Churches slowly blessing same-sex unions
Same-sex marriage? Perhaps it should just be called marriage, for isn’t that what it is?
A few years ago, when Knox United Church in Fort Frances voted to perform same-sex unions, it was a quiet event. And now the United Church in Emo also has taken the same step, with other churches in the district looking at taking the same route.
Rev. Barb Miller, along with congregation members Rhoda Dickson, Ellen Anderson, Davetta Sheppard, and Janice Boneham, began by explaining there are two parallel processes when it comes to same-sex issues: one being society’s acceptance and the other being the religious component.
So as the United Church of Canada moves down the religious side, it parallels society’s growing acceptance.
Compared to other denominations, the United Church of Canada often is viewed as being more liberal and reflective of where society is moving.
They are not as dogmatically tied to a literal interpretation of the Bible, Rev. Miller noted.
“The United Church has moved to saying that the literal interpretation of the Bible is a 20th-century aberration, and that in no other part of the Christian history has it been interpreted literally,” she remarked.
Rev. Miller cited examples where the Bible says not to wear fabric blends, or not to eat certain foods. Nowadays, these rules no longer are taken literally because when used in the Bible, it was in a ritual sense.
“The rest of society has made a move from seeing things that don’t make sense in our world anymore, but for some reason some people hang on to those little nuggets that they think justify discrimination,” she argued.
So in the early 1980s, the United Church of Canada decided to examine the issue of homosexual ordination and sent study books to churches to gauge how they felt about the issue.
Eight years later, in 1988, the church made a movement to “decree that churches would be accepting of ordination of openly gay, lesbian, or transgendered individuals,” noted Rev. Miller.
“While they didn’t allow
prejudice to discriminate against the ordination of gays or lesbians, they did give congregations permission to say whether or not they would accept them on the pulpit,” she added.
“As the issue became more acceptable, it became more talked about, and people realized that they had nieces and nephews and grandchildren that were gay,” Rev. Miller explained.
“You realize that it’s not a big deal.
“The next big stage was when the legal court system did away with the definition of marriage being between a man and a woman, and that marriage had to be opened up to same-sex couples,” Rev. Miller continued.
“Prior to that, same-sex couples couldn’t legally share benefits, or have a say when their partner died.
“So in 2003, when the Ontario court dealt with these issues, that’s when the United Church of Canada again looked at the issue, but in relation to same-sex marriage.”
The United Church of Canada “empowered each congregation to make the decision at their level as to whether they would choose to do this or not. As a national church, they said they approve and support the marriage of same-sex unions.”
“We sent a letter out to the congregation explaining what we would be doing and what the national church had suggested,” recalled Anderson.
“There was a study document called ‘Of Love and Justice,’ and it was about same-sex marriage and it looked at different issues: from a Biblical perspective and as a justice issue, looking at issues of sharing a pension, sharing benefits—the legal side.”
“We had three workshops,” she noted. “There was the Bible one and the one where we looked at it as a justice issue.
“And then [for] the third one, we were going to have a lesbian couple come and speak, and then at the last minute they felt that it was too risky and distressing to them.”
This was a wake-up call for many members of the congregation, who had thought they were very welcoming and accepting and were amazed that people may not feel safe in their church.
Instead, they held a discussion on how shocked and sad they were that, as a Christian community, people did not feel welcome to come.
It ended up being one of their best workshops as people discussed their views and ideas.
Months later, the local congregation voted on the issue. While 76 percent voted to perform same-sex unions, it didn’t meet the 85 percent threshold needed to pass.
After more discussion, they decided that a 55 percent majority was more reasonable and the second vote passed with 57 percent approval.
(Since only church members present on the day of the vote were able to cast ballots, the percentages varied as people who may have voted to approve were absent the day of the second vote).
Although it is now five years later and the church has not performed any same-sex weddings yet, it is the process and how far things have come that is important.
And still, this is only one step in their “affirming process.” There is still changing terminology to deal with, other sexual minorities which must be given a voice, and other people who face other barriers in the church.
For example, male/female washrooms can be excluding to transgendered individuals, and small print bulletins make it difficult for people with visual impairments to follow along with the service, so they are working on resolving these issues.
It is an ongoing commitment, they say.
Rev. Miller said they aim “to help people recognize that we’re all children of God.”
“It doesn’t matter what we look like, what our race is, what our gender is, what our age is; we’re all welcome here,” she stressed.
Boneham said after they voted to perform same-sex unions, people realized it wasn’t a big deal.
“Things haven’t changed, people have mellowed out,” she remarked.
“Earlier when we did this, it was ‘scary’ and now people see that it’s not that different after all.”
“Because the church has been at the forefront of speaking against gays and lesbians and transgendered people, I think the church also now needs to move to the forefront of speaking for them,” reasoned Rev. Miller.
“The church has to make amends and say, ‘We were wrong to think that God did not accept you the way you are.’
“You are who you are because you were created that way,” she stressed.