Ten years ago today, the world noted the first legally recognized gay marriage, in the Netherlands. On that day, four same sex couples exchanged vows in front of then mayor of Amsterdam, Jeb Cohen.
It took two years before another country, Belgium, followed suit in 2002, and a further three before Spain and Canada joined them in 2005, and South Africa in 2006.
Since then, five more countries were added to the list in the last two years – Norway and Sweden in 2009, Iceland, Portugal and Argentina in 2010.
In the US and Mexico, local jurisdictions recognize same sex marriage in five US states and in Mexico City. In effect, this significantly increases the coverage of access to same sex marriage, because all Mexican regions are compelled to recognize marriages contracted in the capital, and several US states that do not conduct same sex weddings themselves, grant recognition to marriages contracted elsewhere. Even where marriages are not recognized, many couples simply take the step of getting married where they can, with or without the formality of legal recognition.
Beyond the high profile matter of full marriage, civil unions and domestic partnerships are becoming ever more widely available. A recent estimate is that some form of partner recognition is now available to 42% of Americans, while in Europe it is very much higher. Only a handful of European countries still do not provide for civil unions, and some of those that do, can be confidently expected to upgrade them to full marriage in the next few years. Even in Africa, South Africa has provision for same sex marriage, and in Asia, Nepal will do once the new constitution is finally inaugurated. South America has full marriage and family equality, several other countries have civil unions.
Worldwide, the momentum is clearly in favour of marriage equality for all couples. What are the implications for the Churches?
Initially, the most visible religious response was in opposition, insisting that marriage could only be between one man and one woman, and that anything else was clearly contrary to the Bible and God’s will (in flat denial of the evidence, but I let that pass, today). More interesting has been how the religious responses have developed over the past ten years.
In some cases, religious based opposition has progressed from opposition to all same sex unions, to an attempt to promote civil unions as a weaker alternative to full marriage, or to acceptance of civil marriage for all, but implacable opposition to marriage in church. Others have been forced by the existence of legal provision for same sex couples, to accept the value of offering church blessings for couples who have been joined in civil marriage or civil unions – while continuing to reserve full church weddings for opposite sex couples.
But some churches have gone even further. In Scandinavia, the Swedish and Icelandic Lutherans, as state churches, have accepted the legal provision for both civil and religious marriage, and now conduct church weddings for all couples without discrimination. The Norwegian and Finnish Lutherans are expected to follow, in time. In the UK, the British Quakers and some other religious groups have been prominent in pressuring the government to upgrade the civil partnership legislation to full marriage, because they want to conduct their weddings on a basis of full equality. In the US and Canada, the United Church has conducted same sex weddings for years, other denominations have allowed local jurisdictions to take their own decisions on marriage, and some local churches have even gone ahead and conducted gay church weddings without formal approval for doing so. In the political sphere, public and legislative debates on the introduction of laws for same sex marriage or civil unions regularly feature religious arguments in favour, as well as the more familiar arguments against.
Religious support will be strengthened immeasurably by the expansion of acceptance for openly gay and lesbian pastors. This support is not unqualified: the ELCA resolution two years ago was specifically to accept pastors in same sex relationships that were committed, faithful and accountable – in a manner comparable to marriage. How better to ensure that this accountability is on a par with heterosexual married couples, than by extending church marriages to all? Acceptance of openly gay and lesbian partnered clergy will soon be the default position for US mainline Protestant churches, as it already is for European Protestants. Support for church weddings is still lagging a little way behind: in both the ELCA and PCUSA assemblies that approved resolutions to permit ordination for openly LGBT clergy, similar proposals to permit same sex weddings in church were defeated.
This will change. These resolutions will reappear again and again, until they are finally accepted, as they will be – just as the proposals for gay clergy were submitted several times before achieving ultimate success. Religious support for same sex marriage, inside or outside of church, will continue to grow, and overt opposition will decline. This will make the religious arguments against political equality more difficult to sustain, while the growing access to civil marriage will continue to add pressure on the churches to face the reality in front of them, of legally married couples and their children in need of pastoral care.
The world today celebrates ten years since the start of limited legal recognition for same sex marriage. Queers in the churches should celebrate not only the civil progress to equality, but also the undoubted impetus this has given to the movement to full LGBT inclusion in church.
Catholics and Gay Marriage: The Facts
Would Jesus Support Gay Marriage? – Rev Peter Gomes
The GOP/ Evangelical Quiet Revolution on Gay Rights
Are Evangelicals Embracing LGBT Inclusion?
Cathedral Wedding for Senior Lesbian Priests