Welsh Governing Body: no provision for same-sex couples is ‘pastorally unsustainable and unjust

by
21 September 2018

Tim Wyatt reports from the meeting of the Governing Body of the Church in Wales

CHURCH IN WALES

The Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Most Revd Mark Strange

The Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Most Revd Mark Strange

REFUSING to offer same-sex couples any kind of church provision is no longer sustainable, the Governing Body of the Church in Wales has agreed.

After a long debate, the Governing Body agreed to the statement: “It is pastorally unsustainable for the Church to make no formal provision for those in same-gender relationships”.

The vote came after the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Most Revd Mark Strange, gave a presentation on how his Province had gone about changing its canons to permit same-sex marriage last year (News, 8 June 2017).

First, the Archbishop of Wales, the Most Revd John Davies, spoke to introduce Bishop Strange. The “family” of the Church in Wales would always have its differences on this issue, he said, and his hope was that the family could stay together, despite those differences.

Since the Governing Body last debated the question of same-sex marriage, in 2015, “one very important thing has changed,” he explained: the position of the Bench of Bishops.

“We are now convinced that it is pastorally unsustainable and unjust for us to continue to make no formal provision for those who are in committed same-sex relationships. Your bishops want to move forward.”

CHURCH IN WALESThe Revd Miriam Beecroft

They were not asking the Governing Body to agree to any particular change, just to agree that the status quo was unsustainable.

Bishop Strange then explained that he was not there to tell the Church what to do, but to offer up the process that the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC) had gone through. The story began when the SEC was caught wrong-footed by an announcement by the Scottish Government that it planned to legalise same-sex marriage, he said.

The first step that the Church took was to call together groups of people from each diocese, on both sides of the issue, to talk and listen to each other as well as to others from across the Anglican Communion, and those outside Anglicanism entirely. This “cascade process” meant that the diocesan representative went back to hold similar conversations and visit every parish, regional synod, and other gathering that wanted to discuss the topic.

Cascade conferences also took place among the bishops of the SEC, and with connected groups such as the Mothers’ Union and the youth network. “It should mean that, by the time the cascade process was over, nobody in any part of the SEC could, in all honesty, say they hadn’t had the opportunity to listen and to speak,” Bishop Strange said.

At the same time, the doctrine and liturgy committees were putting together documents that fleshed out how any potential changes could be made. Bishop Strange said that the Church had worked hard to prevent the debate ending up in a parliamentary process, which would become divisive and bitter.

There was then another round of regional conversations, with, among others, those who were opposed to changing the canons, who were asked what changes would be needed to be made to ensure that they did not leave the SEC.

As a result of these discussions, the law on same-sex marriage in Scotland included a provision that no minister of any denomination could conduct a same-sex union unless they had previously chosen to opt in and be formally registered. The SEC also added a rule that no priest could hold a same-sex wedding unless the parish had separately also asked to be opted into the system. Finally, to protect against future synods undoing this provision, the rules on how liturgy was developed in the SEC in general were changed, to require a two-thirds majority in each house.

“Only at that point we then return to the General Synod, and, at that point, the canons committee simply produced a frame of words which said that marriage could be for all people,” he said. This then went around the Church for consultation, and only at the following Synod was the canon actually changed.

“There is nothing worse than watching a Church destroy itself because it has not spent enough time speaking to itself about these issues,” Bishop Strange reflected. “If there are people who are anxious, you can’t just argue them down, but have to keep having a conversation.”

A small number had walked away from the SEC as a result, which was sad, but probably inevitable, he said. He remained confident that his Church had done all it could to listen carefully to those with concerns, and make as much provision for them as possible.

CHURCH IN WALESGareth Erlandson

Members of the Governing Body then questioned Bishop Strange on the implications of the SEC’s decision. Canon Steven Kirk (Llandaff) asked him what the reaction had been from other denominations. Bishop Strange said that some of the SEC’s partner Churches, such as the Church of Scotland, were embarking on similar processes, while others who disagreed with their decision had none the less maintained relationships.

Within the Anglican Communion, the SEC had agreed to the same “conditions” as the Episcopal Church in the United States had when it permitted same-sex marriage. “I think the sense at the Primates’ Meeting was that they listened to me, they questioned me, but, after that, I remained very clearly in relationship with all those who were there.”

The Revd Rufus Noy (Monmouth) asked what impact the change had had on the attendance and commitment of congregations. About a third of the SEC’s clergy had asked to be licensed to conduct same-sex weddings, Bishop Strange replied. He was committed, he said, to finding a willing parish for any same-sex couple who came to him wanting to be married. Some congregations in the Church were considering whether they would leave, but only a handful, he said.

