Same-Sex Marriage Referendum in the Republic: Review of ‘Who Owns Marriage?’

who owns marriageAs the date for the Republic’s same-sex marriage referendum draws closer (22 May), various parties have weighed in on the debate. Unsurprisingly, official representatives of the four largest Christian churches are opposed to same-sex marriage, and have urged the faithful to vote ‘no.’ At the same time, Christian activist groups like ‘Faith in Marriage Equality’ have supported a ‘yes’ vote, and theologians like Prof Linda Hogan, Vice Provost of Trinity College, have argued that there is a Christian case to be made for marriage equality.

One interesting intervention in the debate is a book published by the Republic’s Evangelical Alliance (EA) organization, Who Owns Marriage? A Conversation about Religion, Government, Marriage and a Civil Society. It is edited by Nick Park, Senior Pastor of the Solid Rock Church in Drogheda and Executive Director of EA.

Given the stereotypical view that ‘evangelical equals homophobe,’ back in 2010 EA surprised many by urging evangelicals to support the Republic’s Civil Partnerships Bill.

Who Owns Marriage is not as directive as EA’s statement on the Civil Partnership Bill. Rather, it presents a range of perspectives on the debate and there is disagreement among the contributors about how one might vote.

However, the book includes EA’s ‘Statement on Same-Sex Marriage,’ which argues that the referendum is ‘more to do with marriage redefinition than it is about equality,’ and advises ‘a “No” vote in the forthcoming referendum on the grounds that the State is going beyond its legitimate sphere in attempting to redefine marriage itself.’

Park, who writes the longest contributions in the volume, also clearly supports a ‘no’ vote. And his voice is unavoidably dominant, as the contributors were asked to respond to four chapters he wrote for the book: ‘A Much Needed Conversation,’ ‘Remaining True to Evangelical Values without becoming the Taliban,’ ‘Same-Sex Attraction, Scripture and Sin,’ and ‘Who Does Own Marriage?’ Three or four contributors then respond to Park’s chapters with shorter comments of their own.

But the volume is not just evangelicals lining up to support Park’s views. It also contains contributions from Park’s daughter Kirsty Park, a lesbian, Ph.D. candidate at Dublin City University and LGBT activist, Brian Finnegan, editor of Gay Community News, and Michael Nugent, the chair of Atheist Ireland.

At one level, EA is to be commended for wanting to participate in a ‘conversation,’ albeit as Park and several of the contributors note, the numbers of evangelicals in the Republic are so small that they hold no illusions of being able to ‘influence’ widespread opinion. But at another level, not all the contributors think the conversation is asking the right questions – and they freely say so. As Richard Carson, Chief Executive of ACET-Ireland (AIDS Care Education and Training), writes (p. 29-30):

‘The difficulty for me is that I think he [Park] is asking the wrong (initial) question. If we are asking, “how do we move forward with the issue of same-sex marriage?” then we are missing something enormous. … But how about we start with a different question – “What is the story of the Irish evangelical church and LGBT people?” This opens up questions which are rooted in the vulnerability of the past and present tense, such as … “Did we do harm?” … in LGBT+ community social settings I have heard individuals name (without any knowledge of my own evangelical circles) specific churches in Dublin, statements these churches have made on homosexuality, actions taken by these churches with young LGBT people and the ensuing negative impact this has had on their peers. Maybe we don’t need to initiate the conversation “did we do harm?” bur rather join the conversation. Maybe the story is already being told.’

The final chapter, ‘Who Does Own Marriage?,’ is where Park raises some of his most interesting points about the definition of marriage and the relationship between church and state. He recalls that until 2007, pastors in most evangelical congregations in the Republic could not solemnise marriages, meaning that couples who wanted to be married in these churches must also have had a civil marriage outside the church. Park writes that although most evangelicals were happy ‘to enter into a cosy relationship with the State’ by conducting legal weddings, ‘Some of us are starting to question whether jumping into the State’s pocket alongside more established churches was actually a good idea at all’ (p. 140).

