Canadians observe cultural change on gay marriage

As same-sex marriage has gone mainstream, some churches address the issue, others avoid it

Nov 24, 2014 by and

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As gay marriage continues to work its way through the U.S. court system, Mennonites are waiting to see how same-sex couples joining in matrimony, if legalized, will affect church life. It’s a threshold Canada crossed nearly a decade ago. While it has produced no legal problems for Canadian Mennonite congregations, it has had other ramifications.

In the U.S., more than 30 states allow same-sex couples to marry. Because lower courts have issued conflicting rulings, the Supreme Court is expected to make a final decision, perhaps next year.

Canada’s Parliament did that in July 2005 by approving the Civil Marriage Act, which declared, “Marriage, for civil purposes, is the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others.” In the previous two years, all provinces except Alberta and Prince Edward Island had passed legislation allowing people of the same gender to marry.

The act includes provisions respecting churches’ freedom of religion, including upholding ministers’ right to refuse to conduct gay marriage ceremonies and prohibiting Parliament from taking any punitive measures against opponents.

With those guarantees, Mennonite churches haven’t been forced to make any changes, but they’re nevertheless happening. In the United States, gay marriage is the latest development in a religious, cultural and legal clash going back to the 1970s. In Canada, the Civil Marriage Act has put gays and lesbians much more in the mainstream.

“It’s amazing how much society has changed in the past 10 years,” said Tim Dyck, general secretary of the Evangelical Mennonite Conference.

“There’s a gradual social creep, cultural creep,” agreed Jon Isaak, director of the Centre for Mennonite Brethren Studies in Winnipeg, affiliated with the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches.

But the two denominations have responded in different ways. The EMC is a small, conservative group primarily located in the traditionally rural western provinces that, as a conference, has not yet confronted homosexuality-related issues. But Dyck said the conference will eventually have to speak to matters such as church membership and counseling gay and lesbian people and their families.

“I think that’s something that we will need to address but have not so far,” he said. “It’s a challenge to the church to demonstrate love and concern without compromising our beliefs.”

More pastoral response

The Mennonite Brethren are already working at that, according to Isaak. “There’s much more of a pastoral response being developed,” he said.

That was one of the topics at a denomination-sponsored study conference on sexuality last year. But it also exposed questions about the Mennonite Brethren official position rejecting “all homosexual practices.”

Isaak also noted that some Winnipeg-area Mennonite Brethren helped organize a recent performance of Listening for Grace, a play about the church and same-sex relationships by Mennonite actor and playwright Ted Swartz.

While the legalization of gay marriage spurred some Mennonites to address homosexuality, members of Mennonite Church Canada have been wrestling with it since well before 2005. In the 1980s, a joint task force of the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Church — which merged to create MC Canada in 2000 and Mennonite Church USA in 2002 — conducted an extensive study of human sexuality. The result was the denominations’ current statement, which declares that sexual activity is restricted to marriage relationships between men and women.

For the past five years, MC Canada has been going through a comprehensive, churchwide study of sexuality and biblical interpretation.

“The main goal is to provide a forum for us to discern together, paying attention to Scripture but also recognizing the reality we now find ourselves in,” said Rudy Baergen, co-chair of the task force overseeing the process.

Mennonite institutions other than congregations also have felt the impact of gays and lesbians increasingly entering the mainstream over the last decade. Baergen said camps have lost business because they have refused to rent their facilities for same-sex weddings.

Dyck expressed concern about the effects on academic freedom. The EMC, along with the Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference and the Chortitzer Mennonite Conference, sponsor Steinbach (Man.) Bible College.

He cited incidents at Trinity Western University in Langley, B.C., Canada’s largest Christian liberal arts school, which adheres to the traditional biblical position that homosexuality is a sin. Trinity Western wants to start a law school, which several provincial societies have decided they will not recognize, saying the university discriminates against gays and lesbians. The matter is now working its way through the courts.

Earlier, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled in favor of Trinity Western after it was denied accreditation for its teacher-training program because of its stance on homosexuality.

“When same-sex [issues] come to the surface, they rise in unexpected ways,” Dyck said.

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