Church in Wales vote favours allowing same-sex marriage

25 September 2015

Gavin Drake reports from Lampeter, where the Governing Body of the Church in Wales met for two days last week

Philip Morris

Chairing the debate on same-sex marriage: Judge Philip Price

Chairing the debate on same-sex marriage: Judge Philip Price

THE Governing Body of the Church in Wales has narrowly voted in favour of allowing same-sex couples to marry in the Church; but the non-binding, indicative-only secret ballot did not produce sufficient votes in favour that would be necessary for any subsequent legislation to be approved.

The vote does not constitute a decision of the Governing Body. Instead, the results — and the two-and-a-half-hour debate that preceded the vote — will be used to guide the Province’s Bench of Bishops when they meet to discuss the issue in October.

Three options were under consideration: the first option would mean no change to the Church’s current teaching and practice on marriage and partnerships. The second option would allow same-sex unions to be blessed in the Church in Wales; and the third option would enable same-sex couples to marry in church.

In the first preference vote, half of the Bench of Bishops, just over one half of the clergy, and just under one half of the laity voted in favour of same-sex marriage: a total of 61 votes. One bishop, 21 clergy, and 28 laity voted in favour of the status quo. Nine people voted in favour of the second option of blessing same-sex unions.

In the second preference vote, the vast majority of Governing Body members — a total of 92 votes — indicated that they had no second-preference position.

If the Bench of Bishops brought a Bill forward to permit same-sex marriages to be solemnised in the Church in Wales, it would require a two-thirds approval in all three houses.

After the debate, the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, said that it was not worth “ripping the Church apart” by bringing forward a Bill to permit same-sex marriage.

“I don’t want to pre-empt or prejudge what the Bench [of Bishops] will do,” he said, “but, speaking purely personally, I don’t think it would be profitable to bring a Bill before the Governing Body, given the state of opinion of the Church in Wales at the minute. It is quite obvious that, while a lot of people do want movement, quite a lot of people do not; and there is no point, it seems to me, in ripping this Church apart.”

He praised the 34 members of the Governing Body who spoke in the debate, which he said was “one of the best debates I have ever been to”.

He said: “People didn’t judge one another; they were gentle with one another, and they agreed to disagree. In the past, we have had debates where people have been rather judgemental with one another, and made to feel somehow that they were less than Christian in some of the attitudes that they were expressing. There was none of that in that debate. It was a charitable debate, it was an open debate. It was a good debate.”

None of the bishops spoke in the debate. Dr Morgan explained that they wanted to listen to the views of the Governing Body.

Judge Philip Price, who chaired the debate, told members that they had no motion before them. “We are not, today, making any decision on this issue at all. We are continuing the process of discernment.”

Daniel Priddy (co-opted to represent under-30s) challenged the doctrinal commission’s report on the issue for suggesting that support for same-sex marriage was strongly supported by young people. “I strongly believe that this is not the case,” he said. “There is not a mass of young people waiting to come to our churches who are being put off solely by this particular issue. . . This change in the doctrine of the Church on the Church will not bring young people flocking in, and I do not want this body to be deceived that it will.”

Dr Robert Wilkinson (St Davids) said: “We are aware that same-sex attraction is, at least in part, a genetic matter, but we cannot use this to say ‘This is how we are,’ ‘This is how God made us,’ because we are living in a fallen world.”

Scripture, and the history of the Church, had produced a “long tradition of regarding this practice as wrong, and we need to consider very, very carefully if we are to consider changing it.”

The Revd Canon Steven Kirk (Llandaff) said that when he conducts a wedding, his part is “peripheral” to the couple who administer the sacrament themselves through the making of vows and the exchange of rings. “If two women or two men make vows and exchange rings, does God really withhold his blessing? The God who made them in his own image, made them who they are, and made them to love the people they have now married?”

He continued: “If it is love, surely that is something the Lord won’t mind. There is enough hatred in the world already.”

“I do not find that the Bible, if taken overall, condemns such relationships,” the Revd Jan Gould (Llandaff) said. “Yes, I know that there are passages in Leviticus, in Romans, and in 1 Corinthians that do condemn them, but I believe that these, like much of the Bible, are passages of their time.

