Why the churches will not influence the same-sex marriage vote

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(Cartoon by Mark David /@MDavidCartoons)

Unthinkable just ten years ago, many religious leaders in Australia are now actively campaigning for a "Yes" vote in the same-sex marriage postal ballot.

Historically, virtually all faiths have opposed any relaxing of laws relating to homosexuality. That "condition", they have long claimed, is a “sinful lifestyle choice”, or “intrinsically disordered”, or an “abomination”.

No longer is this the case. Earlier this month, 500 religious leaders and academics sent an open letter to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull urging the Parliament to accept marriage equality as a matter of social justice.

Signatories ranged from the Uniting Church, Anglican, Catholic, Salvation Army, Baptist, Quaker, Lutheran, Congregational, Pentecostal, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, Muslim and Hindu communities.

They do not represent all members of their faiths, of course, and it is difficult to assess the levels of support or opposition or indecision today.

Dr Margaret Mayman of Sydney’s Pitt Street Uniting Church believes those in support are now a majority:

"I call on Australian politicians to listen to the voices of people of faith, a majority of whom support marriage equality. We call for a free vote. We remind politicians that this is a civil issue that does not affect religious beliefs and practices."

Diminished authority

It seems unlikely the faith communities will have any decisive impact on the vote over the next few weeks, for two reasons.

The first is that leaders of faith communities have lost enormous respect over recent decades following revelations of sexual abuse by many of them. Authority and credibility of priests and prelates are not what they once were on matters of personal – especially sexual – morality.

The second is much more intriguing. A profound reformation is underway across all faiths worldwide on how sexual orientation should be understood and how the ancient texts should be interpreted in light of this fresh knowledge. This is causing widespread friction, tension, anxiety, anger, excitement, elation and celebration.

Historic upheavals

Reformations this deep are rare. The big ones have some things in common.

A parallel debate raged in the 1500s over the structure of the solar system.

Around 1539, notable church reformer Martin Luther was certain of the truth, which had been held unswervingly by faithful believers for millennia:

'There is talk of a new astrologer who wants to prove that the earth moves and goes around instead of the sky, the sun, the moon … The fool wants to turn the whole art of astronomy upside-down. However, as Holy Scripture tells us, so did Joshua bid the sun to stand still and not the earth.'

(Source: Louis W Perry, Thank Evolution for God)

Not long after, that view completely changed. Similar reconsiderations have occurred since then on the age of the earth, the size of the universe, schizophrenia versus demon possession, illnesses caused by viruses or evil spirits, and the inherent inferiority of women and dark-skinned races.

Learnings from the sciences

Each of these revelations from science – what theologians refer to as "general revelation" – have forced a re-reading of the scriptures: "special revelation".

Today, human physiology and psychology are confirming that non-heterosexual orientations are normal, healthy, unchosen, unchangeable, non-contagious, confined to a discrete percentage of the population and pose no threat to anyone.

Zoology is revealing that this is the situation in most gregarious animal and bird societies, and that the percentages of same-sex and bisexual couples are remarkably constant. The precise evolutionary function of the different orientations is not fully understood, but adoption of orphaned offspring is common.

Anthropology and archaeology are proving there have been same-sex relationships in virtually all communities throughout history. Church history is showing that Christian and other faith communities have consecrated same-sex unions at various times. Biblical scholarship is finding there are indeed approved same-sex unions in the Hebrew Tanakh and the Christian Bible.

Linguistic scholars are looking afresh at the original Judaeo-Christian texts and discovering that they do not, in fact, condemn all same-sex behaviour. Yes, they prohibit homosexual rape, temple prostitution and other coercive or abusive acts. But not faithful, committed, life-long unions.

Simultaneously, churches that have welcomed gay couples into membership and leadership report their communities enriched by their inclusion.

Faith groups celebrating gay marriage

Churches worldwide that now celebrate same-sex unions, with varying levels of residual internal resistance, include the United and Anglican Churches of Canada, the Church of England, the United Reformed Church in the UK, the Uniting Church in Australia, the Church of Denmark, The Protestant Church of France, most Lutheran, United and Reformed churches in Germany, the Episcopal Church in the USA and the Scottish Episcopal Church, just since June this year.

Other faith groups that consecrate same-sex unions in some places include the liberal strands of Judaism and most Buddhist and Hindu traditions. While Islam does not yet approve same-sex relationships, dialogue and debate are underway.

Gosford Anglican Church's Fr Rod Bower announces he will be voting "Yes" (source: Facebook).

Impact in Australia

Given all this, it seems unlikely religious views will influence the forthcoming vote either way.

Yes, some loud voices such as the Australian Christian Lobby’s Lyle Shelton will argue passionately for a "No" vote. So will most of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. But not all. Others, such as the world-famous billboard priest at Gosford Anglican Church, Fr Rod Bower, will urge an enthusiastic "Yes" vote.

The majority, including Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide Philip Wilson and Lutheran Bishop John Henderson, have opted for respectful public neutrality.

In another decade or so, most people of faith may well wonder why – as with accepting the shape of the solar system – it took so long.

Copy of open letter to Malcolm Turnbull signed by 500 religious leaders (Source: gaystarnews.com).

You can follow Alan Austin on Twitter @AlanAustin001.

Original cartoon by Mark David is published with permission. You can see more cartoons from Mark on his website Mark David Cartoons or follow him on Twitter @mdavidcartoons.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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