— Advances in accepting same-sex unions within religious communities are causing both delight and despair.
By Alan Austin
ANGLICANS WERE shocked and excited in mid-November – either that or shocked and appalled – when the Church of England’s governing body narrowly voted to approve church services to bless same-sex civil unions. The church will continue, however, to reserve the term “marriage” for unions between one man and one woman.
The global Anglican community comprises about 85 million adherents in 165 countries. So this is a significant breakthrough within Christendom.
This immediately followed the conservative Orthodox Jewish community in the USA appointing an openly gay man as a rabbi for the first time ever.
And in a development which might make even hardened atheists ponder whether some guiding hand was at work, the head of the vast Roman Catholic church, Pope Francis, announced in mid-December that Catholic priests can now bless same-sex couples also.
The wording of the Vatican decision – in a Declaration titled ‘Fiducia Supplicans On the Pastoral Meaning of Blessings’ – was careful. The church is not consecrating, or even approving, the union itself. It is just a blessing to the two people involved.
The declaration does not oblige bishops to provide such blessings, but shows how to proceed if people request them.
This apparently satisfies the rigid text of the Catholic catechism, which still describes gay and bi orientations as “intrinsically disordered”, but offers LGBTQ couples a celebration in church, which straight couples have always received.
These developments bring the three conservative religious communities more into line with the majority of Protestant churches and progressive Jewish communities which have welcomed same-sex couples for some time.
Inevitably, reactions have ranged from joy and jubilation to approving nods signalling “about time!” to outright condemnation as heresy and apostasy, which are very bad words inside churches and synagogues.
Conservative Anglican Andrea Williams said:
“This is capitulation by the church… It is making way for the celebration of ‘same-sex marriage’ in all but name… the Church of England is planning to completely disregard the bible’s teaching on marriage.”
“I am under no illusions that what we are proposing will appear to go too far for some and not nearly far enough for others, but it is my hope that what we have agreed will be received in a spirit of generosity, seeking the common good.”
The Catholic backlash has been ferocious, with bishops in Africa and beyond declaring they will simply ignore the new Vatican policy. Bishop Athanasius Schneider in Kazakhstan called the decision a “great deception” and warned of “the evil that resides in the very permission to bless couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples”. A bit harsh.
A long and complex journey
Opponents of the reform claim this defies all Judeo-Christian history. That is not true.
Kittredge Cherry is an author who writes about LGBTQ spirituality at Qspirit.net. She told IA that Pope Francis approving official blessings last month was the first time in centuries, but not the first time ever.
“The Roman Catholic church is coming full circle because before the 14th Century they used to bless same-sex unions,” Cherry said. “This is monumental progress, but the Roman Catholic church still has a long way to go before they honour same-sex marriages as a sacrament equal to heterosexual marriages. With violence rising against LGBTQ people, churches need to support loving same-sex relationships now!”
Why this matters
The violence Cherry references is one reason this development is important to the secular world as well as to church members. Religious beliefs are highly influential in most of the 66 countries where laws still punish LGBTQ activity, sometimes with death. This is down from 74 in 2018 and 71 in 2020, so progress is being made.
Impetus from scholarship and real-life
Recent background includes priests and bishops in Germany, Austria and France openly defying previous bans by celebrating LGBTQ unions in their churches. That led conservative bishops to demand the Pope shut this down. Instead, he has offered approval.
At the core of this reform is the understanding from the sciences that same-sex and bisexual orientations are not sinful choices. They are found in virtually all human, animal and bird societies, at around four per cent of the population, and are just as natural, normal, healthy and God-given as straight orientation.
Cherry believes multiple factors are in play:
The forces for change include participation of same-sex couples in church life and ministry, LGBTQ activism that led many countries to legalize same-sex marriage, and advances in understanding the positive role of queer people in the Bible and church history.
Social attitudes have evolved toward greater acceptance of same-sex relationships, especially among younger generations, so attitudes are becoming more pro-LGBTQ over time.
Progressives like Cherry are pursuing further reform. They hope the “intrinsically disordered” terminology will soon disappear from the catechism. The next chance to advance this will be at the Synod – the global Catholic conference – at the Vatican in October.
“Holy havoc may erupt at the next Synod because progress is often followed by backlash,” Cherry said. “Conservative bishops have strongly rejected the Pope’s approval of same-sex blessings, and LGBTQ Catholics are already planning to push for more progress. The clash of opposing viewpoints will bring a powerful opportunity for change.”
This tussle will continue for some time yet. But there will be no going back.
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