During its General Convention in
Seattle Indianapolis over the past week, the Episcopal Church agreed on wording for a national liturgy for blessing same-sex unions. This is welcome in intself, but should also be seen as part of a much broader - based movement to full LBGT inclusion in church, reflected both in marriage equality, and in equality in standards for ordination.
In addition to the progress by the US Episcopal Church, there have been notable advances by the Presbyterian Church in the USA, and in the UK, by the United Church and the Unitarians.
(Image is from Saturday's World Pride parade in London, showing two members of the Soho Masses LGBT Catholic congregation. I'm to their left, carrying a banner).
When Denmark passed marriage equality legislation in June, it specifically provided for gay marriage, in church. Although the law also provides that no pastor is obliged to officiate against the dictates of conscience, at a local level it's not always so simple. At least one congregation in advertising a new vacancy for a pastor, has stated in effect that candidates who are not willing to conduct gay marriages need not apply, Sweden and Iceland also have full marriage equality, for church as well as for secular weddings.
Elsewhere, the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalists in the USA permits local congregations to conduct same sex weddings (where permitted by law), and the Metropolitan Community Church conducts gay weddings wherever the law allows it to do so.
Also last week, the Presbyterian Church of the USA only narrowly failed to approve a changed that would have provided full marriage equality.
Civil Unions / Civil Partnerships
In the UK, the civil partnership legislation originally prohibited these on religious premises, to appease opposition from the major churches. However, prompted by strong lobbying from the Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Jews, that restriction was removed this year. The Unitarians have since begun the expensive process of registering their premises as venues for civil partnerships, and last week, the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church agreed that local churches could henceforth take their own local decisions on whether to conduct civil partnerships on church premises. Several local churches have already expressed their intention to take advantage of the new permission.
Across Northern Europe. a wide range of Lutheran, United and Reformed churches in Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands and Austria bless same-gender unions, but not full marriage.
In the US, blessings for same-sex unions are freely conducted by the ELCA (the largest Lutheran grouping), and by the MCC, the Unitarian Universalists and United Church where they do not yet offer full marriage.
Among the major denominations, the Catholic bishops' oligarchy still does not countenance any form of recognition for same-sex partnerships, civil or religious, and the Methodists in both the US and UK are formally prohibited from blessing civil unions - but here too, there is movement.
Several hundred Methodist clergy have publicly declared their willingness to ignore the church regulations and conduct marriages on a basis of full equality, and some have done so openly. There are even a few Catholic priests who have conducted gay weddings, privately and discreetly. Some bishops are now acknowledging that there is value in civil partnerships (reversing earlier opposition), and a few are even beginning to talk about appropriate ways to recognize these in church. Beyond the oligarchy, ordinary Catholics strongly support (civil) marriage equality.
There's a long way to go, but the progress made over the past 25 years has been extraordinary. From a time when the prospect of civil marriage for gay or lesbian couples
appeared inconceivable, we are rapidly approaching a point, at least in North America and Europe, that in any sizeable town where several denominations are represented, there will be at least one church where LGBT couples can make their loving commitments public, in full marriage, in civil unions, or by simple blessings (where civil law lags behind).
This matters, for LGBT people of faith and for unbelievers alike. When churches celebrate same-sex partnerships in marriage or by blessing civil unions, the argument for opposition to marriage equality in the name of religion is seriously undermined. Where openly LGBT clergy in committed partnerships are seen to be leading congregations, young gay teens will not be burdened by by the internalized homophobia that used to burden every LGBT kid growing up in a religious household or school, and bullies will have a tougher time justifying their actions as required by religious conviction.
Religious or not, we should all welcome the steady expansion of LGBT inclusion in church - and look forward with confidence to the next 25 years.