FRIDAY, JULY 13: Leading churchmen have admitted their authority might be on the wane — but they also believe they can still influence their flocks on moral issues.
They spoke to us as Parliament gears up to debate whether sexual orientation and age should be added to anti-discrimination laws.
The Bermuda Sun asked the three main congregations — Anglican, Catholic and AME —if their stances still hold sway politicians and voters.
Anglican Bishop Patrick White said that Anglican clerics spoke to the faithful — but he did not expect everyone to agree with “authoritative statements”.
He added: “Many people might think the church is behind the times... There are still people out there who want to cling to the old ways and expect someone to say it and they expect the church to say it.
“The church has as much right to speak to the issues which affect society as anyone else does, so it’s important we be clear about what the organization believes.
“I don’t think the churches can dictate any more — although maybe in Bermuda some churches think they can.”
Catholic Bishop of Bermuda Robert Kurtz said: “I would imagine that most churchmen today would feel that oftentimes the civil society does not pay too much attention to the churches’ teaching, especially on moral issues.
“But in the hearts of many people, the church is one of the strongest institutions in civil society, so it will affect many people in terms of their voting and the message that they hear, especially if it impinges on their faith and how they will view issues in terms of their understanding of their own religion.
“Oftentimes, people will reject the moral teachings of the church, but when there are crises in society the churches will be mobilised to tackle society’s problems.”
And he pointed out that broader “spiritual values” retained their importance, citing the behaviour of some banks, which sparked the current recession.
AME presiding elder Rev. Betty Furbert-Woolridge confirmed last week that the church’s opposition to a change in the law remained.
Bishop Vernon Lambe, of the First Church of God, said: “Today, more than ever, the church not only has an opportunity to be relevant, but I also believe that there are many who are turning to the church now... people are seeking God because of these traumatic and perilous times.
“My view is not negative — I’m a realist but also an optimist.”
The Anglican, Catholic and AME churches account for nearly 25,000 churchgoers, almost half of the Bermudian population of the island.
But the 2010 census shows a drop in the faithful for all but the Catholic Church, which has been boosted by immigrants from countries with large Catholic populations like the Philippines.
In addition, the number of people saying they have no faith at all jumped from 8,560 to almost 11.500 – a 34 per increase since the last census in 2000.
Bishop White, whose church is the biggest on the island with more than 10,130 members according to the 2010 census, said he was in favour of a law change to protect gay people — and called for a free vote in Parliament.
Bishop White — who stressed he was speaking personally — said the Anglican Church in Bermuda did not have an official position on the current discussion on human rights in Parliament.
But he added: “I believe it is time for us to include gays and lesbians in our human rights protections. I am speaking now as an individual Bermudian who is concerned that present human rights legislation does not offer sufficient protection from discrimination to some members of our community.”
He added: “I believe this is a civic rather than a religious matter. Churches and individuals have the right to express their views on this and commend their views to the wider public, but I do not believe that any individual or organization has the right to dictate who is eligible for these protections.”
The Anglican Church, however, is split over the issue of gay priests, with some parts of the communion insisting that gay people remain celibate, while others accept gay people who are in relationships.
Bishop Robert Kurtz, the senior Catholic on the island, said: “The Catholic Church’s position on this has always been that we respect people with homosexual orientation and that they have every right to be respected and their human rights are to be respected.”
But Bishop Kurtz added: “The actions that would be part of homosexual lifestyle, the intimacy, would not be part of what we condone.”
When then-MP Renee Webb’s private members’ bill to extend human rights legislation protection to cover sexual orientation was booted out of the House of Assembly in 2006, the AME church was among the most vocal opponents of change.
Bishop Lambe said his church had made its opposition to a change in the law clear “many times”.
He added: “We stand on what the Bible teaches and people will be responsible for their own actions. It’s not a position we would advocate.