The Archdeacon of Cardigan, the Ven. Dr William Strange (St Davids), questioned why the Primus had said that the Communion sanctions had not been a “big deal”. Bishop Strange said that, while the sanctions were taken very seriously, and he recognised the pain caused across the Communion by his Church’s decision, there had not yet been, for instance, a standing-committee meeting on doctrine which would have required his absence under the sanctions. “None of it was done lightly; none of it was done because we somehow felt we have a right,” he said.

Dr Robert Wilkinson (St Davids) asked whether a cleric or parish could opt out again of conducting same-sex marriages if their theological thinking changed. Bishop Strange replied that, under Scottish marriage law, every minister had to be relicensed every five years, regardless; so there was a regular opportunity for anyone to allow their same-sex licensing to lapse if they wished.

Others asked the Primus whether he would go through the process again, and what proportion of total marriages since the canons had changed had been same-sex ones. Bishop Strange that he would go through it again, but would tweak the process so that he could learn from others faster. The process was not just a good way of wrestling with same-sex marriage, but with plenty of other difficult topics, too, which were bubbling up across the country, including Brexit and independence in Scotland, he said. Since the SEC now considered all marriages to be equal, there was not a specific recording process for same-sex unions, he explained. He knew that in his own diocese, however, there had been five same-sex weddings.

Gareth Erlandson (St Asaph) asked what impact the change had made on the growth or otherwise of the SEC. Bishop Strange replied that he had not seen any evidence that it had caused decline, apart from the few congregations that had left as a result, but it had not yet caused any sign of revival, either. “My real job is not this: it’s bringing people to Christ. I have no indication at the moment that the decision we have made has stopped that mission. We would probably find that out in two or three years.”

CHURCH IN WALESThe Revd Rosemary Hill

The Revd Dr Adrian Morgan (co-opted) remarked that the question made him feel “profoundly torn”, as he wished to affirm the deep and meaningful relationships of his gay friends, but he did not feel that he could endorse a change to 2000 years of Christian tradition and teaching on marriage. If the Church in Wales followed the SEC, would he find himself branded a homophobe and a bigot if he could not, in good conscience, conduct same-sex marriages?

Bishop Strange said that his Church’s system protected priests such as Dr Morgan, because it was legally impossible for anyone to conduct a wedding unless they and their parish had chosen to opt in. “It would be a failure of my responsibility as pastor of the Church to judge somebody because they were not prepared to accept a change to that which they have always seen as normative,” he said.

The Revd Dean Roberts (co-opted) pointed out that much of the Scottish experience would, by definition, be different in Wales, because marriage law varied widely, and all clergy were already, automatically, marriage registrars. He worried that, if a similar opt-in system could be brought in, it would be confusing for different Church in Wales parishes to be teaching contradictory things about marriage.

The Primus said that the new SEC canon acknowledged that there were different understandings of marriage. This was similar to its compromise position on remarriage after divorce, which some priests were content with, and others could not accept. If a gay couple approached their parish, and then discovered that it had not opted into offering same-sex unions, the priest would be expected to refer them to the diocese, which would find them a congregation who would conduct such a wedding.

The Governing Body then went on to debate the issue of same-sex marriage more generally. Canon Kirk said that his parish had considered this issue, and concluded that all that mattered was how to support people who loved each other and wanted to spend their lives together. “Of course, it’s unsustainable for the Church to make no formal provision for those in same-sex relationships. I just hope that it’s not too late.”

Sarah Mulcahy (Monmouth) told the Governing Body about her 17-year-old daughter, who recently came out as gay, and could not understand why she could not get married one day in the same church in which she had been baptised and confirmed. “All she asks is to be accepted for who she is, and to be able to do what all of us expect us to do.”

CHURCH IN WALESThe Revd Dr Kevin Ellis

The Revd Rosemary Hill (Llandaff) spoke of her experiences of hosting the faith tent at Cardiff Pride this year. She had spoken with LGBT people who had struggled to find someone to baptise their baby; children disowned by their parents; and those who had tried to take their own lives as a result of homophobia. Many told her that the Church needed to “put its money where its mouth was. . . For many, they do not, will not, and cannot see the Church as inclusive until an LGBT couple can get married like any other couple.”

Dr Heather Payne (Llandaff) said that, despite disagreements, the Church in Wales had to move forward and change. It was not sustainable just to do nothing about this issue, she said.

The Revd Dr Kevin Ellis (Bangor) said that, even as an Evangelical, he agreed that the bishops should move forward and propose something, even if he disagreed with it. It cannot be right that the current policy forced some of his Christian brothers and sisters to “live in the shadows”. Evangelicals had not always been good news on this issue, he said. “Some of my people in my churches would be horrified that I’m suggesting we start a discussion. Some of them would be delighted.”

