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Same sex marriage: Churches must live with the new reality or wilt further

By Liam Clarke

Published 28/05/2015

Yes voters celebrate the same-sex marriage referendum result in Dublin last week
Yes voters celebrate the same-sex marriage referendum result in Dublin last week

It is no secret that I support changing the law to allow same-sex couples to get married. I didn't always think that way. Basically, I was convinced by the success of civil partnerships. The sky did not fall and overall the change seemed to add to human happiness.

Things generally look different when you have relatives and friends who are LGBT, but particularly relatives. For most people nowadays, the effect of a child or sibling "coming out" is to make you feel supportive. We saw many such stories in the southern media. You tend to think "it is still the same person" not "how dare you".

The more homosexuality has come into the open, the more attitudes have changed. Belfast Pride is now a big event in its own right, whereas news coverage of it used to focus on the dwindling band of protesters.

My predominant feeling is that gay people face enough challenges - suicide rates are high because of social censure and bullying - and that we should do as much as possible to show that they are equal and welcome.

Strange, then, that I found myself nodding in agreement with Dr Diarmuid Martin, the Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, after the overwhelming majority to change Ireland's marriage law in last week's referendum.

Dr Martin had said he was voting No and the Church hierarchy threw all they had into opposing the change. They even threatened to stop carrying out the civil part of any marriage ceremony if the change went ahead.

Politically, this was a bad mistake. Putting the same message across in a fresher, trendier way is unlikely to work either, the direction in which opinion is moving is too clear. The Church lost too badly to hope to fight back and win using the same tactics. Dr Martin did the next best; he learned from the mistake.

"We (the Church) have to stop and have a reality check, not move into denial of the realities," he said. "I appreciate how gay and lesbian men and women feel on this day. That they feel this is something that is enriching the way they live. I think it is a social revolution."

He didn't say he would change his teaching, but it is a start; a realistic perspective from which respectful dialogue can begin.

The next stage for him may be to realise that it is not just the young who are thinking about this issue.

The Association of Catholic Priests estimates that about a third of clergy in the Republic voted Yes to same-sex marriage, and it got a majority in every constituency except one.

Two Church of Ireland bishops also came out strongly in favour of same-sex marriage: the Bishop of Cork, Dr Paul Colton, and the Bishop of Cashel, the Rt Rev Michael Burrows.

Religious opinion is diverse and it changes in the light of new information. There are plenty of people in all the Churches who see that they can and should build a role in our society without holding the whip hand on how other people should live their lives. Belief can debate with doubt, not just preach to it.

The Rev Lesley Carroll, the Presbyterian minister at Fortwilliam, is one of many clerics with vision. She talked on the BBC of the need to take account of "the real-life experiences of people who haven't felt they were of equal standing in society and weren't taken seriously" as well as "the real-life experience of people of faith".

Now is the time to let things settle. We can take a little time to see how same-sex marriage goes in the Republic and elsewhere in the UK and then we can look at it again with better information.

If Stormont survives until the autumn, we could start now by giving full recognition of marriages carried out elsewhere in the UK and Ireland.

That should save some court costs when the inevitable legal challenges come in.

Belfast Telegraph

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