United Church Urges Ottawa to
Recognize Same-Sex Partnerships
Statement from the Largest Protestant Denomination in Canada
February 26, 2003
In a presentation on February 13, 2003, The United Church of Canada suggested to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights that the committee should recommend to Parliament that the federal government adopt a legislative framework that provides the same civil recognition for heterosexual and homosexual couples.
In its submission to the committee, the United Church outlined its longstanding commitment to equality rights for gays and lesbians within the church and Canadian society.
In 1984, The United Church of Canada affirmed our acceptance of all human beings as persons made in the image of God, regardless of their sexual orientation. In 1988, the church affirmed that all persons who profess faith in Jesus Christ, regardless of their sexual orientation, are eligible to be considered for ordered ministry. In 1992, the General Council directed that liturgical and pastoral resources for same-sex covenants be made available to congregations.
In 1997, the 37th General Council passed a resolution requesting that United Church regional Conferences urge all teachers’ unions and associations to provide in-service education on gay, lesbian, and bisexual issues in order to promote tolerance. To this end the United Church has recently published “Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Youth Issues in Canada: Action Resources for United Church Congregations.”
In 1999, the United Church appeared before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights in support of Bill C-23, the “Modernization of Benefits and Obligations,” as a tangible expression of the United Church’s commitment to the equality of heterosexual and same-sex relationships. In 2000, the 37th General Council of the United Church affirmed that human sexual orientations, whether heterosexual or homosexual, are a gift from God and part of the marvelous diversity of creation.
Each year, the United Church, which is Canada’s largest Protestant denomination, blesses over 15,000 marriages in Canada. In 2000, the General Council resolved to work toward civil recognition of same-sex partnerships.
Historically, The United Church of Canada has also made various statements regarding marriage. Prior to 1980, marriage was named as a union between a woman and a man. Subsequently, it was reported at the 30th General Council in 1984 that the life and ministry of Jesus demonstrated what it means to be a full human being made in the image of God. The essential mark is the total self-giving love to the other. There is no genuine humanity apart from relationship and community, but there is more than one way to symbolize and express this reality that is pleasing to God and in keeping with God’s intention for humanity.
In 1988, the General Council affirmed that all “life-long relationships” (note the omission of the term “marriage”) need to be faithful, responsible, just, loving, health giving, healing, and sustaining of community and self. The implication is that these standards apply to both heterosexual and homosexual couples as the United Church has come to recognize that gay and lesbian members want to make the same life-long commitments that heterosexual members make, and to make their solemn vows with communities of faith who will support them in their commitments. Consequently, recent United Church resources for marriage preparation, “Passion and Freedom” (coming in summer 2003), and services, “Celebrate God’s Presence” (2000), make no distinctions between heterosexuals and homosexuals.
As a Protestant denomination, the United Church is part of the Christian tradition that does not regard marriage a sacrament. Procreation is not a defining aspect of marriage in the United Church. Nor does the church condemn people who decide divorce is the only option for a marriage that is fraught by unhappiness. Divorced people receive the communion of the church and may remarry someone else.
Nevertheless, the United Church places an extremely high value on the seriousness of vows taken before God and in the presence of witnesses. The church urges congregations to help couples to prepare for a life together and offers counseling and enrichment courses.
The most recent policy decision by the General Council affirming the relationships of same-sex couples was in 2000. At this General Council meeting, the church adopted the policy to affirm and work toward the civil recognition of same-sex partnerships. As a result, some United Church congregations are beginning to record the services of same-sex couples in their marriage registers and forwarding these registrations to provincial governments for licensing.
In its submission, the United Church argues that many of the alleged benchmarks for confining marriage to opposite-sex couples do not bar same-sex couples.
Procreation can no longer be cited as a defining dynamic of marriage in Western society. Ironically, in Canada, we do have heterosexuals who marry with no intention, and in some cases, no ability of having children, and yet we have same-sex couples with children who cannot get married.
Others may argue that including same-sex couples undermines society’s understanding of family. It is the experience of the United Church that non-traditional family forms may equally advance these family values.
Still others argue that including same-sex couples within a definition of marriage impinges on their religious freedom and understanding of marriage as an opposite-sex institution only, potentially forcing some clergy to compromise their faith and marry a same-sex couple. This is not true. The separation of Church and State in Canada means clergy are not required to marry couples when it would be contrary to the faith community’s religious beliefs. One example is the refusal of the Roman Catholic Church to marry someone who is divorced.
For further information, please contact:
Program Officer, Human Rights & Reconciliation Initiatives
Justice, Global & Ecumenical Relations Unit
United Church of Canada
3250 Bloor St. West, Suite 300, Toronto, Ontario M8X 2Y4
416-231-5931: message 416-231-7680