The recognition of gay and lesbian relationships in the Remonstrant and Dutch Society

During the conference of 2003 dr. Wibren van der Burg held a lecture about the recognition of gay and lesbian relationships in the Remonstrant Church and in Dutch society. He is chairman of the national board of the Remonstrant Church, and professor of jurisprudence at Tilburg University.


I feel very happy, honoured and proud to be at this conference. It is a great pleasure for me as a gay man to speak to such a large audience of gays and lesbians. I am honoured as a representative of the Remonstrants to be invited to talk about our experiences with blessing ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples. And I am also proud that our small church made a contribution to the struggle for equal rights for gays and lesbians, as we were in 1986 the first church in Europe to officially recognize such ceremonies.

Almost always when churches and homosexuality are in the news, the context is negative. The Vatican recently called homosexuality an ‘unsolved psychological problem’. In the Dutch Reformed Church, the orthodox wing rallies against the unification process with the Reformed Churches and the Lutheran Church, using the acceptance of (still rather limited) blessing ceremonies for same-sex relationships as the symbol of how wrong the united church will be. Orthodox protestant ministers and politicians condemn homosexuality, often in strong and insulting terms.

Similar examples are easily found in other countries. In many churches, homosexuality is still rejected. However, in an increasing number of churches, in the Netherlands and elsewhere, there is tolerance or even official acceptance of homosexuality and of same-sex relationships. Two Dutch churches have officially accepted the blessing of same-sex relationships, whereas a number of others de facto endorse or allow it. In other churches, more tolerant views of homosexuality seem to gain terrain. The image that the Christian religion condemns homosexuality thus becomes increasingly incorrect.

The condemnation of homosexuality by Christian spokesmen should be strongly opposed and criticised for many reasons – the first reason, of course, being that this condemnation is wrong and unjustified. It is deeply in conflict with the Gospel of love, which is at the core of the Christian tradition. Moreover, it is harmful in various ways. It is harmful for gays and lesbians, who are told that they live in sin, are unnatural and so on, and that therefore they are not welcome in their church. It is also harmful for the churches, because it reinforces the idea that Christianity is a conservative religion which sticks to outdated moral views and, even worse, to immoral views. In a world where human rights are increasingly accepted as the moral minimum, it is a shame that some churches violate the human rights of some of their members, of women and gays and lesbians. How can churches expect to be accepted as moral guides when they continue to violate basic rights themselves, by denying women the right to church office or by denying equal rights for gay and lesbian relationships? As a person deeply committed to my church and to the oecumenical movement, I feel ashamed and insulted when church leaders thus advocate a conservative agenda. When doing so, they reinforce a one-sided and harmful image of Christianity.

Moreover, this negative view of homosexuality does not stand alone. It is connected with a more general negative attitude towards the human body and sexuality, and with traditional views of the relations between men and women. In those views, sexuality should take place in the confines of marriage only and the lust and the pleasure connected with it are at best valued neutrally. Instead of celebrating the rich diversity of Creation, and enjoying the gift of our sexuality, in whatever form or orientation, the puritan message is that sexuality is connected with sin. This negative view of sexuality in general prevents church members to fully enjoy and embrace their sexuality.

Therefore, it is time that other Christian images of sexuality and commitments emerge in the public debate. I believe in a church that is fully part of modern society, that supports equal rights for men and women and lives up to this ideal in its own practice. And I believe that sexuality is a gift that we should fully embrace as a valuable aspect of Creation, in all the richness of its diversity. Commitments are made in many forms, and the idea that only one specific commitment for life, that with a partner of the opposite sex, should be celebrated in the church, must therefore be rejected.
I am glad that such other Christian images on sexuality and commitments are emerging indeed in various churches. I hope that this conference will be inspiring in exploring these images. In my own lecture, I will tell you something both about the Remonstrant experience, but also try to place it in a broader perspective. Therefore, I will start with a short discussion of the Dutch context.

