The Church and Same-Sex Marriage

By Lyndon Barnett

Tremendous support for same-sex marriage was displayed on Saturday August 13. In Sydney, hundreds gathered at Taylor Square to hear various high-profile speakers before marching along Oxford Street to Hyde Park. Similar rallies of support were held in Melbourne, Brisbane, Hobart and Perth.

The rallies coincided with the anniversary of the Federal Senate passing the Marriage Amendment Act 2004. This Act defined marriage as between a man and a woman, and also stated that marriage ceremonies conducted overseas between same-sex partners were not recognised in Australia. While same-sex marriage was never legally possibly, the Federal Government had passed an Act that outlawed recognition.

The focus of the rally was on legislative change. The campaign aimed to over-turn the Marriage Amendment Act and also advocated legislation permitting same-sex marriage in Australia. Such legislation would create greater equality for gay and lesbian couples.

In Australia there are three avenues for marriage as legislated in the Marriage Act 1961: in a religious setting, civil ceremony with a marriage celebrant and at the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. For complete equality, gay and lesbian couples should have the choice of which method they choose for their marriage.

In the case of a commercial civil celebrant and the government sponsored Registry there would be no imposition for same-sex couples to be married with the appropriate legislation.

In the case of a religious service, the church and the Ministers would also have to agree to hold the wedding. It is quite feasible that the legislation could be passed and yet the Priest at the chosen church would not perform a same-sex marriage, as homosexuality is not recognised in that particular church.

Hillsong, a Pentecostal branch of Christianity considers homosexuality a sin, and believes that it is impossible to be both homosexual and a Christian. That being said, Anthony Venn-Brown is the first openly gay man to be a member of Hillsong with the Waterloo Church. A former Leader with the Assemblies of God, Mr Venn-Brown has written his autobiography, A Life of Unlearning, explaining his twenty-two years living a closeted life within the church.

Mr Venn-Brown is challenging the traditional church doctrines from within the organisation. He is using discussion and education to change the attitudes of the conservative thinkers. Mr Venn-Brown recently contacted the founder of the Hills Christian Life Centre, Brian Houston to open a dialogue. In an unprecedented move, Mr Houston has agreed to meet with Mr Venn-Brown to discuss the issues of homosexuality and the church. “Such an invitation would not have happened ten years ago,” says Mr Venn-Brown, “It demonstrates that the views are changing slowly.”

“I believe acceptance of homosexuality within Hillsong may take thirty years. Full equality in Hillsong would be for an openly gay or lesbian to be ordained. The church to permit same-sex marriage should potentially take somewhere within that thirty year period,” says Mr Venn-Brown.

There has been debate surrounding same-sex marriage in the progressive Synagogues of Australia for several years. Twice a year Rabbis of reform Synagogues, or Moetza as the Rabbis are collectively known meet to discuss Jewish policy. The Jewish Gay support group, Dayenu made a presentation to the Moetza in 2000 to open the debate on same-sex ceremonies. Judy Kell, who was part of the team that made the presentation, said that the Rabbi’s felt the congregants needed further education so that Jewish community would accept same-sex ceremonies. In 2001, Ms Kell and her team organised a year’s program on gay and lesbian issues to educate the community. “The program we put together was very well attended and a great success. Dayenu feels that we have been educating the community for a considerable time now,” says Ms Kell.

The current official line according to Rabbi Fred Morgan from Temple Beth Israel in Melbourne is that, “we (the Moetza) are committed to further study and learning in this area, and we regularly revisit the issue at our biannual meetings.” A source close to the Moetza believes that the Rabbis are shifting their views in favour of same-sex recognition. The next meeting is scheduled for November 2005.

If the Moetza agree in essence to relationship recognition then it would be up to the discretion of the individual Rabbi whether to perform the ceremony or not. It is highly conceivable that Synagogues with several Rabbis may only have one Rabbi prepared to officiate. The service could also only take place if both individuals were Jewish.

In America, reform Rabbis have been officiating over same-sex ceremonies since the early 1990’s. A Rabbi in New York married Kerryn Phelps and Jackie Stricker in 1998. Ms Phelps and Ms Stricker are members of the Sydney Temple Emanuel, where they are recognised as a family unit when dealing with the synagogue. The anniversary of their commitment ceremony is acknowledged each year. Should the Moetza allow same-sex marriage then Ms Phelps and Ms Stricker would be able to have a ceremony in Sydney, and should the government pass legislation then they could have a third ceremony to be recognised in the eyes of the state.

Traditional orthodox synagogues do not currently recognise homosexuality and therefore would not permit same-sex couples to be married under their huppa.

In Sydney, the Catholic equivalent of reform Synagogues is the United Ecumenical Catholic Church. Archbishop Ron Langham describes his church as a contemporary Catholic Church open to all people. “We worship in the same fashion as Rome without the restrictions that come from Rome,” says Bishop Langham.

“If anybody rang me up tomorrow I would be more than happy to be involved in same-sex commitment ceremony. We believe same-sex relationships are as valid and sacramental as heterosexual relationships. Similarly, if the legislation was passed I would be more than happy to perform same-sex marriages.”

The Ecumenical’s progressive views are in stark contrast to the doctrines from Rome, which considers homosexuality a sin. “We are not interested in getting into a bun fight with other churches over their beliefs,” says Bishop Langham, “We respect other’s rights to believe.”

Bishop Langham conducted the first wedding in Australia in 2002 between two individuals who had both undergone transgender operation. “This was only possible because the Government had failed to consider this legislative loophole.”