The last week of April, Lutheran ministers of the National church of Iceland held their annual synod in the town of Húsavík. The main issue on the table of discussion this time was the partnership/marriage of homosexuals. Very heated discussions took place among the ministers during the synod. The synod voted on a bill, which was presented with the joint signatures of 42 ministers including two unordained theologians advocating for unification of the traditional concept of marriage – between a man and a woman – and homosexual marriage into one concept regardless of gender composition. The bill did not pass the voting with the result of with 64 against, 22 for.
There were indeed many who could not join the synod in Húsavík, and as the synod didn’t allow absentee ballots, the number does not really reflect the accurate percentage of for or against among ministers. But anyway, headlines like “Church denies to marry gays” or “Church loves (people) with conditions” danced on the front page of many papers the next day.
In my recognition, these words are rather provoking but do not convey the facts from the synod. But at the same time it shows us the irritation and the feeling of disappointment of general society against the indecisive attitude of the church regarding the “gay-marriage” issue.
I would like to spend some words here to explain briefly what is happening in the church on this issue, and to discuss my personal opinion afterwards. It would be fair to say in advance that I am not at all neutral in this debate. I am of the opinion that the concept of “marriage” should be independent of the gender composition. I am one of those 42 who brought the bill that was rejected at the synod in Húsavík and I have been expressing this opinion consistently for the last five years.
Attitudes among ministers of the National church
What kinds of views exist about the gay partnership/ marriage issue in the church? Let’s briefly take a view over the scenery.
A) The Bible prohibits homosexuality and therefore, regardless whether if it is a sin or a kind of sickness, homosexuality isn’t accepted by the Christian faith.
B) Homosexuals have the same rights as the other ‘straight’ people. They have a full right to live together with their own life-partners and pursue a life of happiness. Establishing the partnership belongs to civil authorities and the church has no direct business with it. But a minister should offer blessing, with his own decision, onto those who wish to receive it on the occasion of establishing their partnership.
C) Almost the same attitude as B. But the secular initiation of the partnership should also be taken care of by ministers the same as marriages of the other people.
D) The concept of marriage should be one, including both relationships between men and women and homosexual relationships.
Around the same period as Halldór Ásgrímsson, the prime minister at that time, expressed his will to improve the legal rights and status of gay people in the summer of 2005, a special committee on behalf of the National church, consisting of ministers, theologians and jurists (the committee of dogmatics), was entrusted with the assignment to write a report about “gay marriage which is parallel to the traditional form of marriage (partnership)”. At the synod in Keflavík in 2006, the committee introduced its draft to the participants. The draft clearly says on one hand that the committee has come to the conclusion that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality and this report should be estimated appropriately on this point. On the other hand, the draft is a report about the partnership of homosexuals and does not directly address the question if it is desirable to separate the partnership from traditional marriage or if marriage should be a unified concept.
This report was the main topic of discussion at the synod in Húsavík. Therefore many of the participants were not really ready to vote for or against the proposal of the unification of gay partnership and traditional marriage. The majority at the synod agreed instead that ministers are allowed to offer a blessing to gay couples. A draft for a ritual of blessing was also agreed on (attitude B). The proposal that ministers should take care of the secular initiation of the partnership, not only the blessing (attitude C), was directed back to the committee for further reporting. In addition to the above, it would be necessary to point out that in Iceland the legal initiation of matrimony is still in the hands of the church, not only in the hands of the civil authorities. In Iceland, unlike many countries in western Europe, the minister’s declaration of marriage has a direct effect on the law to put two persons together. Namely the religious acts and the civil laws are not completely divided at this point. This makes it to some extent complicated to handle gay marriage. Some people say that marriage belongs to the unique authority of the religious institute, and others put more emphasis on the general human rights. The right answer seems to me: both right. In order to avoid this confusion, some ministers ask: “should the church transfer the authority to establish matrimony to the civil authorities and concentrate on its religious significance only?” This opinion is not yet dominant among ministers, but it will be unavoidable to face this question soon or later.
What is the mission for the church now?
I have been trying to describe where the issue of gay marriage has been located in the Icelandic church as neutrally as I can, so that we can see what is happening in the church.
Looking over the world, the countries that have set a concept of marriage that is independent of gender composition are for example Holland, Belgium, Spain, Canada and more, not yet hundreds of countries. Talking about the partnership act, then many European countries and many states in the US are adapting it, but these are from the standpoint of civil law.
Apart from independent free churches, there is no denomination as of yet who recognises gay marriage on equal terms with the traditional marriage without any distinction (using one word marriage instead of partnership). Obviously it is a very difficult task to change the course from what it has been until now for the religious authorities. The national church of Iceland is no exception. In this sense, the Icelandic church is no worse than other churches in the world.
Nevertheless it is not at all a Christian way to look at oneself only in relationship with ones surroundings. Because then you lose your identity in the relationship between God and yourself, where your own call and mission is revealed. This is something unique and you cannot compare it with others.
In my opinion, the Icelandic church is in the best position in the world to step forward and recognise formally the unified marriage as a religious term. The small size of the society where every single person can be recognized as an individual, considerable monocultural background, the absence of a big gap in religious values in the society, already well opened public existence of gay people and the positive attitude of the society towards them. All of those factors are to the advantage for the Icelandic church to take one step ahead of the rest of the world. But on the other hand, it would be considered as cowardice if the church wants hide itself behind other churches and doesn’t use those advantages that are being given to it.
Of course people could ask: “though the surrounding conditions are ready, shouldn’t the church refrain from doing something until the act will be confirmed to be theologically right and Christian-faithful?” That is quite right. But in my opinion, we have already crossed the biggest hurdles both theologically and Christianfaithfully. The majority in the church acknowledge, as well as the majority in society, the presence of gay people, their life as persons and their rights. The support to the partnership act show us that. Then why not marriage? What is the reason that we have to separate gay marriage as partnership from the traditional marriage? Is there any theological reason really? Or is it perhaps an emotional hindrance that makes it difficult for us to accept it?
The churchly congress in October is supposed to draw a temporary conclusion on the issue. We have to work on it.
Toshiki Toma is the pastor of the National church of Iceland for immigrants.