But this language is metaphorical.  Faithfulness is faithfulness and the gender of the parties who enter into a covenant of faithfulness is immaterial.

Trustworthiness is also Gender Neutral

Another aspect of the nature of God that has been translated into a significant aspect of marriage is trustworthiness.

In the history of Israel and the Early Church, God is spoken of as utterly trustworthy and it is to this that we aspire in our marriage relationship.  Regardless of their gender, couples who cultivate and maintain the greatest trustworthiness are living in a way that reflects the image of God that is within them, with which they were born.

What About the Seven Verses?

There are indeed seven verses in the Bible that, when translated into English appear to condemn homosexuality in unequivocal terms.  What are we to do with these?

There may well be more verses in the Old and New Testaments that permit or even encourage slavery.  That does not make me an advocate of slavery today.

There certainly are more verses in the Old and New Testaments the propose and seek to maintain the subjugation of women to men as an expression of the proper social order.  That does not convince me to advocate a complimentarian view of men and women in the church.

Neither do these seven verses convince me to continue the years and years of exclusion, abuse and marginalisation of people whose sexuality is different from mine.  I welcome and rejoice in the love I see in my Gay and Lesbian friends.

Marriage Equality will add a whole new and wonderful dimension to marriage as we currently know it and it will take nothing away from those man and women who are married to each other.

I wish my church would speak up for them at a time when so many will be trying to shout them down.

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4 thoughts on “The Church is Silent

  1. Try A Progressive Christian Voice. They have put out papers on many different justice issues, including same sex marriage, including

    Support for equality in current marriage vows

    Progressive Christians welcome NZ marriage reforms

    A majority of Christians support ACT recognition of equality in marriage

    And so on.

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  2. We can affirm people in a same sex union without calling it marriage. Legally, currently same sex couples have the same rights in law as defacto couples. If there is any other point where their ‘rights’ are different, then that could be addressed in law. But biologically, same sex union is not ‘marriage’! My question is why do same sex couples who in the past have decried marriage as an institution, suddenly want to be ‘married’?

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    • I was unaware that same-sex relationships have been awarded the same status in law as de facto marriage. The recent experience of a British tourist whose same-sex partner died here would suggest that if that is the case, not all agencies are aware of it. As to your final question I am not the right person to answer that. Hopefully someone who is qualified will respond.

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