After weeks of discussion, the General Synod of the Austrian Evangelical Church (EKÖ) – a Lutheran denomination – agreed on Saturday, March 9 to allow homosexual couples to receive a church blessing during a public ceremony of worship. The move was approved by 45 votes to 18.
Despite several measures intended to protect conscientious objection on the part of pastors and communities, the vote is expected to create a deep divide in the Austrian Lutheran church and some commentators in Austria are already warning that a split is in view. Discussions, while courteous according to the Synod, were pointed and “the topic was debated vigorously,” commented the non-denominational Christian media service Glaube.at.
Each party referred to the Bible to justify the opposing views. Voters for the blessing ceremony quoted the commandment of love and spoke about God’s mercy and “friendliness to man.” According to the theological document published by the General Synod, their objective is to bring people who suffer from discrimination closer to Christ. They also believe that the Bible does not condemn homosexual partnerships.
Those who oppose the blessing of same-sex unions called on biblical tradition which defines marriage as a God-willed faithful and lifelong relationship between a man and a woman, pointing at a Synod resolution in 1996 which said exactly that. Since then, the Lutheran assemblies of Austria had consistently refrained from suggesting that homosexual relationships could receive a public blessing.
What has changed is the recognition of same-sex civil “marriage” which became legal in Austria last January 1st following a decision of the Constitutional Court the previous month. Civil unions (registered partnerships) were legalized in 2010.
The Lutheran Church did not go so far as to approve holding same-sex “marriages” in church, stating that homosexual partnerships are merely “analogous to marriage”. It still upholds the “understanding of marriage as a lifelong relationship between husband and wife,” based on Scripture, according to the Synod decision.
But apart from the fact that it does not mention that homosexual relations are gravely sinful according to Christian teaching, instead calling this sin worthy of a blessing, the Synod pushed the analogy as far as it could, deciding that same-sex couples will only receive a blessing if they have already entered into a civil “marriage.” For homosexual couples, this constitutes an objective encouragement to enter into a same-sex “marriage.”
Same-sex couples who are in a simple registered partnership will have to make do with a private blessing in the Lutheran pastoral framework – this has already been available to homosexuals in Austria since 2007.
As for the church ceremony, it will look very much like a marriage insofar as elements of Christian marriage will be part of the blessing. Partners will be expected to promise each other “voluntary holistic personal care, lifelong fidelity, mutual care and fidelity in good times and in bad times”, according to the evangelical news site evang.at.
Each local community will be allowed to choose whether or not it wishes to implement the decision of the Evangelical Church to “open” itself up, by way of a decision of the community representatives. Pastors and lectors (and their female counterparts) will be allowed to opt out personally, the Synod decided.
But for how long? One “pastoress,” Rvd. Veronika Obermeir-Siegrist of Linz, welcomed the decision in these terms: “The Austrian law does no longer discriminate against homosexual couples, and the Church should also put love first.” If refusing same-sex “marriage” is construed as a form of discrimination, conscientious objection may well disappear in the long run.
Lutheran Bishop Michael Bünker called the move a “significant step towards the equal rights of homosexual couples.” “I am personally pleased with this decision,” he commented. “The fact that many agreed, while they were initially skeptical – otherwise we would not have reached the two thirds majority – shows that the discussion process went well. I’m proud of this church!”, he proclaimed.
Not all evangelical churches in Austria agree with EKÖ. The Evangelical Alliance in the country, of which the Lutheran Church is a member, refused to comment on its “internal affairs.” At the European level, the Evangelical Alliance has recently published guidelines on “how to respond to the LGBT agenda” in which it clearly states that “moving away from God’s pattern for family life is not an option for evangelical Christians.”
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