Out in Church: Summer Progress Expected

Change is coming, of that there can be no doubt. (Sadly, in spite of the suggestion by Cardinal Schonborn, I am not here referring to the Catholic Church, but to others. Just how long Rome can lag behind, is another matter.)

First, consider the progress up to now. The Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ accepted full inclusion some time ago, and have many openly gay, lesbian and trans pastors.  Last year, in a blaze of publicity, the ELCA voted to approve the recognition of lesbian or gay partners in committed and faithful permanent relationships, without the expectation of celibacy, on exactly the same basis as heterosexual marriages. That decision was accompanied by many dire warnings of doom, and predictions that many congregations would secede in protest. There have been some withdrawals, but as far as I can tell, not too many. Meanwhile, life in the ELCA has continued as normal, and the decision came into practical effect earlier this year.

In the Episcopalian/ Anglican communion, things are more complex, with international ties and allegiances also coming into play. The US Episcopalians have now consecrated two openly gay or lesbian bishops, and have nominated but not approved a few others. In the UK, that decision has been highly controversial, but is closely tied up with controversy over women bishops, which (unlike the US) have hitherto not been permitted. British Quakers resolved last year bless same sex couples in church, and were influential in the recent change in the law to permit civil partnerships in religious premises. Meanwhile, the Swedish Lutheran church has also ordained a lesbian bishop, and has agreed to apply the new law on same sex marriage in church as well. The Danish and Icelandic Lutherans are considering following their Swedish counterparts in applying their own countries’ laws on gay marriage when they are approved by parliament.

In the US and Europe, therefore, progress to full inclusion in church is substantial, at least in American mainline Protestant denominations and their European counterparts. Where can we expect the next victories? With the summer assembly season approaching, these are the major things we should be looking for.

For the American Presbyterian Church, progress has been steady, with repeated discussions and votes at the biennial assembly. Four years ago, a motion for inclusion failed. Two years ago, a similar resolution was approved by the assembly, but failed to gain the necessary ratification by local congregations. This year, the motion is up for a vote again. It is likely to pass again, probably with a bigger majority. The test, once again, will come with the push for local ratification. That will take time, but in the meantime, the size of the majority at assembly will give the first indication of the chances of success later this year. (Even if ratification  fails, I would think that any defeat would be only temporary. Full inclusion in the Presbyterian Church, following that already approved for the UU Association, United Congregational and ELCA churches, is only a matter of time.) For more detail on the Presbyterians (and ELCA), see the helpful fuller report by Olbie Holman at “Spirit of a Liberal“, or read the blow by blow reports at “More Light Presbyterians“.

The United Methodists have been following in much the same path as the Presbyterians, with a parallel effort on the ground by  the Reconciling Ministries Network to win over local congregations. I have been struggling to find any up to date information on the Methodists, except that the 2008 decision was to affirm the traditional stance to affirm the sacred worth of homosexual people, but to refuse approval of homosexual actions, or to ordain homosexual clergy. A decision last year to enter full communion with the ELCA will put some strain on that, but for now the agreement specifically excludes recognition of the ECLA openly gay clergy.

While the US Episcopalians’ debates have been over the controversial ordination of bishops, there has been very little reported on gay marriage in church, although there have been reports of some local jurisdictions going ahead and implementing same sex church weddings where state law allows it. In Canada, the Episcopalian balance is the reverse. There have been no openly gay bishops, but approval for same sex “blessings” (not full church weddings) could be close. I wasn’t aware of it previously, but at last national gathering of the Anglican Church of Canada, a majority of delegates  agreed to allow individual dioceses to allow church blessing of same  sex couples. The decision could not take effect though, as the requirement is for approval by separate majorities of each of the laity, clergy, and bishops. Laity and clergy voted in favour, but the bishops narrowly against. This year, the aim is to “defuse” the issue, which I take as code for allowing some compromise by the bishops after extensive discussion. I would expect approval to come. Later, I would expect local approval to expand nationally, and for acceptance of “blessings” to   broaden in time to include full marriage.

“This synod, we’re approaching it not so much from the form of a winner-takes-all resolution,” he said. “We’re approaching it from a kind of conversational route and hoping by the end of synod, after numerous conversations and meetings . . . that the synod may come up with a statement on where the church is on this matter.”

At the last national gathering in Winnipeg in 2007, a divided Anglican Church of Canada ultimately decided on a technicality not to give individual dioceses the right to decide for themselves whether priests should be allowed to bless same-sex unions.

The majority of the 300 delegates agreed to the idea, but church law requires separate majorities among priests, laity and bishops.

Priests and laity approved the change. However, Canada’s 40 bishops voted it down with a two-person majority, unleashing both outrage and sighs of relief.

Two dioceses have since interpreted the vote as a draw and are now blessing same sex unions, while others are considering the idea.

Read more:

In the UK, church recognition for openly gay bishops and church blessings will not happen yet, as they are still mired in the wider conflicts over women bishops and international controversies. However, unexpected progress on two other fronts could have a marked impact over the longer term. First, the controversy over women bishops earlier this year ended with clear and unqualified approval for women bishops, without any attempt to placate the misogynists with any kind of special provision for those unwilling to accept women (this had been part of an earlier compromise proposal). It will still take a while for this to come into effect, but as it does, the inevitable shift in the balance of participants in future discussions, as well as the moral example, will surely make it easier for future conferences to consider and approve movement on gay bishops, clergy and blessings. Another development this week will work in the same way. Totally unexpectedly, the decision has just been announced that in the future, divorced clergy will be eligible for nomination as bishops, which has been an absolute no-no.

This has angered some conservatives, but like the decision on women bishops, their defeat here will only weaken further their ability to hold on on LGBT inclusion.

Critics described the change in Church rules as “utterly unacceptable” and warned it would undermine the biblical teaching that marriage is for life.

(Read more)

So: in leading Protestant denominations, in Europe and in the US, progress has already been significant, with further progress confidently expected for this summer and the years immediately ahead. What of the Catholic church?  Well, we all know how actively they have lobbied in every legal battle over gay marriage, gay adoption, and especially anything that even appears to suggest abortion. However, for a really stark illustration of the contrast between the Catholic Church and those more firmly rooted in reality, we need to go to the other side of the world, where the bishops are locked in a titanic battle with government to forestall the expansion of access to  …………

Contraceptives!

Church leaders in the devoutly Catholic country immediately hit back at the plan, saying the state had no business to be talking to youngsters about sex.

“The students should not be taught … sexuality based on the physical aspect but as a gift from God,” said Monsignor Pedro Quitorio, a spokesman for the country’s Catholic bishops, adding that sex should be taught by parents.

Archbishop Oscar Cruz said that instead of sex, boys should be taught how to respect girls and women while girls should be taught self defence and how to avoid becoming victims of sexual abuse.

Go figure.

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