Homosexuality in the Netherlands

The Netherlands is a very liberal country. We are famous (or notorious) for our liberal policies not only with regard to same-sex marriage, but also with regard to such issues as drugs, prostitution and euthanasia. Not only our society, but also most of our churches are very liberal. In various church families, the Dutch church is very liberal in comparison with its sister churches. This holds for churches as diverse as the Calvinist Reformed Churches, the Mennonites, the Lutherans, the Old Catholics and the Roman Catholics (the latter with the exception of the Vatican-appointed bishops). In the Reformed and Mennonite traditions, where the Dutch churches have co-founded or given the name to their church family, the Dutch church may be considered extremely liberal. In both cases, their tolerant views on homosexuality are a controversial theme in international contacts.

I want to highlight three aspects of this liberal character of Dutch society.

First, it has old roots in history. Since the Reformation, our country has always been one of minorities; the Dutch Reformed Church never comprised more than a large minority or a small majority of the population. Even the strongest groups had to tolerate the co-existence of groups and practices they despised and had to compromise with some of those groups in order to keep society going. This tradition of tolerance and compromise made it possible to accommodate and incorporate the challenges of the youth revolt and the sexual revolt of the sixties rather than fighting it.

Second, since the sixties, cohabitation has become very popular, both as a stage leading to marriage and as an alternative for marriage. The acceptance of sex outside marriage became even much broader; moral condemnation of this seems limited nowadays to a small orthodox protestant segment of society and, of course, the Roman Catholic bishops. Large groups of the younger generations live or have lived, at one time of their life, with a partner in a non-marital setting. This popularity of non-marital sex and non-marital cohabitation weakened traditional views on marriage considerably. These views were not only, like in many other countries, attacked by more radical groups such as feminists and gays and lesbians but also effectively weakened by those changing practices among the population at large. Marriage was no longer regarded as a requirement for cohabitation, let alone for sex.

Third, the Netherlands is a small country with strong internal social ties. It is, therefore, difficult for someone to live a homosexual life in secret – your family is never far away and may easily find out. In combination with the general liberal attitude, this has led to many gays and lesbians coming out of the closet, not only to their friends, but also to their family and colleagues, or to the public at large. As a result, almost everyone knows a number of gays and lesbians personally. Research in our church has indicated that not knowing any gays or lesbians personally was the main factor explaining a negative reaction to the blessing of homosexual commitments. The strong social integration of the Netherlands, combined with a large group of gays and lesbians out of the closet, thus promoted a broad acceptance of homosexuality. Of course, this is an itself reinforcing process; the more people are out, the easier it becomes for others to get out of the closet in their turn. And also the easier it becomes for public figures to come out of the closet; in the Netherlands, there are relatively few public persons who are not out.

Thus, at least three characteristics of Dutch society have played a role in the broad acceptance of same-sex relationships: the liberal tradition in general; the widespread practice of co-habitation and its general acceptance, and the visibility of gays and lesbians, both in the public domain and in the personal sphere. The role of Christian groups is a fourth factor that should be discussed.

The churches and homosexuality

The Dutch churches and their members have played an important role in the general acceptance of homosexuality, but only in some cases because of their support. In other cases, their negative reactions stimulated the public debate and awareness and, paradoxically, reinforced their opponents’ cause.
Since the sixties, part of the churches has been in the frontline of the struggle for tolerance and acceptance of homosexuals and lesbians. Liberal priests and ministers were among the first to advocate a more positive attitude. In 1972 the Dutch Lutheran Church made international history by declaring that sexual orientation should be considered irrelevant for church offices. At the same time, the Dutch Reformed Church started an ongoing discussion about the acceptance of homosexuals and lesbians and their relationships. These and other initiatives contributed to a growing tolerance of homosexuality, both in society at large and in the churches.

However, Christians were certainly not only supportive. In 1981, a draft bill for an Equal Treatment Act was introduced. This bill provoked strong protests from the religious right wing, as it implied that a Christian school would not be allowed to fire a teacher for being lesbian. Orthodox Protestant and Evangelical groups, until then very fragmented, rallied together against this proposal. They had some success. Not only did the protests delay the legislation for more than ten years, but it also led to a stronger organization of the Evangelicals and Orthodox Protestants, with their own broadcasting union, new schools, newspapers and a political party.

