Looked at internationally, what’s the status of churches’ policies on the same-sex issue in the wake of the United Methodists’ important decision on this February 26?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
You may have read that in late February the 12.6-million-member United Methodist Church held a special General Conference in St. Louis, seeking to settle its painful conflict over the gay-and-lesbian issue and avert a split. The delegates decided by 53 percent to support and strengthen the denomination’s longstanding ban against same-sex marriages and clergy living in such relationships.
Though U.S. bishops, officials, and academics had advocated leeway on gays, the vote was not a shock. A 2015 poll by the denomination found 54 percent of U.S. pastors and 54 percent of lay leaders (though only 41 percent of lay members over-all) favored keeping the traditional policy. Another poll of U.S. members, released just before the St. Louis conference, showed 44 percent identify as conservative or traditional in belief, 28 percent as moderate or centrist, and only 20 percent as progressive or liberal.
Moreover, United Methodism is a multinational denomination whose U.S. component has declined and now claims only 55 percent of the global membership. The congregations in Africa and Asia are growing, and that buttresses the traditionalist side. Unlike the Methodists, most “mainline” Protestant groups in North America and western Europe that recently liberalized on the same-sex issue had no foreigners casting ballots.
International bonds have always been central in Christianity. Currently, conservative and evangelical Protestants in North America, including a faction within liberalizing “mainline” groups, are united in sexual traditionalism with most of the Protestant and indigenous churches in Africa, Asia, the Mideast, eastern Europe and Latin America. Add in Catholicism and Orthodoxy, and the vast majority of the world’s Christians belong to churches that have always opposed gay and lesbian relationships.
This broad Christian consensus results from thousands of years of scriptures, interpretations, and traditions. This is the context for the West’s serious clash of conscience — between believers in that heritage versus religious and secular gay-rights advocates — that confronts government, politicians, educators, judges, journalists, and ordinary citizens.
Another reality is that religious change occurs slowly and this question is relatively new. The U.S. Supreme Court only legalized same-sex marriage in 2015, after several North American religious bodies had changed their thinking:
— In Reform Judaism, the faith’s liberal branch, as recently as 1983 an official rabbinical anthology stated “there is no question that Scripture considers homosexuality to be a grave sin.” But in 1996 the rabbinate supported gay marriage as a civil matter, though distinguished this from Jewish marriage. The current standard from 2000 still avoids the “marriage” word but supports rabbis who provide an “appropriate Jewish ritual” to affirm same-sex couples, and equally supports rabbis who remain opposed.
— In 2003, the U.S. Episcopal Church consecrated its first bishop living in a same-sex partnership. Only in 2015 did the U.S. denomination drop a church law that defined marriage as between a man and a woman and provide wedding rituals for same-sex couples. This July, the Anglican Church of Canada will consider authorization for same-sex weddings. The result has been a division within the international Anglican Communion, whose bishops will again confront the problem at a conference next year.
— In 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to permit pastors and lay officials who live in “lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships.” Some local congregations have offered same-gender weddings.
— The Presbyterian Church in 2011 ratified a constitutional revision to remove a ban on clergy and lay officers who are unwed yet sexually active — whether gay or straight. Then new language approved in 2015 defines marriage as “between two people, traditionally a man and a woman,” thus allowing same-sex weddings.
Those three “mainline” Protestant policy changes caused breakaways by conservatives. For the foreseeable future, there’s no prospect that global Catholicism or Orthodoxy will reconsider. But western Protestants persist in their decades-long debate, so here’s a quick summary of some of the arguments:
Liberals say “love” is Jesus’ sole overarching commandment and that requires openness to couples who identify as gay or lesbian. Conservatives say there are other moral absolutes, and note that all biblical references to same-sex behavior are negative, whether in the Old Testament (see Leviticus 18:22) or New Testament (e.g. Romans 1:24-27).
Continue reading “What’s the status of church policies on gays?”, by Richard Ostling.