Evangelicals & Gay Rights in Ireland: Evangelical Alliance’s Surprise Support for Civil Partnerships Bill

image One issue that is sure to bring Christian voices out in the public sphere is gay rights. The overwhelming impression that one gets is that Christians are opposed to extending gay rights, particularly when it comes to marriage or civil partnerships.

A surprising exception to this has been the Evangelical Alliance in the Republic of Ireland (EAI). In December, EAI published a document, endorsed by its General Director Sean Mullan, which essentially supported the bill that is still being debated in the Irish parliament (the Dail).

EAI’s position is in contrast to what has been heard from the Irish Catholic Church. Speaking this morning on BBC Radio Ulster’s Sunday Sequence, Fr. Tim Bartlett gave what is the familiar Catholic position: civil partnerships devalue marriage. The rest of the argument that is usually given is that civil partnerships are not good for children, not good for society, etc. etc.

Further, the Sunday Sequence segment noted that the Irish Catholic Church has been relatively silent about the debate on civil partnerships, in contrast to the very public stands it took in the past on issues such as abortion and divorce. This may be yet another sign of the Catholic Church’s plummeting moral authority in Ireland.

EAI’s position also is in contrast to that taken by the Iona Institute, whose ‘director David Quinn suggested adding a provision to the Bill to allow people to opt out of “facilitating” same-sex civil unions on conscience grounds.’ Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern has since rejected a freedom of conscience clause.

In its original statement, EAI said,

‘The Bill does not directly challenge the traditional understanding of marriage in Ireland. It is a piece of civil legislation that establishes a new form of civil relationship under law. The Bill does not deal with religious matters.’

It then advised evangelical Christians to back the bill, saying,

We suggest that evangelical Christians should support the basic thrust of the bill. The Government is seeking to legislate for greater justice and fairness for co-habiting couples, both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. As Christians we should support that stance. Co-habiting couples are a reality – this legislation seeks to deal with that reality from a legal perspective. We may disagree on the detail of the legislation but as followers of a just and compassionate God we can recognise the justice and fairness of providing some legal protection for the reality of both same-sex and opposite-sex cohabiting couples.

EAI’s stance provoked fierce debate within evangelicalism in the Republic, as is reflected in the organisation’s recent reflection document. This ranges from those praising EAI for a sensible response to those accusing it of loving the world more than it loves God.

A small flavour of this debate can be tasted in the discussion forum around the topic for the evangelical magazine, Vox.

In an insightful post on the Vox debate, ‘Mark’ writes,

Well as a gay person who seems to be on the end of a never-ending barrage of abuse, judgement or misunderstanding from people of various religious backgrounds, I welcome the EAI’s stance on this. As Evangelicals in Ireland, I have no doubt you too have an intimate understanding of what it means to be a minority here, and the challenges such status brings to your community. An Ireland where all minorities are given protection and equality is an Ireland we can all be proud of.

Thanks for not standing in the way of this Bill, and I hope that the fears of those still opposed to it are answered by the results it bears going into the future.

I think Mark is right when he says that evangelicals’ perspective as a small minority in the Republic explains EAI’s sensitivity on the civil partnerships issue. But I think that’s a partial explanation.

EAI’s argument is grounded in the idea that Christians no longer possess moral, cultural or political power in Ireland, and therefore they are not in a position to have their views reflected in the laws of the state. But this loss of influence is not something that EAI is lamenting.

Rather, I have a hunch that EAI’s position is  rooted in Anabaptist-inspired ideas that celebrate pluralism, and yearn for the separation of church and state so that everyone (religious or otherwise) is free to get on with living how they best see fit.

Yet EAI also earnestly believes that Christians have something special to offer to public debates. With this contribution on civil partnerships, EAI has done just that.

John Stackhouse, a well-known evangelical scholar and professor of theology at Regent College in Vancouver, offers this analysis of the EAI position,

This brief is one of the most intelligent and wise statements of this sort I have ever read. Clearly borne out of deep Christian conviction, it offers both realism and hope as it articulates a more difficult, but more helpful, alternative to the easy extremes.

(Photo: Sean Mullan, from the EAI website)

14 thoughts on “Evangelicals & Gay Rights in Ireland: Evangelical Alliance’s Surprise Support for Civil Partnerships Bill”

  1. There is a reason why Christianity has little or no moral power in Ireland. Wheen we entrusted the Christian churches they have abused that trust, not just the catholic church but all christian churches have failed to live up to their biling. I hear you saying, “even priests and minsters are only human”, but that was not always the case. The church and its ministers continually placed themselves above us, they looked down upon us, they knew best they were our moral barrometer. Worse is that we allowed them this power and we did not check or challenge. Now with abuse allegations, extra matital relationhips, financial irregularities and legal investigation, we see they have feet of clay.

  2. Does the “powers that be” (political policy makers) need the thumbs up from the church to make laws? Does the gay community need the blessing of the church to carry on their agenda? no and again no! The church has lost its salt and light dynamic, and until it lives it’s agenda, it is pitiful in it’s attempts to lead people in righteousness!!!

  3. Some interesting reflections Gladys. The EAI Statement was significantly influenced by the current perception in Ireland – at least south of the border – that when churches engage in the political process it is for the purpose of getting everyone to behave the way the churches think they should. We now know not even the church was behaving the way it said everyone else should. The resulting loss of respect for Christians engaging in the political process is profound. We need to develop a new model of engagement that addresses this changed context. It needs to be shaped by both gospel-thinking and by the models that others have left us. The “fierce” debate about this issue has probably been a very helpful start.

