Belfast Telegraph

Same-sex marriage an inevitability, but Christian blessing a long way off

By Alf McCreary

On his first visit to Northern Ireland the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was telling us something that even the dogs in the street know, namely that it is only a matter of time before same-sex marriage here becomes a reality.

I have predicted this for many months, and the churches who are resolutely opposed to same-sex marriage should be preparing themselves now for this important development.

People on all sides should also prepare themselves for a post-Brexit situation where anything could happen to Northern Ireland, if our devolved administration which cannot run itself is finally abandoned.

Mr Varadkar's visit here last weekend has dropped off the radar temporarily, but we should not forget how astonishingly different it was from visits by other Irish premiers.

Not long ago it would have been unthinkable that the first openly gay Taioseach would visit Belfast and rightly criticise the UK Government about its lack of clarity on Brexit, and the next day go out of his way to back the large Pride demonstration by gay, lesbian and transgender activists.

This simply could not have happened during the premierships of such leaders as Garret FitzGerald or Charles Haughey

Same-sex relationships and civil partnerships are enshrined in law and, rightly or wrongly, same-sex marriage will be legalised here. DUP politicians and others may rant and rave, but they will be made to face reality.

The mainstream churches have long voiced their total opposition to same-sex marriage, and a change in the law is hardly likely to alter those views. Just because something has a strong populist lobby, it does not mean that it is necessarily right, but same-sex marriage seems set to become law, and possibly sooner rather than later. In practical terms, however, that may not greatly alter the position for the churches, unless clergy are obliged by law to officiate at same-sex marriages and to give a Christian blessing.

This, so far, has not been the intention of those who push for the legal recognition of same-sex marriage but there are voices in Scandinavia who want Christian clergy to officiate at such unions.

This would be an unholy coercion of those who in conscience have a deep Biblically-based opposition to same-sex marriage, but in this increasingly secular world you never know what might happen.

The present position is clear, and it was neatly outlined at the recent Presbyterian Assembly in June. Ordained Presbyterian ministers are expressly forbidden to take part in a same-sex marriage ceremony of any kind, and this is unlikely to alter. The same applies to the other Reformed churches, although the broad picture is changing.

This summer, the Episcopal Church in Scotland voted by a narrow majority to support same-sex marriage, and the Scottish Presbyterians may follow in due course.

The Scottish General Assembly has appointed yet another committee to consider the issue, but the foot-dragging has gone on long enough, and the conservatives may finally be out-voted - particularly in a Scotland which is keen to show how different it is from England.

The Church of Ireland is also experiencing great difficulties on this issue.

At its recent General Synod it received a report which took several years to produce, and which in the end failed to give any kind of lead. It merely handed the problem back to the House of Bishops, and it remains to be seen what they can do.

The Church of England has a strong pro-gay/lesbian lobby but it is unlikely that its General Synod will support same-sex marriage in the foreseeable future. This is partly in deference to Archbishop Dr Justin Welby who is struggling to keep the worldwide Anglican communion from finally splitting on this vexatious issue.

Already the conservative Archbishop of Uganda has said he will not attend the next Lambeth Conference.

In the meantime we can expect this argument to continue during the long run-up to the churches' annual gatherings next spring.

Mr Varadkar was right in stating the obvious about the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, but a church blessing for these unions in still a long way off - if ever.

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