Yet, this initial success was merely a Pyrrhic victory. In the long run, the opponents did not win, because in the ensuing debate it became increasingly clear that it was only a small – even if highly vocal – group in Dutch society that opposed homosexuality. More importantly, the debate led to an increased awareness of the discrimination against homosexuals and of the need to counteract this among the population at large. The criticism from intolerant Christians also forced liberal but rather indifferent groups in the churches to take a stand. When the choice was between the intolerant religious right and equal rights for homosexuals, most people did not want to ally with the religious right.

The long debate on the Equal Treatment Act had even more wide-ranging consequences. The equality principle got a much stronger symbolic value than before. As a result, the ensuing public debate about opening up marriage for same-sex couples was structured in terms of this equality principle. This shifted the burden of proof not, as usually, to those who wanted to change the existing law, but to those who opposed equal rights to marry. Partly as a consequence of this, the movement to open up marriage was unstoppable.

The Remonstrant Church

After sketching this general background, I want to turn to the experience of my own church. The Remonstrant Church is one of the oldest Dutch churches, dating back from 1619 when the orthodox Calvinists in the Dutch Reformed church expelled a liberal group. It developed into a very liberal church, theologically but also with respect to moral and social issues. For example, it was in 1915 the second church (after the Mennonites) to accept female ministers, and made a clear statement against Nazism as early as 1935.

In 1986, we were the first church in Europe to accept church blessings for non-marital relationships. The new article on ‘life commitments’ reads:

“Two people who promise before the congregation or its representatives to share their lives together in love and faithfulness may have the covenant they have thus entered into blessed at a service of the church.”

This decision was the result of a long process. Around 1980, the Remonstrants wanted to revise their ordinances. They realised that the chapter on marriage should be thoroughly revised. It was clear from the start, at least for the national board, that something should be added for gay and lesbian couples and perhaps also for other non-married couples. However, it was unclear what precisely should be done. Moreover, there was still prejudice and emotional opposition to homosexuality. It was feared that this issue could be highly divisive and that members might leave the church.

Therefore, the Remonstrants decided to start a project on relationships, a process of intensive reflection and discussion. They provided a set of reading materials and produced two professional videos for use in the local congregations. They made three important decisions about the process. First, it should be connected with the suggested revision of the ordinances; this gave the discussion a clear focus, even if the discussion also dealt with many other issues. Secondly, the discussion should not be restricted to homosexuality; the broader perspective chosen was that of permanent relationships. Thirdly, this discussion should not merely be a rational one but should also address the emotional dimensions of relations and homosexuality.

Let me illustrate the approach with the videos. One was about a nice old lady, with whom it was easy to identify for most Remonstrants. She was interviewed about her life, her marriage, her lesbian daughter and the personal struggles and developments in her own views regarding relationships. The other was about an emotional discussion in a local church council on the blessing ceremony for a gay couple.

For four years, there were many discussions, both at the local and the national level. Surprisingly, during the process opinions converged on a more radical solution than the initial one. Initially, the idea was for a new chapter to be added on non-marital relationships, as a second category alongside marriage. However, the final outcome was to remove every reference to marriage (except for a minor one to civil law) and simply to introduce one new category, permanent relationships, without any further distinctions. This outcome was supported by a 90 % majority in the General Assembly.
Due to the intensive discussions and intensive pastoral care after the decision, the fear of a considerable loss of members did not come true. We lost less than 1 % of the members, most of which seem to have been at the fringe of the church already.

I should like to make a number of comments on this experience.

