On 25 June 2005 at the European Forum Women’s pre-conference, Randi O. Solberg talked about the Situation of Lesbians and Gays in the Churches of Europe. Randi was the European Forum’s co-president at that time. The lecture is based on reports from LGBT groups in the different countries, printed in the first edition of the book Let Our Voices Be Heard! Christian Lesbians in Europe Telling their Stories. This is the second part of the lecture.
Let’s take a short trip around Europe to see how the situation is in the different churches, concerning the mentioned questions and other LGBT issues. Because of time restrictions I will focus on four big Christian Churches in Europe: Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican.
We start with the protestant churches in Europe, to which for instance the Lutheran, the Reformed or Presbyterian, and the United Churches belong. These churches are dominant mainly in the North West European countries. Relatively spoken, these Churches take a rather liberal stand when it comes to LGBT issues in their churches. But it is difficult to generalize their positions. In opposite to the Catholic Church they do not have a central leadership that decides for instance about the Lutheran or Reformed profile world wide. Decisions and attitudes depend on regional and/or national synods, bishop councils and even single bishops.
The Lutheran Churches, which are dominant in the Scandinavian countries and still also mark the socio political climate in Scandinavia, became rather open to LGBT questions during the last 20 years. Especially Denmark came quite far, since the Lutheran Church accepted blessing services for same sex partnerships already in 1997, while the partnership registration is already possible since 1989. Norway followed with the partnership registration in 1993 and Sweden in 1995, while the Lutheran Churches in Norway, Sweden, and Finland did not follow the example of the Danish Lutheran Church concerning the blessing of LGBT relationships. In the other Scandinavian countries the possibility of blessing services and the ordination of lesbian and gay ministers living in partnership depend on region, bishop, bishop council and the position of the church hierarchy in general. However, the praxis of the last years shows that in reality several blessing services and appointments of lesbians and gays are done, even if it is against the official policy of the churches. It can be seen as a good sign.
In Finland lesbian and gay ministers mostly do not live openly since they still fear to lose their jobs in church.
Also in Latvia the position of the Lutheran Church is much more conservative than in Denmark, Sweden or Norway. Not only did they abolish the ordination of women but also lesbian and gay ministers and employers in church risk being withdrawn from their jobs. The minister Maris had to experience that when he came out as gay in public.
In the reformed Churches in Europe the situation varies from the very open positions in the Netherlands where some of the reformed denominations have allowed same sex partnership blessings already at the beginning of the nineties, to the rather liberal positions in Germany and the German speaking Switzerland, to the more conservative Calvinist Reformed Church in France and the French speaking reformed Church in Switzerland. In France the Reformed Synod has decided in 2004 that open lesbians and gays are not allowed to work as ministers and that same sex partnerships will not be blessed in the churches even though French lesbians and gays can register their partnerships with the so called PACS (Parténariat Civil de Solidarité) since 1999.
Generally, the debates around the LGBT issues are still very controversial in the Reformed and United Churches in Europe. They are far away from reaching acceptable compromises.
Roman Catholic Church
We now “travel” to the Catholic Churches in Europe, which are mainly dominant in Southern Europe and in some Eastern European countries. The official position of the Catholic Church about any subject is decided by the Vatican. Therefore, there are no big differences between the different countries. Homosexuality is seen as sin, and homosexuals should live in celibacy or should be cured from their misled orientation through prayer, counselling and/or therapy. Openly living LGBT are not allowed to receive Eucharist or work in church, neither paid nor on a voluntary basis. It is official policy of the Vatican that lesbians and gays, who register their same sex partnership, lose their jobs whenever the Catholic Church finds out about it. Same sex partnership blessings are also not allowed in church. However, some catholic priests do it anyway. But they do it unofficially and at their own risk. One Italian priest was withdrawn from his parish after he had blessed a gay couple in a service. In Catholic dominated countries like Spain, Italy, Malta, Poland or Austria many priests express anti gay positions in public and use their authority in the media to do so.
Therefore, it is a rather positive surprise that a Catholic country like Spain has opened up marriage — with full rights — also for lesbian and gay couples in 2004. That means that Spain has tied or even passed Northern Europe and has become a sign of hope for the development of LGBT issues in all of Europe. Christian LGBT in Spain are also very happy about the development, but they clearly point out that it was a political decision. “As Christians we have to keep on working in order to have our love accepted by our churches. In Spain the Catholic Church is dominating and we all know what the Vatican thinks about this subject. Fortunately, many Christians who are distant to the church hierarchy think about it differently.”
In Malta the Malta Gay Rights Movement reports that a questionnaire shows that 29,5 % of lesbians and gays were discriminated against by church institutions for instance by denying them confession or by calling them sick or even animals.
The Catholic Church in Poland, home of the former Pope, is very strong. They criticize sharply the planned same sex partnership law which got accepted in the Upper house of the parliament but has to be voted upon again also in the Lower House.
Father Jerzy Kloch, speaker of the Polish Church leadership claims that the law breaks the constitution and brings social harm to marriage, family and children’s education.
