Rev Dr Robyn Whitaker
Lecturer in Biblical Studies, Trinity College, University of Divinity, Melbourne
8 August 2017
This week has challenged many in the country: our leadership was provided with an opportunity to take a step forward in the name of compassion and justice. Unfortunately, the government has chosen instead the costly stalling tactic of a plebiscite. As a Christian clergy-person I would once have supported such a move. Now, I think our leaders are egregiously shirking responsibility and acting unjustly by failing to support a parliamentary vote on marriage equality.
There are not many things in life about which one does a complete 360-degree turn but, when it comes to marriage equality, that's what I have done. Once I would have appealed to the Bible and argued theologically about God's creation to claim marriage could only ever be between a man and a woman. But the reality is that I could not imagine two people of the same gender getting married, I had seen no model of it and I had limited experience of LGBTI people. So what changed my mind?
I first began to shift on this issue when I admitted to myself that I was being hypocritical. As a female minister I've had many people tell me all the reasons that my very presence as a woman in church leadership is against God's plan. Often these people appeal to a biblical view about gender, claiming (wrongly) that God intended the two sexes to play fundamentally different roles with women in the nurturing and helping role but not leadership. Anyone who knows me knows those are not my strong suits!
Now you can find a justification for sexism in the Bible if you look hard enough for it. The Bible can be used to justify and confirm all kinds of bias: historically, both slavery and apartheid were argued for (and against) on biblical terms. But when I read those patriarchal passages of scripture as a young ordained woman, I easily explained them away as a remnant of an ancient culture, echoes of a foreign ideology which could be ignored while still being faithful to the overall message.
Yet I did not extend the same interpretive lens to passages that spoke about same-sex acts. Those were timeless truths, or so I reasoned. But it was not reason. It was inconsistent and it is hypocrisy.
Facts and rational argument don't change minds though. People do. So while Christians needs to grapple intellectually with their theology, traditions, and biblical interpretation, we also need to listen to the experiences of others.
My views shifted when I met Rachel (not her real name). Rachel was a parishioner who became a friend. As a lesbian Christian woman she patiently entered conversation with me as I sought to understand her sexuality and her own faith journey. I am embarrassed to remember my naïve and probably highly offensive questions. She extended a courtesy to me that many had never extended her by giving me a safe place to ask and think and question.
By encountering her as a human being whom I loved as my friend, I could no longer keep the issue of sexuality and equality at a distance to be discussed objectively. Marriage equality is not a concept to be debated in the abstract. It is a matter of justice that affects human beings who want the chance to make the same loving commitments to their partners as everyone else.
It wasn't until I lived in the US that I could really imagine what marriage equality could look like. When New Jersey legalised same-sex marriage in 2013, I witnessed first hand the joyous celebrations that spontaneously erupted and the long lines at the registry office for couples who had waited for so long. I had the pleasure of attending the church wedding of two female friends and witness the Episcopal priest invoke the fullness of God's blessing and utter the ancient prayers of the church over them.
The familiarity of the ritual made that wedding service simultaneously completely normal while also being momentous. To look down the aisle and see two women in white dresses (yes, they both wore traditional bridal gowns) pray and make vows in the ancient language of faith was made all the more moving by knowing that they were finally able to be married in the church which they had attended for years.
Opponents would have you believe that the proposed bill takes away religious freedom. It doesn't. At least, not in the current form. Marriage celebrants certified through their religious communities will continue to operate under the doctrines and rituals of those communities. For some of us, this means we will not yet be able to marry same-sex couples even if we would like to.
I am now a supporter of marriage equality, not despite my faith but precisely because my Christian faith demands that I treat others with compassion, justice, and love. I believe that love and marriage are God's gifts to us. Why would we not want those gifts to be available to every consenting adult? It is time not for a plebiscite, nor its ugly postal cousin, but for a nation to come together and celebrate justice and love.
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This article was originally published on the Sydney Morning Herald.