When will our Church leaders learn from their past mistakes? I was a teenager in the early 1980s when the fear of the Church leaders was of mixed marriage. As a young Catholic in 1989 in Belfast I fell in love with a Protestant. I knew not to expect support from either my parents or the Churches. The Churches still treated mixed marriage as second class. This was fuelled by the Catholic Bishops’ hard line teaching deriving from the Pope’s decree of 1907 called Ne Temere. That was followed by a bitter public row in Belfast in 1911, the McCann case, about mixed marriage. The Church of Ireland theologian Professor Gregg responded that Protestants “Make the idea of marriage with a Roman Catholic as much out of the question as a marriage within the prohibited degrees”.
The Protestant Anglican Church too has a history of behaving unjustly on marriage. In the 18th and 19th centuries it used its political power to deny legal recognition to all but Anglican/Church of Ireland marriages – it treated Presbyterian and Catholic marriages as invalid.
By 1995, as a young academic and in a mixed relationship with my own lovely Protestant, I was commissioned as part of the peace process to write a report on mixed marriage for the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. At the Forum the Catholic Bishops did not acknowledge the injustice and hurt caused to couples by their opposition to mixed marriage. However, two years later in 1997, the Catholic Bishop of Killaloe, Willie Walsh, wrote “I feel that many of us would want to apologise and ask forgiveness from our non-Roman brethren for that pain and hurt”.
Despite the opposition of the leaderships of the Catholic and Protestant Churches, thousands of couples entered mixed marriages. Some of these couples had to leave Northern Ireland to do so. The Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association recently put out a call for stories for a forthcoming book about mixed couples who were forced to go abroad. My partner and I were one of those mixed Catholic-Protestant couples who for 10 years felt we needed to live outside of Northern Ireland for our relationship to survive.
Come 2017, and the leaders of the Catholic and Protestant churches have grown out of their opposition to mixed marriage. They realise that they got it wrong. Have they learned from their past mistake? Unfortunately, they have not. Instead, they have turned their opposition to the extension of civil marriage to same sex couples. Same sex couples cannot enter a civil marriage in Northern Ireland. To do so they must go either to Britain or to the Republic of Ireland. I know this because, as one half of both a mixed denomination and same sex couple of 25 years, I was not able to enter a civil marriage with my Protestant male partner.
Fortunately, not all Church leaders are of one mind. As we saw during the marriage equality referendum in the Republic of Ireland, two of the 12 serving Bishops of the Church of Ireland (Bishop Colton of Cork and Bishop Burrows of Cashel) support the extension of civil marriage to same sex couples. Some individual Catholic priests have also spoken out in favour of civil marriage equality. It is obvious that many ordinary people of faith support marriage equality. At the time of the referendum in the Republic some of us, Catholic and Protestant, gay and straight, came together under the banner of ‘Faith in Marriage Equality’. Faith in Marriage Equality asserts that we are all equal under God, whether we are heterosexual or gay. It maintains that faith leaders should not marginalise or exclude people who are gay rather they should promote equality and inclusion.
People of faith understand that marriage is based on the values of love and commitment. This is the case for heterosexual and same sex couples, whether the marriage involves children or not. Faith institutions already distinguish between civil and religious marriage. While it is proper that faith leaders govern their members’ access to religious marriage, they should not seek to prevent access to civil marriage.
People of faith in Northern Ireland have in the past shown themselves to be ahead of their Church leaders and in the name of love they embraced mixed marriage. People of faith are again showing themselves to be ahead of their leaders when in the name of love and justice they support equal civil marriage for same sex couples. Faith in Marriage Equality will be joining this Saturday in Belfast the march for civil marriage equality.
Dr Richard O’Leary is a co-founder of Faith in Marriage Equality and a former Lecturer in sociology at Queen’s University Belfast. Faith in Marriage Equality is supported by a range of faith organisations including the Catholic group ‘We are Church Ireland’ and the Anglican Church of Ireland group ‘Changing Attitude Ireland’.