Ecclesia de Lange, a minister axed by the Methodist church because of her sexuality, has embarked on a David and Goliath-type battle in taking the church to court for discriminatory actions. By doing so she is holding the church to account — in the eyes of both the public and the law — for its conduct in relation to her rights as a lesbian to dignity, equality and non-discrimination.
In addition, Ecclesia’s basic labour rights as an employee of the church should also be under the spotlight. She was fired from a job for which she is formally trained and lost her source of income as a result.
There is a certain “madness” (broadly signifying a lack of connection with reality) in the church thinking that its conduct is above scrutiny and that, in a secular state, it is beyond the supreme law of the land, namely the Constitution. In challenging the leadership of the church and its unfettered exercise of power, Ecclesia strikes at the heart of what constitutional principles, such as non-discrimination and equality, mean in practice and where it really counts — in terms of people’s lives and livelihoods.
The story speaks volumes. A woman, a lesbian, an employee of a church to which she was (w)hol(l)y committed, shares with her congregation her intention to marry her same-sex partner through civil law. You’d think “congratulations” would be in order. After all, in most people’s books getting married can be considered “good news”, even in the biblical sense. Importantly, Ecclesia didn’t ask the church to bless her or to marry her. She simply made a public declaration of her intention to marry the partner of her choice through state law.
Perhaps it’s the public bit that so irks. The church on the whole seems far more comfortable with the silenced, stigmatised, victim-type gay or lesbian — one that requires its “blessing”, “forgiveness” and “love” but that doesn’t disrupt the “natural” order of things, thus allowing the church to go about its business of keeping existing power relations (between men and women, queers and straights, rich and poor) intact.
But Ecclesia and an increasing number of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people within organised religion are speaking out about the discrimination they face within religious institutions. This is part of a wider social movement of resistance, evident in how public space is occupied through same-sex marriage rituals, marches against homophobic violence, and simply by being in gender non-conforming ways, often at great risk. These are acts of desire and demand by marginalised individuals and groups, not despite being queer but because of it.
Increasingly, LGBT people are not begging for forgiveness for their “sins” but demanding the right to be witnessed, seen and heard within religious communities. When not just “victims” and “silenced”, LGBT lives pose significant challenges to dominant raced, sexed and gendered powers. LGBT claims on freedom call into question existing power relations — between leaders and laity, gays and straights, men and women. And so the fictional lines between secular and sacred, private and public, become increasingly blurred.
Of course all religious institutions and communities are sites of contradiction in which multiple ideas, values and truths are in constant contestation. The truths of those who hold the most power often win the day. The battle for “truth” about homosexuality, and the power gleaned from the entrenchment of one particular “truth” over another, is what is at stake here. But many churches have a rich history of advancing justice in South Africa and these progressive truths are regaining traction within and beyond church walls.
What Ecclesia’s case also underscores is that LGBT people cannot be expected to leave their dignity and rights at the doors of their chosen places of worship and work, while institutions dither about what their stance on homosexuality is. The Methodist church’s legal team argues that a final policy decision is yet to be made on the matter of same-sex marriage in that church and that, until this is done, people like Ecclesia should refrain from marrying.
In effect the church is conceding that its default position (in the “absence” of a formal policy) is one that excludes civil marriage between people of the same sex. This is no less a defence of prejudice than, for example, arguing that until such time as the church has decided on whether to endorse racial equality, black people must sit at the back of the bus. Written or not, which part of this assertion of homo-prejudice can be regarded as not being policy?
No doubt powerful interests are at play within the Methodist church which is why its avoidance in making a formal determination on the matter, seven years after same-sex couples gained the right to civil marriage, has persisted. Perhaps it thought we’d go quietly into the night of legal equality?
Whatever policy the Methodist church ultimately formulates in regard to same-sex marriage the Constitution is clear: freedom of religion and belief has limitations and is required to be consistent with the Bill of Rights. In other words religious belief and practice cannot be used as a justification for denying someone, such as Ecclesia, their right to equality and non-discrimination. This limitation will no doubt be a bitter pill to swallow but the perpetuation of prejudice in the “name of religion” demands an interventionist antidote.
In some senses the church is on trial here. The case will be argued most vociferously in the public sphere where contesting powers vie for pride of place in the social pecking order. That the church has to account for its action — before the court, its own members and the wider public — is, in and of itself, a massive victory for social justice.
The political struggles that LGBT people are currently advancing are part of a long history of resistance to the constraining effects that apartheid and colonialism has had on people’s sexual and gender identities. Consequently, and regardless of the outcome of her case, Ecclesia’s battle is another significant step on De Lange road to freedom — for us all.