“The church has stated its attitude to the subject very clearly in many meetings with the government, and we hope that such a law will not be introduced in Poland!”
In 2001 bishop Tadeusz Pieronek said the following about homosexuality:
“It is like with a contagious disease. Nobody wants to discriminate against those people, but since we are worried about our own safety, we have to ask for boundaries and a certain isolation of these people.” And:
“Homosexual marriage and adoption of children through homosexuals lead to paralyzing of the societal order.”
Church organizations and representatives were also partly responsible, when the gay pride parade and the campaign “fight against homophobia” in Warsaw and Krakow were stopped in 2004 and were violently harassed against by conservative and right winged people.
An exception seems to be the Catholic Church in Belgium. LGBT people report very positively about Catholic parishes and also about the Church leadership. But also there the bishops officially disapprove of the sexual aspect of same sex relationships. When a cardinal claimed in an interview in 2004 that lesbians and gays were perverts and people with big problems, cardinal Daneels, president of the all the bishops in Belgium replied: “that is not the attitude of the Catholic Bishop Council in Belgium!” In many cases lesbians and gays report positive experiences with parishes, Catholic grassroots organisations, and even with some Catholic priests who are very supportive, welcome open LGBT for Eucharist and even do same sex partnership blessings — of course unofficially, in Belgium just as much as in other European countries.
We now travel to the Orthodox Churches in Europe. In countries like Russia, Romania, Moldova, Serbia Montenegro and Greece where the Orthodox Churches are dominant LGBT people in church have a hard time. They are not allowed to go to Eucharist. They are not allowed to work in church, neither paid nor as volunteers. However, there are many lesbians and gays employed by the Orthodox Church, but they all do not live openly. Otherwise they would lose their jobs. Lesbians and gays are seen as perverts and sinful against God’s law. They are supposed to be “ruled by the devil” and “a dangerous sign of the apocalypse.”
In Greece the organisation of Greek priests demanded that men who want to become priests have to undergo certain tests in order to prove that they are not homosexual, since families have to be protected against the “disease of Sodomy”. Father Efstathios Kollas, the leader of this organisation, has said: “Homosexuality is dangerous. Before Jesus Christ came to earth he had sent out an angel to kill homosexuals!” Fortunately this angel can’t have been to successful…
With positions like this it is not surprising that the Greek lesbian woman, that filled in the questionnaire for our book could not believe that same sex partnership blessings do exist somewhere in other churches of Europe and the world, as I mentioned before. She expressed the clear wish to hear everything about it.
As last stop we visit the Anglican Church which is the strongest church in Great Britain and also very strong in former Commonwealth Countries.
The Anglican Church world wide is divided over the subject of homosexuality, especially after the appointment of the openly gay theologian Gene Robinson as bishop in New Hampshire (USA), and after the decision of the Church of Westminster in Canada to accept same sex blessings in church services. Both incidents happened in 2003. The threat of conservative Anglican parishes and priests to leave the Anglican Church altogether has never ceased ever since. Some have actually left the church but that is a clear minority so far.
In the Anglican Church in Great Britain there are also many controversial debates and discussions about the subject of same sex blessings and the ordination of lesbian and gay priests. But personalities, like the former Anglican Archbishop of South Africa Desmond Tutu and others, support the struggle of LGBT people in the Anglican Churches world wide quite considerably. But there are still many other church representatives who are against equal rights for LGBT in the Anglican Church.
After this short overview about the situation of LGBT issues in four big Christian Churches in Europe one can only underline that many positive and hopeful developments in European Churches have happened. More churches are open to ordain lesbian and gay ministers, employ LGBT people, and approve of same sex partnership blessings in church services. But not all these positive developments happened at official church leadership levels, though. Grassroots organisations, single parishes and some priests came much further than for instance the official conservative positions in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. However, most of the positive developments in the churches happened in reaction to earlier decisions in the different national socio political spheres like same sex partnership registration or same sex marriage laws in many West European countries, or like the process of the national adoptions of the EU anti-discrimination law from 1997 and its directive against discrimination at the work place in 2000. But especially after the French and Dutch rejection of the European Constitution the future of the anti-discrimination law and the further adoption by member states is quite open.
The situation in the Churches of Europe is far away from satisfying when it comes to attitudes, same sex blessings, ordination and employment of lesbians and gays in church. It is still a long way to go until Christians in all the European Churches can live openly gay in their very churches.
But to be able to go on we must not forget the things that we have already accomplished. The 95 lesbians from all over Europe in our book tell about those little and bigger successes in their churches and their personal experiences of hope and trust in spite of all doubts, questions and times of crises. They tell about strength, creativity and joy in Christian celebrations, services and other supportive activities where people helped and supported one another regardless of their sexual orientations. They tell about grassroots organisations and LGBT Christian groups, like the member groups of the European Forum that helped them in trouble and despair and that have actually achieved changes in the attitudes of church officials. Those stories that you can read in our book and that we can all tell each other are encouraging to go on with our struggle.
Step by step, with God’s support we want to make the churches a home for all people who are searching for God, and for a Christian community which accepts people the way they are.