“Overall, I believe that the Bible expresses the goodness of creation, and God’s love for those he has made, and this cannot exclude people who love people of the same sex.”

Another priest in the diocese of Llandaff, Canon Jennifer Wigley, said that it felt “strange” to be standing as a heterosexual person talking about other people. “People have warned you of the consequences of saying yes to same-sex marriage,” she said. “There are stronger consequences of saying no.”

“If God, as they say, is homophobic, I wouldn’t want to worship that God,” Dr Peter Babcock (Llandaff) said, quoting Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “If homosexuals can’t be full members of the Church, with all the sacraments and responsibilities that entails, aren’t we being just a little bit homophobic?”

He went on: “Western gay relationships, when faithful and sustainable, can often be better than the role of women in heterosexual relationships elsewhere.”

Jacqueline Feak (St Asaph) had discussed the issues in a young person’s group. She said that a diversity of views had been expressed, but all were unanimous in supporting option three. They recognised, however, that not everybody would agree, and they would accept option two as a stop-gap.

The Revd Chancellor Dr Patrick Thomas (St Davids) said that he and his wife had learned that the essence of Christian marriage contained faithfulness, loving kindness, and persistence. “The same is true as we develop our relationship with God,” he said. “I strongly believe that this possibility should be open to all.”

Dominic Cawdell (co-opted to represent under-30s) explained that he was a gay ordinand, and had “two problems” with “the biblical passages that speak very strongly against the activities of two men, sexually.

“Firstly, they have no idea about homosexuality as we understand it today,” he said. “This was the work of promiscuous men who couldn’t find women, or were involved in Pagan cults, or whatever. They have no concept of loving, stable, committed, self-giving, and even sacramental relationships which can exist and do exist between people of the same-sex.

“Secondly, the overwhelming impression as you read scripture is that love should abound.”

Penny Williams (Llandaff) said: “We don’t live in a marketplace. We live in a kingdom. And a crucified king must be followed by a crucified people. And the Gospels do not talk about self, except in the concept of dying to self. We are all called to do this in many ways. Whether it is our ambitions, our hopes, our plans, our possessions. . . And, for some of us, the cost will be high.”

She said that the Church was “in danger of bowing to external pressure: “We are very good in the Church of having the right intentions but doing things for the wrong reasons.” The Governing Body had to “choose between pleasing God at this time or pleasing people”.

Judy Rogers (Llandaff) asked whether the Church was being “called to step into the background of our politically correct world” and said: “I pray that we don’t lose sight of God-inspired doctrine that protects and preserves family life.”

Sandra Ward (Bangor) spoke of her ten-year marriage to a man she met at the age of 17. “I was the first woman he had been attracted to. He was very pleased to be attracted to a woman. He had never been attracted to a woman before.

“We were both Christians, and we married before God. We were married for ten years, but we were very unhappy. After about three years, he realised that he was homosexual. At the end of ten years, he met his lifelong partner, and left me for him.

“Before that happened, we were both very unhappy. We found it difficult to reconcile where we were at. At one time we were both suicidal. When we were both unhappy, he asked me: ‘Am I not made in the image of God? Did God make a mistake? I can’t be any other than who I am.’”

She explained that her ex-husband had now “formed a relationship that is lifelong”, and that they are still friends. “I now have an older brother,” she said. She urged the Governing Body to “recognise where people are when you deny them the love of the church”.

Samuel Patterson (co-opted to represent under-30s) pointed out that provinces in the Anglican Communion that had moved forward on same-sex relationships were declining faster than other parts of the Communion. “It seems unlikely that the Spirit is moving us to certain decline,” he said.

Society had “elevated marriage into being something incredibly desirable”, and the Church had forgotten “what St Paul said — being single is equally valid, and allows God to use us in many other ways”.

