There needs to be a wider debate about family life and the impact of what gay marriage would mean for society, a former Presbyterian Moderator has said.
His calls follow the latest research which shows less people here now see the idea of a same-sex relationship as being “wrong”.
The results of a Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey from 2012, published yesterday, show that 28 per cent of people surveyed believe gay relationships are “always wrong” – down from more than three-quarters back in 1989.
The Rev Dr Norman Hamilton said he welcomed the “reduction in homophobia”, but reiterated that the Church’s teaching remains opposed to legalising gay marriage.
He said he was not surprised by the findings of the survey, adding that it is one focusing merely on attitudes, rather than ethical or moral views.
“There is nothing new in this that I don’t think all of us have sensed over quite a long period of time,” said the current minister of Ballysillan Presbyterian Church in north Belfast.
“I don’t see any individual research shaping a debate on this issue.”
The survey showed that the attitudes of younger people tend to be more supportive of gay marriage, with 74 per cent of the youngest age group agreeing with the notion of same-sex marriage, while just 30 per cent of the oldest age group agreed with gay marriage.
When it comes to the issue of parenting and family life, attitudes have changed, but less dramatically, with more than half of people still against gay adoption.
“There are many parts of this discussion which have really not had a thorough public airing,” said Rev Hamilton.
“There is still a huge level of ambivalence on the issue around family life. Clearly there is a strong allegiance to the established understanding of what constitutes family life within our society, and how society sees a healthy family life.
“We really do need to have that wider societal debate about the health of society and the health of the family.”
Researcher Dr Nicola Carr said: “Over half of the survey’s respondents expressed support for same-sex marriage, however, over one third disapproved of gay adoption and also to lesbians having access to fertility treatment on the same basis as heterosexual women.
“At least one in four people did not believe that a lesbian or gay parent or parents with a child constituted a ‘family’.”
The 2012 NI Life and Times Survey (NILT) used a random sample of 1,200 people living across Northern Ireland.
It recorded public attitudes to a wide range of social issues including community relations, migrant workers and political attitudes.
Almost three quarters of those surveyed who identified themselves as having no religion were in favour of gay marriage.
Two-thirds of those who identified as Catholic supported gay marriage, while 45 per cent of those defining themselves as Protestant were in support of it.
Knowing someone who was gay or lesbian tended to promote more positive attitudes, the survey found.
Between 2005 and 2012, the percentage of people who knew someone who was lesbian or gay rose from 46 per cent to 70 per cent.
A debate will be held today between 12 noon and 1pm at 61 Duncairn Gardens, Belfast, on the findings of the survey’s focus on LGBT attitudes.
In attendance will be researchers Siobhan McAlister and Nicola Carr, from Queen’s University, and youth worker Gail Neill. The discussion is open to the public.