Church weddings or ceremonial "blessings" for homosexual couples--so far only conducted quietly by small numbers of liberal pastors--have gained some limited but surprising support recently in mainstream religious circles.
In Los Angeles, at least several Protestant clergy and one rabbi perform rites akin to weddings.
Moreover, a resolution before the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts to develop a liturgy to bless gay couples was approved by clergy delegates, 114 to 79, at the diocese's mid-November convention, but the lay delegates opposed the resolution, 140 to 82, thus killing the measure. The proposal called for a "blessing," not a wedding rite.
"Christian love challenges us to support gay and lesbian couples in relationships upholding the Christian model of commitment and love, to assist these couples in living healthy and holy lives," said the resolution, submitted by a Boston congregation that includes a ministry to homosexuals.
The resolution echoes the notion among some liberal clergy of various denominations that religious congregations should be open to serving all people.
And with sexual promiscuity in the homosexual community identified as a contributing factor to the spread of AIDS, some clergy have found an additional argument for churches to encourage stable relationships, even when they run square against religious tradition.
Biblical passages and social views that disparage or condemn homosexual activity have kept even the most progressive denominations from officially condoning same-sex behavior. The Episcopal resolution cited the most common rebuttal: that Jesus himself apparently did not condemn homosexual behavior and that prohibitions elsewhere in the Bible were shaped by social conditions of those periods and were not timeless truths.
However, the 9-million-member United Methodist Church declares in its Book of Discipline that homosexual activity is "incompatible with Christian teaching"--a statement crucial to its long battle to prohibit the Methodist ordination of "self-avowed practicing homosexuals." Other mainstream denominations have also fought over the issue in the last decade, usually barring the doors.
Only very recently has the issue of blessing or marrying same-sex couples arisen in public forums.
An ethics professor speaking last month at a United Methodist-sponsored conference on the AIDS crisis asked whether churches ought to bless homosexual unions in recognition that promiscuous sexual activity presents medical risks.
"If the church understood and accepted gay marriage," said Karen Lebacqz of the Pacific School of Religion at Berkeley, "is it not possible that it would at least do something to stop contributing to the promiscuity that exists within the gay community, . . . in at least some segments of it, and would, therefore, stop contributing to the spread of AIDS?"
Lebacqz, a professor of Christian ethics at the interdenominational seminary, spoke Nov. 13 at the national conference in San Francisco.
Some theologians have described Christian marriage as the covenant or commitment of two people before God--regardless of whether legal steps are taken, Lebacqz said in summarizing her address.
"By extension, I argued, that includes gay and lesbian couples," Lebacqz said in an interview. "The question then is, Will the church honor those couples and develop ceremonies to recognize those commitments?"
The homosexual-run Metropolitan Community Churches, begun nearly two decades ago in Huntington Park, now performs "holy union" ceremonies for about 1,500 couples yearly at its 250 churches around the country, according to the Rev. Troy Perry, the founder-president whose denominational offices are in Hollywood.
"Our attitude is that we bless buildings and other things, and we also bless relationships," Perry said. "They are public statements to their friends and their church that they have entered into a loving relationship with each other. We won't perform one of these ceremonies without having them go through counseling to be sure they are committed to one another."
Because laws do not recognize homosexual marriages, the "unions" have a certain fragility. But Perry said that church rules prohibit a pastor from performing a second "holy union" rite for anyone who has not had the first partnership "dissolved" by the same church that granted it.
The 194-year-old Unitarian Universalist Assn., a liberal denomination that prides itself on humanist values and often non-theistic beliefs, approved a resolution at its 1984 General Assembly giving support to clergy who perform weddings for homosexual couples.