Helen Biggin (Llandaff) said: “Who am I, who are you, who are we to deny to others the extraordinary opportunity and privilege to make their marriage vows and commitment to each other before God, simply on the basis of their sexual orientation. . . In Christian love, how can we say ‘no’ to our brothers and sisters when they seek the sustenance, the support, the affirmation of faith that being married in church offers?”

Huw Lloyd (St Asaph) spoke of the “historical precedence of the Church changing its mind”, from whether Gentiles should be circumcised when they joined the Early Church through to St Peter’s seeing “that great cloth coming down with all those animals”. He said: “I feel we have a direct message from God now.”

Hazel Burn (St Davids) said: “We are made in God’s image — the image of God who loves us unconditionally. As Christians who are receiving God’s grace, he demands that we do the same. What part of ‘unconditional’ does the church institution fail to understand or refuse to embrace? In a Church moving to a 20:20 vision, how can there be an option to stay the same?”

Peter Morgan (St Davids) said that he asked himself what he would do if any of his children or grandchildren said that they were gay. “I am not going to start rejecting or ejecting that member of the family. I expect my family to embrace them, and bring them in, in the same way they would if they were in a heterosexual relationship.”

He urged the Church “not [to] do what we did to divorcees, and give them pain and discomfort over a number of years. Let’s move forward as fast as we can, and get the job done.”

Dean Roberts (Monmouth) (co-opted to represent under-30s) said that he was once asked: “If you could change some verses in the Bible, what would it be”; and he replied that he would remove the verses that condemn same-sex relationships. “But, fortunately for you and unfortunately for me, I’m not God, and we have what we have in the Bible.”

He said that “we have to move on from ‘experience’, because the Bible takes precedence, and, following that, 2000 years of church history.”

He challenged those who said that the New Testament writers were unaware of same-sex relationships. “On same-sex marriage, the early writers in the first century — Jesus himself — was quite aware of homosexuality. Sexuality has not changed at all since the beginning of time. There have always been gay people around, and there will have always been faithful monogamous same-sex relationships.

“Please let’s not treat these biblical writers as idiots.”

He said that “obedience to God comes before anything. It hurts me to say it, because I have so many gay friends and acquaintances. Discipleship is about obedience to God.”

The Revd Mark Lawson-Jones (Monmouth) said that the people the Church seeks to reach “won’t hear the words that we have said about love for all people in same-sex relationships, [but] the way they feel when they hear how we deal with the proposals.”

He said that “option one rejects the love that people have for each other. Option two creates a separate class of people with a different sort of love. Option three says we are on a journey, we are praying, we are listening and we are learning.”

The Revd Peter Brooks (Swansea & Brecon) said that the “reason” argument could fall two ways: the Church should move with the times and be inclusive; or the Church should be counter-cultural and not move with the times. There were good arguments and theology to support the three options being debated by the Governing Body; although he felt that option two was a fudge.

He would vote with the status quo, but would do so recognising that there are many who take a different view.

Susan Last (St Asaph) said that she was born in 1946 to two parents who were never married — something that she didn’t know until she herself married. Her mother had married a Roman Catholic during the war. It lasted less than three months, but she was unable to obtain a divorce.

Her father was a divorcee, and, she said, “lived his life through guilt and became an alcoholic. It is not the same, but it shows some of the pressures that families living a lie have to deal with.

 “If we don’t move forward, I don’t see how we can be a Church that is recognised for forgiveness, for compassion, for fulfilment, and happiness that everybody in this life deserves. This isn’t about increasing numbers in church. It is about being and demonstrating true Christianity, and living out what we believe and being honest about ourselves.”

The Archdeacon of Cardigan, the Ven. Dr William Strange (St Davids) said that “I would imagine that all of us, if left to ourselves, would want to express an option for two or three. But we are not left to ourselves. We are a Church which wants to be faithful to scripture and to 20 centuries of Christian ethical teaching.

“Scripture is clear that the only form of sexual union that God blesses is the union of man and woman in marriage, and that all other sexual unions . . . have the nature of disobedience, and we cannot presume to bless what God has says he does not bless.”

