Gay church marriages in Denmark

The Telegraph reports that the Danish parliament has passed a law requiring all churches in the Nordic country to perform gay marriages. Clergy may opt not to perform the ceremonies, but church authorities must find a substitute minister to solemnize the marriage.

Strong stuff, if true. Lutherans, Catholics, Anglicans, Reformed, Orthodox and Pentecostal churches will now be compelled to perform gay marriages, the Telegraph reports, even if it is forbidden by their theological views on marriage.

Here is the lede:

The country’s parliament voted through the new law on same-sex marriage by a large majority, making it mandatory for all churches to conduct gay marriages.

Denmark’s church minister, Manu Sareen, called the vote “historic”.

“I think it’s very important to give all members of the church the possibility to get married. Today, it’s only heterosexual couples.”

Under the law, individual priests can refuse to carry out the ceremony, but the local bishop must arrange a replacement for their church.

The article recounts the political battle that led up to the vote, which passed 85 to 26 and offers quotes from supporters of both sides of the debate.

A conservative politician is cited as saying:

“Marriage is as old as man himself, and you can’t change something as fundamental,” the party’s church spokesperson Christian Langballe said during the debate. “Marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman.”

While the Bishop of Viborg is reported as saying the new law risks “splitting the church”.  The government’s religion minister, who is identified as an agnostic, had sharp words for those who disagree with the new law.

“The minority among Danish people, politicians and priests who are against, they’ve really shouted out loud throughout the process.”

While a prominent gay politician offers the obligatory medieval quote:

“We have felt a little like we were living in the Middle Ages,” he told Denmark’s TV2 station. “I think it is positive that there is now a majority for it, and that there are so many priests and bishops who are in favour of it, and that the Danish population supports up about it. We have moved forward. It’s 2012.”

All in all, this is a nicely balanced piece. Views from both sides are offered and the casual reader gets a sense of where the debate lies. However, there is a hole in this story that needs to be filled — which churches will be compelled to perform gay weddings?

The article states that “all churches” will be compelled to perform gay marriages? Is that true?  No.

According to the Copenhagen Post this law applies only to the state Lutheran Church. It reported:

The ban on marrying same-sex couples in the Church of Denmark will be overturned in parliament today, as a majority of parties have announced their intention to support a law to make marriage gender neutral.

The law does permit vicars to decline to marry same-sex couples in their church, however. In such cases, couples would need to find another minister to perform the ceremony for them.

Same-sex ceremonies may occur as soon as June 15 should the nation’s bishops, as expected, come up with a ceremony by Monday that can be used to wed same-sex couples in church.

The new ceremony was needed after bishops ruled that the current one can only be used to wed heterosexual couples. But while same-sex and heterosexual couples will be wed using different rituals, their marriage status will be equal.

As Denmark has a state church an informed reader would come to this story with the knowledge that the government would only be able to compel the state church, the Lutheran Church, to perform gay marriages. But knowledge of Danish ecclesial affairs is not something one acquires in the normal course of life — the Telegraph should have been  more specific.

It would also have helped to recount the heavy newspaper campaigning by supporters of gay marriage in Denmark. The Danish press has been far from neutral in its coverage of this issue.

A leder in the conservative daily Kristeligt Dagblad had argued that  politicians should refrain from obliging the Danish National Church to perform marriage rites between homosexual partners:

Politicians shouldn’t play at being theologians. The Danish National Church should decide for itself what rituals take place within the church. For obvious reasons such a decision will revolve around other factors than equal treatment. … There’s much at stake here, including the historical understanding of wedlock as the foundation of the family, which remains the smallest and most important social unit. The politicians who are making the Church a battleground for party politics should not simply ignore this.

The left wing daily Politiken applauded the vote in a 8 June 2012 leder.

This resolution is not only a victory for homosexuals, but also for Denmark’s progressive, multifaceted image, which has been keeping a low profile in recent years. At the same time the resolution marks a defeat for the alliance of narrow-minded conservatives and religious sourpusses that held sway under the conservative government.

