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On NI's recent legislative changes...

Last week saw a monumental milestone in Northern Ireland in which many Christians celebrated the introduction of same-sex religious wedding ceremonies following the legalisation of non-religious weddings earlier this year. While there are many compelling theological arguments that support marriage equality, it is the power of storytelling and engaging with the poignant first-hand accounts of those impacted that has convinced me that it is crucial that churches recognise the equal right to marriage of same-sex couples within the faith community.

In her semi auto-biographical novel Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson narrates the coming of age story of a young girl adopted into an evangelical Christian house in the North of England. Believing she is destined to serve as a missionary, Jeanette immerses herself in “embroidering grim religious mottoes and shaking her little tambourine for Jesus” under the guidance of her zealous adoptive mother. During her early years, Jeanette recalls being disallowed to return a local newsagent owned by two women who, according to her mother, dealt in “unnatural passions.” Initially, Jeanette assumes this means they put chemicals in the sweets they sold. However, as an adolescent she finds herself attracted to another young woman and, as a result, is subjected to an exorcism at the hands of her church leaders. Throughout the abuse she suffers, there is one character who offers support to Jeanette - Elsie Norris, an elderly member of the church, remains loyal to Jeanette when she is shunned by the rest of her community, offering kindness and compassion and encouraging Jeanette in her identity.

In her later memoir, Winterson reveals that Elsie’s character is entirely fictional:

“I wrote her in because I couldn’t bear to leave her out. I wrote her in because I really wished it had been that way. When you are a solitary child you find an imaginary friend. There was no Elsie. There was no one like Elsie. Things were much lonelier than that.”

Reading this, I find it deeply disturbing that within a faith community a woman had to imagine kindness and compassion where none were shown. This story of loneliness and isolation is sadly by no means unique and it has very real consequences for those impacted. In the days before the 2015 Irish marriage equality referendum, mental health charity Pieta House had additional counsellors on standby as they believed there was a risk of a spike in suicides if there was a “no” outcome. Even after the “yes” result, a young man died by suicide following homophobic bullying. Pieta House have reported that societal attitudes towards a person’s sexuality can resonate with such impact that they see no possible future for themselves. As Christians, I believe that we have a responsibility to reflect on the ways in which our faith has contributed to and exacerbated the stigma and abuse of the LGBT community. The Bible says to “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.” At the very least, we ought not to add to them.

It is to our shame that where people should have found welcome and acceptance, they have found exclusion and judgementalism and I believe it conflicts with the teachings of Jesus who commands us to love our neighbour as ourselves and challenges those without sin to cast the first stone.

Many of those who oppose marriage equality in Northern Ireland argue that “it is possible to love someone without agreeing with everything they believe and do.” I am fully supportive of this sentiment and in no way advocate for a society in which people are forced to deny their beliefs. However, I do think we should consider whether the historic treatment of LGBT people in Northern Ireland can genuinely be held as an example of ‘loving disagreement.’ A country which had to be compelled by the European Court of Human Rights to decriminalise same-sex relationships. A country where a Christian-led campaign to maintain criminalisation, with a sentence of up to life imprisonment, gathered almost 70,000 signatures of mostly church attendees. Surely, given this history, it is for LGBT people to determine whether they feel loved and valued by those who disagree with them and not the other way around.

While Christians have invested significant energy into a theological debate on this topic, I believe it is vital to consider the real-world implications of our theology. It is clear from the stories of people affected that non-affirming faith expressions have caused pain and suffering to many. They have borne bad fruit.

In his book Boy Erased, Garrard Conley reflects on the spiritual impact of his forced participation in gay conversion therapy:

“And God. I will not call on God at any point. Not because I want to keep God out of my life, but because His voice is no longer there. What happened to me has made it impossible to speak to God, to believe in a version of Him that isn’t charged with self-loathing. My ex gay therapist took him from me and no matter how many different churches I attend, I will feel the same dead weight in my chest. I will feel the pain of a deep love now absent from my life.”

No one has the right to inflict such spiritual abuse on another human being, let alone under the auspices of proclaiming “good news.” Of course, there will be exceptions and examples of LGBT people who have found welcoming faith communities. However, I believe it is disingenuous to assert that they are the majority, or to deny that many have faced unkindness, hostility and bullying.

Last week’s news is a positive step for Northern Ireland and a long-awaited celebration for many same-sex couples who want to get married within their faith community. However, churches now have a choice to make: to double down on pre-existing biases, or to correct an injustice and affirm the love of same sex couples in Northern Ireland. The legalisation of religious ceremonies is therefore not the end of the fight for equality, but rather the beginning of a journey to heal past wounds and continue towards a faith that welcomes rather than excludes, that celebrates rather than discriminates and that invites all to share in a hope of God’s kingdom which we seek to create together here on earth.

Lauren is a regular contributor to Left Side Up. She has a degree in Religions and Theology and a Masters in Human Rights Law. She is from NI and lives in  Belfast where she works for a non profit organisation. 

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