Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Cross Purposes

The issue of same-gender marriage is a hot topic at present around the world. The USA, the "bastion" of liberal society - at least in theory - is watching closely the current legal review of the Constitutional validity of the Proposition 8 vote which rescinded marriage equality for same-gender couples in California in December 2008. Proponents of Proposition 8 also pushed for the Defense Of Marriage Act (DOMA) to redefine the legal concept of marriage to mean "one man, one woman".

At present, the trial is filled with emotional appeals of the gay community for the State to recognize human rights, dignity and equality, and opposing statements from the defenders of marriage against the nasty, inhuman gay people - whose existence "threatens" religion, society and "the family" - that marriage "always has been" between males and females - and that this inequality somehow justifies the enforced continuation of this inequality.

Apparently some people seem to think that marriage "always has been" between males and females - and that this inequality somehow justifies the enforced continuation of this inequality.

Oh well, but that is America, you might say - several thousand kilometers away. You may even wonder how it affects us - and up to a point, here in sunny South Africa, I might actually agree with you. SA after all, is the only country in Africa where the pink community has fully equal rights, including the right to marry and to adopt children - so I can't blame some people for switching off and thinking our rights are "safe" and that any discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is random and on a small scale. At least, until I see articles in the paper about President Zuma offering to "discuss" gay rights in the Constitution with religious radicals, and showing official support for nasty little groups of radicals who make it clear that we and our civil and human rights are in their target sight in a coming battle to change the Constitution.

The marriage equality that we attained in 2006 specifies that gay people may marry in churches whose ministers are registered as marriage officers under the new act - which is separate from (but supposedly equal to) the pre-existing marriage act - and also that churches or ministers who do not wish to perform or host wedding ceremonies for gay couples cannot be forced to do so.

To a large degree, this limits gay couples choices in terms of having either secular weddings, or finding the very few churches willing to marry them. Many who wish to marry in their churches, even in those which follow a policy of "inclusion" towards their gay and transgender members, are refused on grounds of discriminatory policies. Some churches even go so far as to exclude transgender people from marriage - even heterosexual marriage - by wording in their policies that marriage is between "a 'natural' man and a 'natural' woman".

To me, this stark comparison highlights the HYPOCRISY of the whole so-called "separate but equal" premise - because how can heterosexual marriage and gay marriage EVER be equal - especially if discrimination immediately applies to one group and not the other?

In 2008, employment law came under the spotlight, with the NG Church in Pretoria that unfairly dismissed a gay music teacher on the grounds that he was gay and in a relationship. Even before this event, the realization that many people - members, ministers and even bishops are gay, bi or transgender, is slowly occurring to church leadership around the world.

In South Africa though, a church denomination is now taking action against one of its own ministers - not for marrying in one of its own Methodist churches, not for performing an unauthorized gay marriage - but simply for being married.

Ecclesia and her partner Amanda were married at a religious ceremony by an ordained minister of another denomination - not from the Methodist Church. Technically speaking, since the MCSA was not involved in the arrangements or wedding ceremony, they should have no right to discriminate against her whatsoever, and the only way this effects them is as an employer, having to recognize her marital status as "married" for record-keeping, tax and the same benefits accorded to her heterosexual married colleagues.

What we have here now is a new form of discrimination against gay people - on the grounds of marital status.

The whole debacle is unfolding on a Facebook group this past week established to support this minister and her partner. Yesterday Reverend Ecclesia de Lange, an ordained minister at St Marks Methodist Church in Edgemead, Cape Town appeared before disciplinary hearing convened on the matter of her flouting the anti-human rights laws of the Methodist Church of South Africa (MCSA).

The creator and administrator of the Facebook group, Andrew Treu reported the verdict of the trial, which reportedly took the tribunal less than half an hour - 30 minutes - to hear argument, consider submissions, deliberate and deliver sentence!

"Friends, today the District Disciplinary Committee heard the charge against Ecclesia. While we prayed in the Church the Committee heard the charge, listened to Ecclesia and heard her defence (delivered eloquently by Rev Tim Attwell). The committee adjourned just before 19:00 to deliberate. A half an hour later Ecclesia and Tim were called back and the verdict was delivered. They were given the following in writing:

The Committee finds Rev de Lange guilty of failing to observe the provisions of the Laws & Disciplines and all other policies, decisions, practices and usages of the Church (L&D11th Edition 4.82 &11.3) by announcing her intention to enter into a same-sex civil union, and especially by doing this without consultation with her Superintendent and the Bishop.

Time already served under suspension.

As Rev. de Lange has subsequently entered into the civil union while the MCSA has specifically instructed that such action should not happen while the debate in the Church continues (Yearbook 2008 2.5.1 (vi)), the Committee recommends that she continue under suspension until such time as the MCSA makes a binding decision on ministers in same-sex unions. Out of consideration for the needs of Circuit and Societies, this suspension should be without station or emoluments."

We are deeply saddened by this but although we have lost this battle, the war has not been lost. Ecclesia has declared her intention to appeal this finding of the Committee. This appeal will be heard by the Connexional Disciplinary Committee at the end of the month."

Posting later to lay out the options faced by Rev de Lange and her supporters, Andrew Trieu wrote: "The first recourse is via the courts of the Church. Ecclesia will appeal the decision of the Committee. That appeal will be heard by the Connexional Disciplinary Committee towards the end of the month. If they find against her the final recourse inside the Church is to call for arbitration. Only if that finding is against her would it be worthwhile to seek relief in the civil courts. Let's hope and pray that it won't go that far, but if need be we will. She has not been dismissed - she is under suspension pending a decision of the Conference. I think it is at that level that we need to be concentrating our efforts but the way forward will reveal itself to us once our grief and anger has been vented."

