The Evangelical Alliance Ireland has urged Christians to back the Civil Partnership Bill, which would introduce legal recognition of same-sex relationships in the Republic of Ireland.
The Alliance’s stance on the issue is likely to win praise for its courage, as well as criticism from those who expect evangelicals to oppose gay people’s rights.
“We suggest that evangelical Christians should support the basic thrust of the Bill,” said the Evangelical Alliance Ireland in a statement signed by its General Director, Sean Mullan.
It goes on to say, “We may disagree on the detail of the legislation, but as followers of a just and compassionate God we can recognise the justice and fairness of providing some legal protection for the reality of both same-sex and opposite-sex cohabiting relationships”.
The statement is likely to cause surprise in Britain, where many leading evangelical organisations actively campaigned against the introduction of civil partnerships in 2005.
The Irish Civil Partnerships Bill would give same-sex couples tax, pension, inheritance and hospital visitation rights, as for married mixed-sex couples.
It has been criticised by those who object to the exclusion of the word “marriage” and who are disappointed that it would not give same-sex couples the chance to adopt children.
It is also opposed by those on the other end of the spectrum, who oppose homosexuality and say that the Bill redefines marriage.
The Evangelical Alliance Ireland rejects this claim, saying that the Bill “does not directly challenge the traditional understanding of marriage in Ireland”.
However, the Alliance sticks to its view that “God’s purpose for his gift of sex is that it would be the ultimate physical expression of love between a man and a woman in the context of the covenant of marriage”.
But they point out that “Jesus requires of his followers that they love and do good to those who oppose them or hold to different ethical standards than they do”.
While suggesting that civil officials should be allowed an exemption of conscience in participating in same-sex civil partnerships, they say that it would be “unproductive” to focus heavily on campaigning on this one issue.
Even more controversially, they quote the Canadian theologian John Stackhouse, declaring it “unseemly” for “Christians to fight in the courts and legislatures for what remains of the dubious honours and advantages of Christendom”.
This position poses a challenge to those British evangelicals who have been keen to use the courts to maintain their position. Many have enthusiastically promoted the case of Lillian Ladele, a London registrar who refused to register civil partnerships. An appeal judgment in her case is expected before the end of the year.
In contrast, the Evangelical Alliance Ireland seems to be adopting a “Post-Christendom” perspective, which recognises that Christianity is no longer at the centre of society and sees good reason for Christians to stand alongside the marginalised rather than to attempt to cling on to power and privilege.
The Irish evangelicals' statement concludes by declaring that, “We can and should support the notion of a public square in which all voices are free to present their case and argue for it in public life, including religious voices”.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, commented: "It is hugely significant that the Evangelical Alliance Ireland has come out in favour of legal recognition and protection for both same-sex and opposite-sex cohabiting relationships, while holding to its own moral code on sexuality."
He continued: "Similarly, the large evangelical service agency Faithworks in the UK backed the Sexual Orientation Regulations, and many Christians of strong biblical and evangelical convictions have spoken out recently over their changing attitudes in this area."
"Those who wish to deny common justice, a presence and a voice to those with whom they disagree over sexuality - inside and outside the churches - attract attention and claim to be a 'moral majority'. Where have we heard that before? The reality, however, is that beyond the ugly confrontations is a persistent and growing voice of thoughtful compassion, rooted deeply in the Christian tradition and scriptures. EAI has given it another important articulation."