Religion and Gay Marriage

Volumes have been written about heterosexual marriage while very little has been written supporting the development of strong stable faith-filled Same Gender Loving (SGL) couples and families. The family, straight or SGL, is an integral part of the faith community. Defining relationships and family for SGL people is a struggle in itself; however the stability of these relationships is foundational to the stability of the community.

How should our faith communities respond to relationships and families that don't fit the acceptable social norm? When is marriage a sacrament? The Christian Church had a similar dilemma 200 years ago when it sought to determine how to justify the inclusion of slave families that did not fit the requirement set forth by the church. Some churches as far back as the 1800s had decided to welcome slaves, conditionally, as members. The issue was how could the church receive them "in good standing" when some of the married slaves had both their current spouses and another spouse and often other children on another plantation. This was due in large part to the ability of the slave master to sell slaves away at will. Underlying this issue was the fact that slave marriages were not considered valid and legal, as slaves were not truly "people" but possessions. How could the church make their marriages sacred and make them accountable to their vows if their master could force them in and out of their marriages? One church, the Welsh Neck Baptist Church of South Carolina decided that to grant membership to the slave couples was "less evil" than excommunicating them. They further stated:

That servants separated by their owners, & removed to too great a distance to visit each other, may be considered dead to each other; & therefore at liberty to take a second companion, in the lifetime of the first; as the act of separation was not their own voluntary choice; but the will of those who had legal control over them.

This forward thinking group of Christians were able to see beyond the religious legalism of their time and find a way to help these families so different from their own.

Good sound relationships are foundational in the formation of families. But what is a family? In my history and in the experience of the African American community it was often not "nuclear," and was not typified by the television programs of my youth ... 'Donna Reed," "Leave it to Beaver" or "Father Knows Best." Aunts, grandparents, family friends and non-relatives raised many of my friends. I, like many others, am the product of a broken home, but it did not seem broken, as the village/church was so family-like. We were in a community where the adults were responsible for everyone's children and we as children were responsible to the adults who cared for us. Diverse families abounded.

Some definition and affirmation must be given to diverse same-sex couples to establish beginning points for relationship accountability to and from their faith communities. Relationships must be established in some way to indicate clearly what the expectations are for the church, the extended family, parents and children.

Same-sex marriages should not only be an acceptable practice in the Christian Church, other faith communities and society, but these marriages are essential to the harmony of the community where SGL congregants are present. These marriages are essential for the support of couples who have so few examples of sexual fidelity, and long-term commitment.

In my pastoral experience, I have been involved with ministries where there were large numbers of SGL African American persons. These ministries often placed a major emphasis on music and other forms of artistic expression. I have seen the theological and doctrinal positions of these churches change progressively as they sought to include SGL persons who were integral to the life of the community. It seems difficult in most cases, however, to cross the line from benevolent tolerance to full affirmation; to create a community of affectional and sexual orientation parity along with gender parity, class parity, etc. The struggle seems to be centered on finding a socially acceptable, normative, and safe way to fully incorporate homosexual parishioners, alongside straight parishioners. What does a predominantly straight ministry do with its SGL parishioners, without offending the straight folks?

What has occurred is a subculture of SGL persons in the Christian community who are not necessarily condemned for being SGL, but who are also not given equal status with heterosexual persons in a heteronormative environment. SGL Christians are not often free to celebrate anniversaries, show affection in public, or share a last name. Marriage and relationship seminars and "how to" workshops are limited to heterosexual couples. Heterosexual couples expect permanence in their partnerships, because the structures of extended family, and the legal system built around their relationships reinforce their permanence. In the same way that little attention was given to the 'invalid' marriages of slave couples, little attention is given to developing and supporting same sex families. SGL couples are often not challenged to answer the hard questions regarding commitment -- to do so would validate an invalid marriage. Even in theologically liberal environments this model seems to give a message that says, "If you are SGL we accept you, without any accountability, just to let you know how inclusive and gracious we are; but we hold straight Christians to a higher moral standard". In an ethical sense, this is still second-class treatment and a step below full acceptance of SGL people into the church community. Visible, open SGL persons are not expected to live in faithful personal relationships, and are assumed bereft of the moral requirements for leadership, so they are not considered strong candidates for certain roles within the Church. Interestingly, these roles are most often the roles that strongly impact the social norms of the community - i.e., pastor, teacher, deacon, youth leader, etc. In order to make all privileges and opportunities available to all persons, responsibilities, requirements, and expectations should also be equal. For example, where there is strong emphasis placed on counseling and preparation before, and support and accountability during heterosexual marriage, there should be a similar means by which SGL persons can have their relationships made normative and part of church community life. I believe supporting same sex marriage would do a great deal to bring about equality and end the 'Second Class Citizenship' of Same Gender Loving persons in faith communities