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.
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)