One of the things Jesus was absolutely passionate about was justice and equality for all people. This is the starting point in any societal debate in which Christians might participate. It is, unsurprisingly, something that young people are naturally passionate about too. One of the areas that Christianity easily connects with young people is over issues of social justice and service of others. They are much more naturally drawn to this critical part of the Christian faith than they are to more doctrinal matters.
Fortunately, Jesus was the same! He reserved his harshest criticism for those religious leaders of his day who excluded people from the faith because of their “uncleanness”. The harsh interpretation of the purity laws was rejected by Jesus. He ate with tax collectors and others precisely because he wanted to include them in his new vision of the Kingdom of God.
It is in this context of Jesus’ concern for those excluded by the rest of society that I write to say that Christians may vote “yes” to marriage equality. It’s important to note that Christians (and others) are not being asked to change the Church’s understanding of the sacrament of marriage. Although the interpretation of sacraments may change over the years (and indeed has changed), this is not what we are being asked in the postal survey. We are simply being asked if we are prepared for civil marriage to be open to all people. The Primate of the Anglican Church of Australia, Archbishop Philip Freier, has written helpfully on this issue from a similar perspective: http://www.anglicanprimate.org.au/2016/09/09/conscience-rules-on-marriage/
Certainly this is a significant change. However, in the context of a stable society, in which same sex couples already have children, I see this is as a very positive step. Marriage is a gift, which allows couples to express their mutual love and commitment to each other in a formal ceremony. It is a commitment to love and cherish each other “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health” for the rest of their lives. It is an inherently positive step for all couples to make.
The argument that this somehow diminishes heterosexual marriages makes no sense to me at all. I simply don’t understand that argument, so won’t address it here.
Another concern for Christians is that this might infringe on our religious freedom or that we might be forced to adopt same sex marriages in the Church. This is worth exploring. Religious freedom is already well protected in Australian society. For example, the churches are still exempt from equal opportunity laws. It was only 25 years ago that Anglicans accepted women into the priesthood (and not all Anglicans around the country do: the dioceses of Sydney, Armidale, the North West, WA, and the Murray, SA, still do not). I expect that the legislation for civil marriage will in fact make that religious freedom even more explicit.
The Church will retain the authority over its sacraments, including marriage. Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that the Church has changed its understanding of the sacraments over the years. The remarriage of divorcees has been allowed for almost 40 years in the Anglican Church, something which was unheard of previously (Henry VIII not withstanding!). Women are now allowed to be ordained as priests and bishops, which represents arguably at least as great a change in the understanding of the sacrament of ordination as same-sex marriage does for the sacrament of marriage. Finally, the seal of the sacrament of confession is no longer considered absolute when it comes to child abuse. This too is a significant change in the understanding of the sacrament.
My point is that the understanding of sacraments (particularly who may access them) has changed over the years.
In society at large, the understanding of marriage has changed and evolved over the years, for the better! In Western Society the focus has absolutely shifted, from a focus on property, inheritance and occasionally political alliances to mutual respect and love. This is to be welcomed!
I suspect it will be some time before the Anglican Church changes its understanding of marriage, although it’s interesting to note that our sister Church, the Episcopal Church of Scotland, has done precisely that. In an Australian Anglican context, which is surprisingly conservative, this is unlikely. However, a way forward may be to encourage Christian same sex couples to have a civil marriage and then come to the Church for a “Eucharist of Thanksgiving”. This would allow a Christian celebration of their union and would be a demonstration of the Church welcoming the couple into their midst as fellow members of the body of Christ.
The Reverend Dr Theo McCall