What Park would prefer is for both the state and the churches to give up their efforts to ‘own’ marriage, in the sense of imposing their own definitions on the rest of society, including who may or may not marry and for what reasons. Rather, he recommends broadening the Civil Partnership Act to make it possible for any two adults to gain legal protection in areas like taxation, property and inheritance (p. 155), and returning marriage to the ‘community’ where groups (Christians and non-Christian alike) can have their own marriages free from the interference of the state.

This is a classic Anabaptist argument, with its strong regard for strict separation between church and state, and one that I have sympathy with. But while it may be a sound theoretical argument, I don’t think it is a practical one because broadening the Civil Partnership Act and getting the state out of the marriage business are not options that are available to the Republic’s voters.

I also don’t think that voting ‘no’ in the referendum would advance Park’s radical vision for preventing both state and church from imposing a definition of marriage on the rest of society. Voting ‘no’ perpetuates a status quo, supported by most of the churches, which goes against what opinion polls tell us more than 70% of the Irish population want marriage to mean. (Whether that population will get out and vote on referendum day remains to be seen — apathy rather than hostility may be the culprit if there is a defeat for the ‘yes’ camp.)

This is where Carson’s admonition to listen to the stories of LGBT people – including what the referendum means to them – should come in. And to its credit, the book does at least contain those perspectives. As Kirsty Park writes (p. 161):

‘The State already defines and regulates marriage whether you believe it should or shouldn’t. This Referendum has no power to change that. If the Referendum does pass it will be a change proposed by the people through the Constitutional Convention and confirmed by the people through a majority vote. That is citizens changing their Constitution not the State changing definitions.’

Or as Brian Finnegan says (p. 164):

‘It’s called the same-sex marriage referendum, but at its heart it’s about something else. It’s about saying whether you believe gay people deserve equal status and respect or not. It’s about saying whether you want to endorse the brutalisation and humiliation of young gay people or not. It’s about asking, do you believe you are superior, ethically, morally and socially, to gay people or not?’

Kirsty Park and Finnegan make brave contributions throughout the book, with Finnegan detailing the bullying he endured in school and Park writing (p. 129-130):

‘… I have lived this story. I’ve been a gay person in the church, I’ve grown up in and seen Evangelical churches in many different countries and I 100% believe that the church is in complete denial about the extent of the damage it has caused to LGBT people worldwide.

… I’ve never been beaten or called names at church … so why do I have a fear of telling someone I know to be a Christian that I am in a relationship with a woman? Until Christians can truly answer that question they will continue to wonder why they have the reputation that they do.’

Carson also points out that for many LGBT Christians, contributing to the book would not have been ‘safe’ (p. 118). Carson acknowledges his own position of social privilege in that he is not LGBT. For him, this often unrecognized power keeps those who are not LGBT from listening to what LGBT people have to say about their experiences.

Chapter 3, where Nick Park examines what the bible has to say about homosexuality, is written with more nuance than you might see in other publications in which homosexuality is judged to be sin. Park acknowledges that a minority of evangelicals do not see homosexuality as sin, and even presents some of their arguments before explaining why he disagrees with them. But the contributors who responded to this chapter did not really engage with his theological points. (None of those contributors are professional theologians, so they cannot really be blamed.) I think this was a missed opportunity for a Christian theologian who does not see homosexuality as sin to have presented this perspective in more depth.

Another aspect of the book that I found striking was that while contributors at times drew comparisons to evangelicalism in the United States, evangelicalism in Northern Ireland was not mentioned at all. Given the recent rows in the north about the Asher’s cake case and same-sex marriage, this is either surprising – or simply underlines how far apart evangelicalism in the Republic is from evangelicalism in Northern Ireland.

(I should at this point confess that I was invited to contribute to this book. As a Belfast-based sociologist of religion I almost certainly would have compared Northern Ireland and the Republic, but I had to decline the invitation due to a pressing deadline for my next book – which, thankfully, I finally met this week!)

Who Owns Marriage is available on Kindle via Amazon.

Gladys is a Research Fellow in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University Belfast. She also blogs on religion and politics at www.gladysganiel.com