  4. Sean Thanks for your comments but do you not think that we are living in a political and religious vacuum in regard to good leadership. There are no “I have a dream” type people who inspire “truth laden” direction. “Man does what seems right in his own eyes…” I see that in your comment you refer to “perception” of what the church is thinking! A dangerous source if you ask me surly evangelicals should be lead by the truth of God’s word making it a standard rather than the perception out there!!

  5. Thanks Sean and Patrick — your comments give me some assurance I have represented the EAI position correctly.

    Wesley, I don’t think Sean is saying the churches should be led by the ‘perception’ of the churches that is out there. I think Sean is merely stating what the perception is. Coincidentally, Philip’s comment confirms that ‘perception’, the perception that the churches have been rather self-serving and hypocritical.

  6. “The EAI Statement was significantly influenced by the current perception in Ireland” (direct quote from former post). Maybe I misread the post Sean made, but the above statement seems clear in that a significant part of the E.A.I Statement is based on the current perception in Ireland. I would ask for some clarification therefore as to whose perception, people in general or that of the church? (This will have a bearing on my former statement) If EAI is simply the conduit through which “the church” voices it’s opinion, then that is fine, but if EAI is seeking to give some direction and lead to the churches in making this statement, then I think it lacks an “evangelical” stand point. They are in danger of falling between two chairs, and left holding the baby. I appreciate the difficulty in crafting a statement that falls within the truth of God’s word and the letter of the law (government/European/Irish or other) but if the statement is representative of Churches then EAI must clarify it’s sources for that and not base it on perceptions, Churches’ or other. Thank you for your replies just seeking to make a Contribution.

  7. I am very happy at the EAI’s position on the legislation currently going through the Dail, and I hope it will encourage more LGBT and affirming evangelical Christians to stand up to prejudice and discrimination.

    From this thread, what is apparent is how recent scandals have not only damaged the moral authority of the Roman Catholic church, which the scandals have mainly centred around, but it is becoming apparent that Protestant churches also have not been able to claim the moral upper hand they once attempted to claim for themselves.

  8. Tim I think there is great mileage in your statement as it seeks to encourage our collective stand against prejudice and discrimination. Yet as the saying goes “treason is just a matter of dates” we need to define to whom we have allegiance when we speak in terms of discrimination and prejudice. To who’s law? On the subject matter of the equal rights contained in the bill, if law exists (law of the land) that same sex unions are lawful, it is only logical that you have to give them equal rights. But the question arises are they the same? The decision-making on this bill is not one of morality but of legitimate rights to entitlement under the understanding that same sex unions are the same as those of marriage. We may seek parity under the law (the land) but a more fundamental question in relation to the church and the Law it is under is, can it justify giving sanction to that parity when it remains against (to a large degree) the idea of same sex union.

  9. Wesley: To answer your question above on “who’s law?”, my answer would simply be the commandment to love one’s neighbour. To me (and it’s only one perspective), granting same sex partners the right to register their partnership is a moral imperative, not just a question of rights.

    Personally, I would prefer full legal civl marriage for both same- and mixed-sex couples, with the option for religious organisations to perform them under their auspices: I hope this is the next stage.

  10. Thank you Tim food for thought but Often when quoting scripture we can end up misquoting or at worst manipulated it to mean anything we wish. In this case the “Law” that you speak about loving our neighbour is only part of a single command which is primarily made up of two directives.

    We are not only to “love our neighbour as ourselves”, but firstly we are to “Love the Lord our God” our primary requirement is therefore to Love God first, and your neighbour second. So what are the implications? Well firstly Loving God is not a sentiment nor is loving your neighbour, it requires, in regard to God; an obedience and a following after what he ordains. If this is an agreed position (which the majority of theologians are agreed upon) then to negate to tell others (according to God’s decrees) where they have deviated from His prescribed way to live, is not truly loving our neighbour as ourselves.

    If we love ourselves then we acknowledge what God has decreed in His word as beneficial to our lives, so then it’s logical by use of the “Law” or command, to apply the letter of it toward our neighbour who we are in fear of them transgressing what God has designed for their good also!

    In conclusion: we can’t exercise the latter part of the command without carrying out the first, and if we truly carry out the first then the latter must follow as a desire to lovely communicate what God’s good design is for our neighbour.and if we think the command to Love God is nonsence they why use the latter part to build an argumet for doing good to anyone!

  11. Tim and Wesley, Thanks for your comments on this thread, it’s much appreciated and I think you articulated positions from opposite ends of the spectrum quite well.

  12. As a Pentecostal pastor and denominational leader in Ireland, I applaud the EAI stance. And I think Gladys is correct in seeing an anabaptist-type desire to celebrate pluralism and freedom. In the past evangelicals in Ireland have suffered discrimination at the hands of governments that favoured Catholicism. We know what it feels like to have others impose their religious beliefs on you. Our faith thrives best in a society where there is freedom for all of us to practice and propagate our faith without anyone imposing their values on the rest of us like the Taliban.
    I believe homosexual acts to be sinful, but I recognise that Muslims see eating pork as being sinful. I have no more right to use the law to impose my beliefs, than do Muslims have the right to pass laws forbidding me from eating a bacon sandwich. Therefore, the best option for me and the Muslims is for us to support a secular democratic society where Muslims, evangelicals like me, and homosexuals have the same rights as each other. In such a society we also have the right to spread our beliefs by peaceful means, such as preaching, discussion and personal testimony.
    In a secular pluralistic society we all have the right to share our beliefs on a level playing field. Surely only the insecure want a playing-field that is slanted in their favour? If we really believe we have the truth, then what is there to fear?

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