4 min

The passion of the same-sex

Religious communities wrestle, vote & pray

Credit: Joshua Meles

When Lionel Ketola and Steve Loweth decided to get married last fall it wasn’t a simple matter. Their Lutheran-Anglican faith backgrounds meant they wanted a religious ceremony, yet neither of their two home churches allow same-sex marriage.

Many faith communities are facing similar struggles: how to respect commitments to justice and human rights, but also follow traditional teachings.

“Getting married civilly wasn’t an option. It isn’t an accurate reflection of our faith commitments,” says Ketola, a 41-year-old art therapist and chaplain. “For us, to participate in intimacy in relationships is to participate in the sacred and divine.”

The couple initially appro-ached their Lutheran congregation, which has a stated commitment to being welcoming to lesbian, gay, bi and trans [LGBT] people. But as their plans moved forward, they realized there was grassroots opposition within the congregation, resulting in a vote where 66 percent opposed the ceremony. A statement from the Lutheran Conference Of Bishops threatening to discipline any congregation which allowed same-sex marriage may have had an effect.

“A small group of people worked the phones and got a lot of anti-gay people out to sway the vote,” says Ketola.

While the couple understood that the community wasn’t ready and withdrew their request, they were devastated by some of the comments that were publicly made.

“I was very hurt and angry,” says Loweth, a 39-year-old music publisher. “At the same time I felt sorry for those people because of their ignorance.”

In the end, they put together a ceremony performed by United Church Minister Ralph Wushke, in an Anglican parish hall with the Advent Lutheran Pastor Mike Mills preaching the sermon.

“We were settling for the bare minimum while trying to create something wonderful,” says Ketola.

Same-sex marriage – and the federal government’s assurance that it will allow religions to decide whether to conduct them or not – has highlighted how religious institutions are struggling with the competing demands of their members and their beliefs. (Or not. When Catholic priest Tim Ryan decided to publicly support same-sex marriage, he was suspended by the Archdiocese Of Toronto.)

The issues of same-sex blessings will be on the agenda this May at the Anglican Church’s general synod, a national meeting held every three years. One proposed motion would acknowledge the existence of a split within the church around whether blessing same-sex unions is contrary to church doctrine and teachings. A motion will also propose an opportunity for “local option” decision-making.

Rev Daniel Brereton, the vicar at Christ’s Church Cathedral in Hamilton, explains that “local option” means parishes would have to hold an internal meeting and vote on whether to offer the blessings. Bishops would be asked to grant permission. No priests or parishes would be forced to allow them.

Brereton, who is gay, is also a member of Claiming The Blessing Canada, a national movement promoting and asking for the right for gay men and lesbians to be married in the Anglican church. Brereton says that some people fear that this issue will cause the break-up of the church, but he remembers when the same was said about the ordination of women.

“Your relationship is about more than the things that you are disagreeing about,” Brereton says. “Unity is not necessarily uniformity.”

St Mark’s United Church in Scarborough went through a year-long decision-making process in 1999, and agreed as of 2000 to offer same-sex blessings. This was extended very quickly to same-sex marriages in June when the Ontario Court Of Appeal declared it legal.

The United Church Of Canada allows each congregation to come to its own decision about marriage and provides extensive resource and study material.

“We had a year of conversation and discussion with the congregation exploring the issues of relationships and same-gender relationships,” says Rev Alan Hall, the minister at St Mark’s.

Hearing the stories of gay and lesbian people helped the congregation put a human face an the issue. Hall says people shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it.

“Claim what is both the Christian and Judaic tradition, the foundation of justice and inclusion. There is nothing in either tradition that justifies exclusion or the hateful rhetoric that we’re hearing in particular from the Christian churches,” says Hall.

In January First Narayever, a Jewish synagogue in downtown Toronto, decided, after a year and a half of discussion, not to allow same-sex marriages. Seventy-one percent of the members voted in favour, but the synagogue constitution requires an 80 percent majority for any significant religious change.

“We have some gay and lesbian members but not very many. This 71 percent was largely made up of straight members of the congregation who had this particular perspective on this issue,” says Rabbi Ed Elkin. “I was not surprised [by the vote]. I had a sense from the folks that I spoke with that there would be a strong majority in favour, but I was always aware that 80 percent was an awfully high mark to reach.

“There are people for whom the answer is obvious on one side, and people for whom the answer is self-evident on the other side. A lot of people aren’t sure how to reconcile their perspective on what scripture teaches and their perspective on social justice and human rights.”

Elkin, who supports same-sex marriage, says the synagogue will take a break from dealing with the issue, but he expects someone will eventually bring it forward again. He says religious communities need to have both traditional and radical sides, and need to balance them.

“I think that there have been so many thousands of years without same-sex marriage, it’s okay if we look back five or 10 years from now and we say it took five to 10 years,” says Elkin. “That’s not such a long time even for those of us who like myself are ready for it.”

Ketola feels that queer couples should keep up pressure, even in conservative congregations.

“The simple fact that you are putting the question to them will remind them that they can’t live in a vacuum any longer.”