Jun 152012
Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark

On June 11, the eight out of ten bishops in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark proposed a same-sex marriage ritual to the country’s Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, in response to Parliament’s decision, on June 7, to change marriage legislation.

As of June 15, same-sex couples in Denmark can marry in the state church or have a civil ceremony.

The ritual proposed states that pastors, who cannot theologically support same-sex marriages, will be free not to use the rite. However, Queen Margrethe II is expected to approve the new ritual for the blessing of civil same-sex marriages, even though the bishops proposed a rite of blessing for civil same-sex marriages.

Since 1989, homosexual couples in Denmark have been able to register officially their partnerships and, since 2005, to have their partnerships blessed in a church ceremony in six of the ten dioceses of the Lutheran state church.

According to the Anglican Journal, Bishop Peter Skov-Jakobsen of Copenhagen stated on the diocesan website that “the ritual for same-sex marriages shows a church rooted in an Evangelical Lutheran tradition of interpreting the Christian Gospel in its contemporary setting. As a church we are highly conscious of interpreting in present and not in past time.”

He also said that “the Gospel creates openness towards people and now at last also openness towards same-sex couples. In that way our national church will now reflect the wider society, which is incredibly important.”

Bishop Lise-Lotte Rebel of Helsingoer did not support the rite and argued that Parliament should not interfere with the church.

“Parliament has promised church members something that Parliament is not entitled to promise. Only the responsible leadership of the church can promise this,” she told a Parliament hearing on the matter on 14 May, according to her diocese’s website.

The new legislation is in conflict with the church’s traditional stance on marriage, Rebel stated that Parliament “has acted as an archbishop or a pope,” and that is “something which is totally inappropriate in a modern, democratic society.”

According to the Lutheran Journal of Ethics website a pastor, in the Church of Denmark, “can, after having sought guidance by his/her bishop, offer a “divine service” for a homosexual couple that has decided to enter into a so-called registered partnership.” In 1948, a “free constitution” was introduced, but it did not separate Church and State.

Rather, the Evangelical-Lutheran Church was given the status of “the Danish folk church” that required support by the state. Although promised, the church never got its own constitution, and therefore its legal framework has remained unclear in many respects.

In 1997, the bishops made a decision concerning the possibility of marriage services for homosexual couples in relationship the change of social attitudes concerning homosexuality. In 1998, Parliament decided to allow for a “registered partnership” of same-sex couples, which gave many same-sex couples juridical conditions similar to married heterosexual couples. Since the bishops are part of the governing body, any marriages within the church are legally binding and therefore the bishops had to come up with a working plan to abide by the “registered partnership”. The liberal branch formed a working committee to solve the issue.

The main question for the committee was whether it can be theologically justified for the church to conduct a blessing ceremony for a couple living in a registered partnership. From a Lutheran point of view, two issues are important here. The first is the normativity of the Bible in relation to homosexuality. The report of course realizes that there are clear condemnations of homosexuality in Scripture. However, it points at Luther’s principle that only those parts of the Bible that present Christ as savior are the word of God. The ethical consequence it draws from this is that only the teaching of Jesus is regarded as ethically normative for Christians of today. The second issue is the traditional Lutheran view of marriage as an order of creation. The report takes Luther’s own view to be that monogamous, life-long marriage is the only legitimate frame of sexual life and family. It rejects this view with two arguments: (i) there is no unambiguous biblical basis for regarding marriage as an order of creation in this sense; (ii) modern historic and sociological knowledge about the changeability of human institutions shows the idea of marriage as an order of creation to be an “ideological superstructure.” From these arguments the report concludes:

The registered partnership/homosexual relationship is in the opinion of the committee not in conflict with Christian teaching and morality. The committee has not found that the general ethical arguments adduced against homosexual practice are tenable. The committee reckons the biblical statements against the practice of homosexuality among the Bible’s culturally conditioned historical statements which do not have normative character. The committee does not find that the ‘orders of creation’ theology inspired by Luther is tenable such as it has been advanced in these contexts where it has been applied to let the traditional marriage stand out as the only acceptable Christian framework around common life, sexual life, and formation of the family. (English summary, p. 2f.).

The Conservative branch reported that Christian norms and values are based on the Bible.

Christian norms and values are based on scripture and are therefore in principle independent of social development. The Bible has Jesus’ teaching and acting as its center, so that they function as a criterion for the validity of other biblical statements. This means that the double commandment of love and the Sermon on the Mount are of utmost importance. The biblical statements against homosexual practice are clear.

The Rev. Svend Andersen continues the report by concluding, “All things considered, I do not take as justifiable the claim that homosexual orientation or practice contradicts Christian ethics.”

“On Lutheran grounds it is possible to make a case for encouraging the formation of homosexual couples, and also for recognition of registered partnership. The church’s mission is not to remove itself from the homosexual community. On the contrary, in the name of neighbor love the church should welcome homosexual believers as well as all other believers. Whether or not the church should take the further step and give blessing to homosexual couples is a question that takes us beyond Christian ethics.”

Norway legalized same-sex civil marriages in 2008, Sweden since 2009, and Iceland since 2010. Since 2001, Finland offered public registration of same-sex couples.

The General Synod of the Lutheran Church of Sweden adopted same-sex marriage liturgy and the Bishop Conference of Norway expects to decide if they will do the same in 2014. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland and Finland have not decided on liturgy for same-sex marriages as of yet.