  1. The broad and personal approach was an important factor. It focussed not only on ‘the others’ (gays and lesbians) but on everyone’s personal life: what does it mean to live my life in commitment to someone else? This personal angle addressed the emotional level, at which, in my experience, almost all objections against homosexual relationships find their basis. As a result, during the process, many members really changed their views towards a more liberal position.
  2. According to Remonstrant theology, marriage is not a sacrament, nor is it indissoluble. The possibility of divorce had been accepted as early as 1950. One of the main points of discussion was whether we should regulate permanent relationships in the fundamental articles of our ordinances at all. An influential theology professor proposed a more open regulation at a less prominent place in the ordinances, because he feared a ‘resacralisation’ of marriage and other relationships. I supported this suggestion, because it would make it possible to bless other commitments as well and because it would not give two-person relationships such a special position. This alternative was, however, rejected because it was considered essential that the basic norm of equality of different types of relationships should be clearly expressed in the fundamental articles of the ordinances.
  3. We have no substantive definition of a permanent relationship. Of course, theological analyses of the meaning of commitments and of blessing have been part of the discussion. But in line with our commitment to personal freedom, we believe that it is the responsibility of a couple to give meaning to their relationship. Therefore, the church ordinances should not formulate a substantive view. Even so, it should be remarked that our discussion documents were highly critical of the well-known view that the union between two partners reflects the Covenant between God and man. This view was rejected because it sets far too high a standard for human relationships and because it sets the wrong standard, implying inequality and patriarchy.
  4. There was much discussion about the terminology with regard to the blessing. One of the initial proposals made a difference between the inzegening, in German: Einsegnung of marriage and the zegening or Segnung of other relationships. This strange distinction was soon discarded by the Remonstrants, but it has now been accepted in the new ordinances of the United Protestant Church. Our simple formula is that we pray for a blessing. The blessing is not a constitutive element of the relationship nor do we suppose that the relationship is altered by the ceremony. Two people can ask for the blessing of a commitment they have made and for the support of the congregation in this commitment. This illustrates our attempt to avoid any ‘sacralisation’ of the blessing ceremony.
  5. The change was not the result of a gay lobby (although a small number of gays and lesbians were involved in the process). The guiding principle was that equal treatment of gays and lesbians was considered to be a religious principle. The acceptance was certainly positively influenced by some specific characteristics of the Remonstrants, such as our liberal and tolerant identity, the small size of the religious community which enabled personal contact, the fact that marriage was not considered a sacrament and the liberal interpretation of Bible texts.

The international dimension

For some time, we were the only church in Europe where such ceremonies were officially possible. In line with our open tradition, we do not require that couples be members of our church, which means that we have had many ceremonies with couples belonging to other churches. Every year a small number of couples from abroad contact us for more information, and some of them will participate in a blessing ceremony. Others are no longer interested when they find out that it has no legal status and that we require pastoral talks before a ceremony can take place. It is a fortunate development that in recent years we have been able to redirect some of them to churches in their own country who are willing to perform blessing ceremonies.

My first experience with a blessing ceremony involved a couple from abroad. They were an Italian gay couple who had met hostile reactions from their environment. It was important for them to get some recognition of their relationship; therefore, they were very eager to get a blessing. In the course of two months, they travelled three times to Utrecht by car, and finally received their blessing. Some twenty members of our congregation attended the ceremony and celebrated their commitment with them. Seeing what this meant for these two guys was a very emotional moment for me, which made me realise even more that it was not just some abstract decision about equal rights we had made.

Other churches

The other Dutch churches reacted in various ways. As expected, the Roman Catholic bishops and the conservative Protestant churches denounced our decision. The reactions from the Dutch Reformed Church and the Reformed Churches were mixed as these churches were and still are strongly divided. The internal discussion in both churches still continues. Although there are no official rules about it, it is often possible in the more liberal congregations of both churches to get a blessing ceremony for same-sex relationships.

At a local level, the Remonstrant congregations often cooperate with three other small liberal protestant groups, the Mennonites, the Union of the Liberal Reformed and the Liberal Religious Community NPB. Each of these organizations has accepted gay and lesbian ministers and has gays and lesbians in leading functions; in local congregations of these groups it is generally possible to have a blessing ceremony. However, mainly because of their specific organization structures, they could not make a formal decision like the Remonstrants.

The most interesting move was made by the small Lutheran Church. In 1995 the Lutheran Synod unanimously stated that there were no theological grounds against the blessing of relations other than marriage. This decision is highly important for two reasons. First, whereas the Remonstrants are an almost exclusively Dutch church (there is a small congregation in Friedrichstadt an der Eider), the Lutherans are part of the large Lutheran church family, and thus this decision has a symbolic importance beyond the Dutch borders. Secondly, the Lutherans are in the process of unification with the two largest Protestant churches in the Netherlands; the synodal decision made it effectively impossible to keep non-marital relationships outside the ordinances of the new unified church. The resulting, still highly controversial compromise has been to leave it to the local congregations whether they want to allow blessing ceremonies for relationships other than marriage. As a result, after the unification (planned for next year), it will be possible in by far the largest Protestant church of the Netherlands, to have blessing ceremonies for non-marital relationships.