The European press may be able to offer a balanced analysis of the political forces that produced the parliamentary victory for the liberal government. But it largely incapable of relating, even understanding, the religious issues at play.

There is a story here that has yet to be told. The Telegraph reports that one bishop believes this  law will split the Danish National Church. The Copenhagen Post reports that only 3 of the 10 Danish bishops back the new law. Something is going to happen — hopefully the press will pick up on this story — and not approach it in the way Politiken has approached the story in parliament.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock.

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  • PM

    The Telegraph article really fails its readers by not giving background on the state church. My understanding is that this only affects the state church, which is state funded and overseen by parliament and a cabinet level minister. The way it is written would lead a reader to believe this impacts all churches and that parliament controls all churches.

  • David A

    At some point, it would be interesting to see more of a tie-in of this story with the HHS mandate.

  • carl

    Any ambiguity resulting from the first sentence was cleared up by the first quote.

    “I think it’s very important to give all members of the church the possibility to get married. Today, it’s only heterosexual couples.”

    That statement indicated to me that the law only applied to a state church.


  • Jerry

    I wonder if the reality of a state church is assumed by the reporter. If so it obviously does not translate to American audiences who assume no state church.

  • Ray Ingles

    I’m an atheist, and this story makes me very glad for the First Amendment here in the U.S. And I agree, making it clear that it applies to the state church would be a good thing.

    On the other hand, it’s the Telegraph, from the U.K. – where there’s also a state church. That might help explain what from an American viewpoint looks like a lapse.

  • asshur

    Well the Telegraph is based in the UK; which last time I looked has also a State Church depending on Queen and Parliament … and IIRC runs also the risk of being subject to exactly the same law
    Not sure of the status of the project anymore, the whole gay “marriage” iusse -as news- is boring me to death, -too predictable- and unless the lede is provocative ;-) doesn’t merit my attention anymore

  • Martin

    A very large majority of Danes, including members of the state church, are in favor of this legislation. The Telegraph should have noted that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark (also known as the Church of Denmark) is a “folk church.” I.e., it is most concerned with serving individuals on the basis of their Danish nationality and citizenship. It is intentionally vague on the question of whether homosexuality is a sin, and it permits openly gay and lesbian clergy. Since 1997, it has blessed members in registered partnerships. Most Danes go to church to be baptized, confirmed, married, and buried. Until now, same-sex couples were refused the third occasion.

  • Steve Hayes

    “… Catholics, Anglicans, Reformed, Orthodox and Pentecostal churches will now be compelled to perform gay marriages, the Telegraph reports, …”

    This was how your article came up in a Google search. I had read the Telegraph article a couple of days ago, and got the impression from that that this only applied to the state Lutheran Church. I read your article to discover why it was now being applied to Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox and Pentecostals — all of which have probably performed gay marriages in the past. I’ve never known of any of those churches to question a person’s sexual orientation bgefore they were married.

  • Will

    A very large majority of Danes, including members of the state church, are in favor of this legislation.


  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    It would have been interesting to read some info on the thinking of other churches in Denmark (if present there) such as the Catholic church and Orthodox churches.
    Do they feel threatened??? Or do they look on this situation as a chance to give Lutheran Christians a religious home not under government control and who take the Bible and orthodox church teachings seriously???
    Another aspect that could have been looked into is what might happen if the state church splits. Will the ensuing chaos resemble what is happening within the American Episcopal Church with individual parishes fracturing and lawsuits following over who owns what church property.

  • Gail Finke

    Not mentioning this rule is for the national church is a huge oversight. Moreover, the story needs to say how many churches there are in Denmark that are NOT the established state church, and how many people they serve. My guess is that most Danes are members of the state church, but I don’t know.

  • Martin

    Re Gail Finke: About 80% of Danes are counted as members of the state church. However, as stated above, this has little to do with belief. Most Danes are agnostics or atheists. Their membership in the state church has more to do with national and ethnic identification. They volunteer to pay taxes to support the maintenance of historic buildings, to promote a sense of common heritage, and to identify with community rather than to express religious belief.