One of the dangers in focussing too much in the controversies over same – sex marriage, whether in church or as civil marriage, is that of ignoring or marginalising other forms of relationship – such as civil partnerships. In our workshop session for the Cutting Edge Consortium conference on opposing faith-based homophobia, Martin Pendergast and I discussed the place of religious celebration of same – sex relationships – without focussing specifically on “marriage”. This was my contribution.
Relationships in Historical Perspective
I began with some observations from history. With or without formal recognition, same – sex relationships have always existed, in all periods and all geographic regions, and have often been formally accepted, institutionalized and honoured.
One striking demonstration of this, comes from examining early religious ideas, from before the time of the great monotheistic religions. In our bible, and in Christian theology, we are told that we are made in the image and likeness of God. In the earliest religious imaginations, before people could conceive of a single, all – encompassing deity, it may be more accurate to say that humans made gods (and goddesses) in their own image, possessing specific powers but otherwise conceived in very anthropomorphic terms, with human emotions, appetites and weaknesses. It is striking that in nearly all the early mythologies that constructed a pantheon comprising a range of divinities, there are several examples of gods or goddesses who had relationships (or mere dalliances) with human or divine same – sex partners. Some even have specific recognition of gods who are patrons of homosexual love.
Relationships in Christian History
In Jewish /Christian history, there are numerous examples of same – sex relationships: David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, Jesus and the Beloved Disciple, Sergius and Bacchus, and many more.
Some of these pairs are named in the liturgical rite of church blessing for same – sex unions described by John Boswell – and also named, in pairs, in the Eucharistic Prayer of the modern Catholic Mass.
The medieval church sh0wed many examples of honouring close male relationships for their spiritual value, from Aelred of Rievaulx’s book, “On Spiritual Friendship”, to the love letters and poetry addressed by many bishops and abbots to their own beloveds.
In the Western Church, the practice of making “sworn brothers” included liturgical rituals, celebrated in church with the Eucharist, and created legal ties of kinship between the families: an equivalent term for “sworn brother” was “wedded brother”. Same -sex weddings, in church, are hardly new, although the earlier meaning was not the same as current usage.
In 4th and 5th century Macedonia, and later in the Western church, there is archaeological and tombstone evidence of another way in which these relationships were honoured by the church: same – sex pairs buried in shared graves, just as many (opposite – sex) married couples were. A much later example of this is the well – known example of Cardinal John Henry Newman, who specifically asked to be buried alongside his beloved Aubrey St John (a request that does not appear to have caused any surprise to his community).
Relationships in Recent History
Christian recognition of same – sex relationships died away after the medieval period, under the influence of the Great Persecution of the Inquisition and its aftermath, and as heterosexual marriage acquired an importance that it did not have earlier. In recent years, there has been renewed interest – even before the start of legal recognition.
Somewhere around the decade of the eighties, there began to emerge regular news reports of couples who were conducting weddings, church blessings, or commitment ceremonies with religious ritual and presided over by supportive clergy, to demonstrate their love publicly to friends and family – and in the sight of God.
As the legal moves towards registered partnerships, civil unions and full marriage gathered momentum after Denmark began the process in 1989, several denominations began to debate seriously their responses. Some have already agreed to conduct marriages on a basis of full equality, some have held regular discussions, and in some cases, individual priests have simply ignored their rules, and married same – sex couples in direct contravention of the rule books (or undertaken to do so if asked).
In Sweden and Iceland, the marriage equality legislation specifically provided for religious as well as civil marriages. Denmark is expected to follow soon, and Finland later.
In the United States, Unitarians and many United Church congregations already provide for same sex weddings where the law allows it, and church blessings elsewhere. Some local dioceses of the Episcopal church do the same: two senior lesbian priests of the Massachusetts diocese were married in Boston cathedral last January, officiated by the bishop. When New York approved gay marriage last year, some Episcopal bishops wrote to their priests, saying that any gay or lesbian clergy in existing sexual relationships would henceforth be required to marry their partners – exactly as heterosexual clergy are expected to do.
It will take a while yet for the process to come to full fruition, especially in some denominations, but the momentum is clearly on the side of equality. The move towards gay marriage has become unstoppable, and that includes progress to gay marriage, in church. In moving away from the (relatively) modern redefinition as ordained primarily for procreation, marriage is returning to its roots in the early church: as a sacramental celebration of love between two people, symbolizing God’s covenanted relationship with God’s people.
- A Royal, Same – Sex Church “Marriage”, in Seventeenth Century England.
- My Catholic Vision of Marriage.
- English Bishops: God’s Grace in Gay Marriage
- Now you have your say on plans for Gay Civil Marriage Equality
- Welsh Archbishop: “Gay Marriage Deserves Welcome of Church”
- Valentine’s Day: Same Sex Lovers in Church History
- English Bishop Backs Gay Marriage: Queer Ferment in the Anglican Church.
- UK Marriage Consultation: Trans – inclusive Details Published
- US Episcopal Presiding Bishop, on Gay Clergy And Birth Control
- Gay Marriage: Listen to your head and heart, not the Bishops’ bluff and bluster