One other church should be mentioned. In 1996, the Old Catholic Synod took a liberal step declaring that a blessing ceremony for same-sex relationships is possible. As marriage is a sacrament in the Old Catholic Church, opening up marriage is much more complex for them than for Protestant. In 2002, a report advised to start this discussion about marriage as well.

Dutch civil law

As you probably know, in 2001 civil marriage was opened to same-sex couples. Recently, the Belgian parliament has made a similar decision, basically copying the Dutch law. The new Belgian law is supposed to enter into force soon.

The Dutch legal system was not the first to recognize same-sex partnerships; the Scandinavian countries were the pioneers. The Scandinavians introduced a second type of legal relationship alongside marriage, a registered partnership, which has almost the same legal consequences as marriage (except with regard to children). The Netherlands also initially chose this model. Registered partnership still exists, both for same-sex and different-sex couples. But after passing this law, the pressure for opening up marriage itself for same-sex couples became stronger rather than weaker.

A few notes about why the Dutch have taken this more radical step. The reason why we waited so long with the first step, was the dominant position of the Christian-Democratic party in every government until 1994. Once there was a government of secular parties, developments went very rapidly. The long debate about the Equal Treatment Act had given the equality norm a strong and wide support. Because of the dominance of this norm, the case was easily made and generally accepted that restricting marriage to couples of a different sex violated basic rights of gays and lesbians. This meant that the burden of proof came to lie with those who opposed opening marriage to same-sex couples. This opposition came from various Christian groups, both within Parliament and outside, but they put their arguments mainly in religious terms. The opponents thus failed to provide any arguments which could convince people with different or no religious convictions.

How strong the rhetorical climate in favour of equality had become, I experienced myself when I published a paper in the widely read Dutch Lawyers’ Journal in 1997. I argued that denying the symbolically valuable title of marriage to same-sex couples violated the principle of equality and criticised various arguments in favour of traditional marriage. To my surprise, no one tried to answer this challenge. This illustrated that the opponents had almost admitted defeat, being unable to break through the dominant view that they denied equal rights to gays and lesbians.

It is interesting to confront this with the rhetoric of the debate in the US. There the attempt to phrase the debate as one of equal rights for gays and lesbians has not been successful. Conservative opponents framed it in terms of special rights for gays and lesbians and as an attack on family values by radical groups. There the liberal movement was not able to restructure the debate in terms of equal rights.

Finally: should we want to get married?

Perhaps you believe, after all this advocacy of recognizing same-sex relationships in church and in law, that I am a happily married man. I am not, that is I have a happy long-lasting relationship with my partner, but we have no intention to marry either in church or in law. My point has always been that as long as an institution such as marriage exists, it should be open to gays and lesbians as an option. The equality principle should be the guiding principle here. But this does not mean that I support the institution as such, neither in general nor for me personally.

On the contrary, we should be very careful about celebrating the institution of marriage. With regard to heterosexual relationships, it may reinforce the existing discrimination of women, as the feminist movement has convincingly shown. With regard to two-person relationships in general, it may reinforce the existing discrimination against persons who do not live in this type of relationship. The dominance of marriage reinforces the social idea that men and women can only find fulfilment in the context of a life-long relationship with one other person and a strong commitment to this person only, and thus weakens the social position of those with a different lifestyle, either by choice or by circumstances.

For those reasons, I see no ground to be merely positive about the growing acceptance of marriage between couples of the same sex. It is an achievement only if we remain wary of the possible undesirable consequences. In 1986, the Remonstrants were very cautious to avoid a ‘resacralisation’ of marriage, and emphasised that their decision did not imply that people living alone or in different relationships have a less-fulfilling life. I hope that the gay and lesbian movement, both inside and outside the churches, will continue to have a twofold aim: on the one hand the struggle for recognition of same-sex couples’ equal rights; on the other hand the attempt to celebrate the full diversity of how people can positively live with their sexuality and their commitments.

Dr. Wibren van der Burg is chairman of the national board of the Remonstrant Church, and professor of jurisprudence at Tilburg University. He held this lecture for the conference of the European Forum of Lesbian and Gay Christian Groups in 2003 in Heemskerk, The Netherlands