Jennie Willson (St Asaph) questioned the practice of “pronouncing blessings” during wedding services. She said that the couple were making the commitment, and that the sacrament was between them. “Many opposite-sex relationships are very bad and abusive, yet we go ahead and bless them.

“We don’t ask questions. Why do we judge same-sex relationships and not judge opposite-sex ones? Why do we say that God says this is OK and that isn’t? We should stop pronouncing blessings and simply ask God to bless the marriage. Then he can do what he likes without us trying to control it.”

Canon Philip Wyn Davies (St Davids) said that he was frightened by a comment made by the Dean of St Albans, the Very Revd Jeffrey John, on a television programme, that “the Church has to do what the world does”.

He described this as “the heresy of secularism”, and said that debate was about whether the Church was “going to do what the world is doing.” He went on: “What purpose can there be for a Church that seeks to be a secular organisation?” and said that “if the Early Church had sought to follow that path . . . then the Church would have come to a very quick end.”

“When couples come to us, and ask to get married in church, what are we offering?” Canon Tudor Hughes (St Asaph) asked. “A nice venue, a good backdrop for photos? We are offering much more than that: something extra, an added dimension to marriage — a sacrament of the Christian Church.”

He said that there was a doubt in his mind about the sacramentality of same-sex marriage. “You may say that there is no doubt in your mind. Fine. But there is a doubt in the mind of the Church in which we are a part. Option three would be offering something that is not sacramental Christian marriage.”

Emily Morgan (co-opted) said that the issue was “quite simply . . . about fairness, parity, and equality. If the Church decides not to proceed, do we believe that that stance or decision is representative of a kind and loving God?”

She said that “anything less than option three could be perceived as saying our Church, our God, discriminates. . . Are we to say that our God values some love and some relationships more than others?”

The Revd Phil Bettinson (St Asaph) said: “How can I be perfect like my Father in Heaven? Helpfully, we are given a description. God is love. That means, to be perfect, I have to love.”

The Revd David Brownridge (Bangor) said that the debate was “unlike any other moral issue that we have previously debated in the Governing Body or as a Church. It is unlike the remarriage of divorcees. It is unlike women bishops, it is even unlike slavery. All of those key topics can use biblical language to go either way. . .

 “This debate is entirely different. We cannot interpret the Bible in two different ways. When you look at same-sex relationships, it does speak with consistency and clarity from the beginning of the Old Testament all the way through to the New Testament.

The Revd Richard Wood (Bangor) asked why it was assumed that a good pastoral response could not be provided under the first option. “To discover such a response, which I hope exists, would require an awful amount of work by those of us in favour of option one, and by all of us.”

He said: “A couple of people have implied that option one is the rejection of love. It isn’t.”

The Archdeacon of Meirionnydd, the Ven. Andrew Jones (Bangor), said that “seeking parity, equality, and fairness is not synonymous with entering into a relationship with secular heresy.”

He continued: “I am not a number. I am not a statistic. I am not a piece of data. I am an archdeacon. I want to urge you to vote for the third option, because in doing so you will be voting for and welcoming people like me.”

Dr Gillian Todd (Swansea & Brecon) spoke of the “pain that has lived with me” for more than 35 years, because, as a divorcee, she was not allowed to marry her current husband in church. She was made to feel “not good enough”.

She said: “I hope and pray that we won’t continue to make others feel not good enough, and give them the acceptance of being included.”

The Revd Janice Brown (Bangor), warned that the Church should not seek to “look like the marketplace. . . We are called to be ambassadors for Christ, yes; to love all persons, yes; to show compassion, yes. But we have not been called to change God’s mind and God’s ways.”

The Archdeacon of Llandaff, the Ven. Penny Jackson, said that the Church in Wales had the power and authority to change its mind on doctrine “if it feels that it is right”.

She said: “We have heard that we must be faithful to tradition. But, more than that, we must be faithful to the God who calls us forward. The God who calls and reveals himself constantly to us. . . It could just be that God is calling us now to understand marriage, and our doctrine about marriage, in a new way.”

The Bench of Bishops will consider their response to the debate when they meet next month, and will report back to the Governing Body when it next meets in Llandudno in April.

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