So she has been suspended. Not an unexpected result. I can't say I'm surprised. And to add insult to injury - in the document quoted, they refuse to even refer to Rev. de Lange's relationship by its proper and LEGAL description - MARRIAGE - not a "civil union"!

Up until the announcement of the verdict of this clearly one-sided internal process, this group was filled with messages of support and solidarity for this clearly very popular and much loved minister. Since the posting of the verdict, it has become a hub of protest, anger, disappointment and outrage by hurt and disillusioned GLBTI Christians, fellow congregants, their friends and family members and even complete strangers.

One supporter, Wessel Bentley, wrote: "This hurts. And in this hurt, the questions arises: It only took the committee half an hour!? I wonder if the complexity of this matter was given justice? I don't call the integrity of those who heard the arguments into question - I don't know them - but having worked on the matter of civil unions etc. in DEWCOM, I would have thought that it was going to take longer than this."

Andrew Trieu replied: "I may also be speaking out of my own grief, hurt and anger but it seems to me that the very strong defence eloquently delivered by Tim (11 pages single spacing) was not even considered in the verdict. It seems that the whole affair was already cut and dried before the arguments even began."

It seems that some people refuse to recognize even our humanity, respect our dignity or our right to equality.

Many people in the pink community look for affirming churches who use the word "inclusive" to describe being welcoming to them. Very often it seems that "inclusive" only means "tolerant" - as in "we will tolerate you, but not accept you". "Inclusive" seems to have one meaning in the world and a different meaning in the church. Yes, it means "tolerating" - not "accepting". It means "you are welcome to attend as long as you don't make who you are our problem".

The Methodist Church of South Africa it seems, like other churches and bodies - like the SA National Blood Service - are asserting that we are welcome as long as we stop being who we are.

It is a blatant slap in the face for Ecclesia and Amanda - and ALL OF US too - and I hope those responsible read this comment - and know that this is not the end of it. I think she should be consulting a lawyer already at this stage. This is a case that could create a precedent - watch the press, pretty soon the right wingers and conservative groups will catch wind of it and start crying that "the Church" is "under attack", the precious "family unit" is about to collapse, and the world is about to end (again). I can't wait to get my copy of the FPI's next newsletter, with Erroll Naidoo's smug chops smiling at me from his poster-boy photo, doubtless he will have a lot to say on the matter, before asking folks to pass the collection plate.

Remember Moreletta Park v/s the gay music teacher they discriminated against and fired? Cranks from as far as Australia were saying how shocked they were that a court could penalize a church in favor of a "dirty gay man". Funny enough, they are still there, with their doors open - and preaching intolerance. Business as usual.

Some straights are really a bunch of drama queens.

Many people tend to forget the real meaning of marriage - LOVE. COMMITMENT. Love isn't about gender, or sex, or what religion you choose to believe in, or which church you go to, or what name you call God by, or which language you talk to God in.

Many people tend to forget that we all grow old, we all die. They overlook the fact that while we are young we seek out friends and soul mates and companions to keep us warm through life and when the cold of the grave inevitably approaches.

Many people tend to forget how privileged they are to be able to claim the word "marriage" as their own, and to use it to describe their own warm cosy relationships, made legitimate, privileged and superior by word of law and edicts of religion.

I read this following comment posted by an elderly gay man on the subject of not having had the privilege of marrying: "After Christmas service I came home to an empty home with just my cat as companion. I had a sandwich for lunch. While all the straight people could enjoy their marriages and families. All the children and grandchildren and receiving and giving of presents. And the Christmas dinner. I never chose to be gay. Why am I an outcast? I have come to hate Christmas!

It's so easy for heterosexual people who have the privilege of happy marriages to make decisions on how gay people have to live."

Another supporter, Ric Matthews asked: "What happened to Nelson Mandela's wonderful words at his inauguration: "Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another"? How is it not oppression to insist, simply because of sexual orientation, that people who love each other may not get married (or even "joined in ...a civil union") until the Church may or may not allow it ? What happened to the Church that once fought so bravely for Nelson Mandela to be able say those powerful words as President of a land that once reduced him to a 2nd class citizen?"

Silly, we all "know" racism is a far worse crime than homophobia... why would they care about a bunch of "deviants" and "sinners" like us? After all, they're sitting there, "sinless" and "perfect", gathering dust atop their soaring pedestals and pointing their fingers at us, making us into 2nd class citizens and giving credence to the saying that "gay is the new Black".

Many people have suddenly seen this one issue as a glaring loophole in our human rights protection in this country where they thought discrimination had ended more than a decade ago. Many of them have just received a wake-up call. Some have asked what can they do?

Keep your eyes on gay rights and the Constitution. Spread news to friends and family. Talk about it. Find local human rights groups you can support and offer your assistance to. Keep informed, keep your eyes open and don't take propaganda at face value - do a little digging of your own to see for yourself. And above all, don't keep quiet when you see or hear bigotry and intolerance in action, but stand up to it and set things right.

Church leadership and those who attend church form a symbiotic relationship. Without people to fill church on Sundays, they have no purpose (and quite frankly, no money either). Without the pastors, reverends and leaders, there is no structure, no body corporate to act on their behalf as a group. A longstanding disagreement such as this will hurt both - as will standing by an oppressive and archaic doctrine which can in no way be justified by any reference to Christ.

This is an opportunity for the MCSA to resolve this internal conflict and do what is right - to recognize our dignity and equality and our worthiness as people. A time to say - "more than 'tolerance' - we accept you and we love you as our equals".

Look at Christ on the cross for inspiration - his arms are opened wide in welcoming love - and they were not forced thus - he opened them to us all, willingly.


If you would like to know more about Christina Engela and her writing, please feel free to browse her website.

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