A church married to the wrong side of history
After the attack on the Twin Towers in September 2001, the evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell took some time to tell his fellow Americans that homosexuals (along with abortionists, feminists and pagans) were at least in part to blame. “I point my finger in their face,” he said, “and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”
Later, in a “did I say that?” moment, he apologized.
It was a low moment, but not an unusual one. Falwell is in the hate-filled corner of the religious spectrum. But even those religious leaders at the mild and inclusive end must, more in sorrow than in anger, generally tell gay men and women that as much as they respect them, they can’t officiate at their marriages. That’s a bridge over too-troubled waters.
This past Christmas time has been an active one for those in the Catholic Church concerned that legislation in both France and the UK to permit gay marriage will hollow out their faith. In a pre-Christmas address to fellow Vatican officials, Benedict XVI called for all faiths to come together against a practice that would cancel out the “authentic setting in which to hand on the blueprint for human existence.”
Picking up, more mildly, the theme from his Holy Father, the leader of Catholics in England and Wales, Archbishop Vincent Nichols, said that creativity lay in the bond between husband and wife, and claimed in a BBC interview that the Conservative-led government had no mandate for legislation permitting gay marriage, now being brought forward. In Scotland, Nichols’ brother in Christ, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, argued that same-sex marriage was “a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right.”
They don’t hold a candle, however, to the viciousness of their brethren elsewhere – both in Christ and out of him. Victor Tonye Bakot, the Catholic Archbishop of Yaounde, in the central African state of Cameroon, put a harder spin on the Pope’s message on Christmas Day, arguing at a mass that homosexual marriage was “a serious crime against humanity.” In a reporting trip to Uganda some years ago to write about the rapid spread of evangelical churches, I found that many of the pastors were consumed with what they saw as a pervasive, deadly threat – and have put strong pressure on President Yoweri Museveni, whose wife is an evangelical Christian, to pass stronger laws against the “plague.” The pressure worked: A law that includes life imprisonment in some cases (and had initially included the death penalty) is in front of the parliament now. Discovery of a gay relationship can be – and has been – the subject of a death sentence in Iran; in Egypt, where there are no laws explicitly banning homosexuality, those who are open, or are discovered, can face charges like “debauchery” and are imprisoned for years.
But there’s more movement forward than back now. More and more countries, and states within federal countries, are legalizing same-sex marriage. They include the Netherlands, Sweden, Argentina, South Africa and nine U.S. states plus Washington DC. In China, gay activists gather larger constituencies, and the argument for permitting marriage is heard even in the National Peoples’ Congress, from the prominent sociologist Li Yinhe. There is much prejudice in Russia, but no criminal sanctions, and as in China, the gay lobbies are strengthening, if often in adversity. The Indian law criminalizing homosexual relations was struck down by the Delhi High Court in 2009. When the country’s Supreme Court heard a series of appeals against the law’s decriminalization last February, its judgment was, to put it succinctly, live with it.
Even in Uganda, rights are inching forward. A New Yorker profile of the Ugandan gay activist Frank Mugisha showed a man much harassed by politicians and the press (in October 2010, a local tabloid called Rolling Stone outed him and “100 of Uganda’s top homos,” with the helpful injunction: “Hang them”) but able to work, to proselytize, and able even to get an apology from the chief of police in the capital, Kampala, for wrongful arrests at a Gay Pride march.
In 2012, Gene Robinson, the gay U.S. Episcopalian bishop who more than any other in the religious world put the issue of gay marriage at the center of religious controversy, published his book God Believes in Love. It concluded that “being gay was no better and no worse than being straight. … I was a child of God.” In the same year, Justin Lee, founder and director of the Gay Christian Network, published Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays vs. Christians Debate. Both books are notable for their confidence and their calm acceptance of both their own natures, and the need for the Christian churches to follow them in their acceptance.
Robinson is retiring this month. His insistence on being openly gay and a bishop was endorsed by the U.S. Episcopalian church – though not by the Anglican communion worldwide, and it caused many in the United States to align themselves with a conservative current in Anglicanism, most common in Africa. His credo – that God’s love encompasses all forms of sexuality – chimes with increasing numbers of the religious everywhere, especially the young. Through polemics and with courage, he has made a difference.
Two problems remain. The churches have defined marriage unambiguously as the union of a man and a woman, with the large purpose of procreation. In the Anglican marriage service, the priest says something like “it is given, that as man and woman grow together in love and trust, they should be united with one another in mind, body and heart as Christ is united with his bride, the Church.” To alter a rite that puts a human union in such a divine frame is not just to “modernize,” but to dynamite a structure of belief and custom. In that sense, the chaste old men are right: This is a siege, and they must be on the ramparts with the boiling oil.
But the larger problem is for the church. If tolerance is now the largest civic good in an increasing number of societies, intolerance – no matter how well founded in scripture – seems at best an irrelevance, and more often bigotry. All religions aspire to a monopoly of morality; none can now achieve it except, in some societies and through violence, Islamists.
In secular societies of the Christian tradition, the churches have had to adapt to a series of rearguard actions against the habits and pleasures of consumer societies. This one is a major battle. Losing this – as presently they are – means what (considerable) influence they still have over the most intimate part of human life is dramatically reduced. This past Christmas saw a Catholic counterattack. But the siege hasn’t been lifted, and there are ever more barbarians at the gate.
PHOTO: Pope Benedict XVI conducts a Eucharist service in the southwest German town of Freiburg, September 25, 2011. Pope Benedict said on Saturday the Catholic Church could not accept gay marriage and urged young people to root out evil in society and shun a “lukewarm” faith that damages their Church. REUTERS/Max Rossi