Sandra Ward (Bangor) reminded the Governing Body that this was not simply a theological discussion, but one about “actual people, with all their variations and differences”. All were made in the image of God, regardless of our gender or sexuality; so how dare the Church try to suggest that God approve of blessing only some, not all?

Gregor Lachlann-Waddell (St Asaph) asked whether the love between a man and woman in marriage was any different from that of a same-sex couple. Did the Governing Body really want to create a Church where each parish had a different position on LGBT issues, or could it strive for the unity that Jesus prayed for in St John’s Gospel?

Canon Martin Snellgrove (St Asaph) wondered what the press headlines would be if the Governing Body voted the Bishops’ statement down. He suggested a compromise might be to permit the blessing of civil same-sex marriages and partnerships, rather than legalise same-sex weddings in church. “I have had a suspicion that there is a progress by creep and stealth towards full acceptance of same-sex marriage,” he said.

Ruth James (Monmouth) said that this debate boiled down to love. “What the bishops are presenting us with is to say to the LGBT community — people who think they aren’t loved — to say ‘Come in; we will find you a home. Because you, too, are loved.’ That’s the opportunity we’re being given today. How could we turn it down?”

CHURCH IN WALESDr Robert Wilkinson

Dr Wilkinson noted that the Governing Body had heard a lot about love, understandably, but it needed to ask itself if loving people always meant doing what they wanted. There needed to be some very creative legal work to protect those who could not accept same-sex marriage if the bishops did press ahead, he warned.

Mr Roberts said that, ultimately, it would be about theology: differing theologies of love. He spoke of his friendship and respect as a conservative Evangelical for a neighbouring priest, the Revd John Connell, who happily flew a pride flag from his church. “I want to put away any suggestions that the conservatives among us are trying to attack LGBT people or their allies. I have many friends with people who I disagree with on this, but they’re people who I love. Let’s not say that we are people at odds with each other, as fellow Christians or human beings.”

Some of those in the Church in Wales who felt the same as him were too afraid to speak up, worrying that they would be blacklisted for promotion or senior ministry; some had told him that, if same-sex marriage was permitted in the Church, they would resign and move to the Church of England. Why, if the Church had declined by a further three per cent in just the past year, was it spending so much time discussing this issue, he asked.

The Ven. Mounes Farah (St Davids) sought to emphasise that the conservative position in the debate was still a “loving” one. Anyone could try and “jump through hoops” to say that scripture supported same-sex marriage, but, in truth, the weight of biblical teaching was that marriage was for one man and one woman. “Anything beyond that is defined by scripture as a sinful life. That’s a hard word to use, but we do need to be able to call each one of us to a life of repentance.”

He could talk about his own experiences with friends who were “same-sex attracted”, but that would be to lapse into situation ethics rather than biblical doctrine. “We’re not called to stop loving if they don’t behave how we want. But it’s not up to us to accept something which God declares in the scriptures to be wrong.”

Ros Crawford (St Asaph) argued that nobody had the right to suggest that anyone did not belong to God. The Primus had offered the Church in Wales a “wonderful plan” which had worked in Scotland: “We do need to sit down and talk this through. I was here when it happened three years ago. I saw the hurt then, and I don’t want to see it again.”

The Revd Adam Pawley (St Asaph) reflected that, to him, the biggest question was not whether or not to permit same-sex marriage, but how to interpret the Bible: what was its authority and position in the life of the Church? He would love to condone LGBT relationships, but forced himself to “sit under the authority of scripture”, because he had found that following the Bible had brought him into an entirely new relationship with God.

The Revd Richard Wood (Bangor) said that he had been inspired by what Bishop Strange had said at first, but, after the subsequent debate, began to fear that the Church in Wales was not capable of the listening required to make that process work. He had heard some “horrendous misrepresentations of the Evangelical position, and I expect those on the other side have heard some misrepresentations of their position. . . I pray we learn to listen to each other better, as I’m not sure we’re very good at it at the moment.”

The Revd John Connell (Monmouth) urged the Governing Body to follow his and Mr Roberts’s example of love and support, despite their vastly differing theologies and churchmanship. “Surely we’re big enough to continue to work together, alongside each other?” he said. “We must love each without limits. We must seek not to lose anybody from our Church, whether they are liberal Catholics or conservative Evangelicals. No conversations about us, without us; both for the LGBT community, and those who are conservative.”

Canon Peter Brooks (Swansea & Brecon) said that he had heard some good speeches, but too many which were irrational and emotional, and served only to “put people’s backs up on both sides of the argument”. If the Governing Body did authorise the bishops to move forward, there needed to be an open, honest process and discussion that spread far beyond the Governing Body.

CHURCH IN WALESDr Heather Payne

The Dr Revd Jason Bray (co-opted) recalled how a friend of his who had struggled with his sexuality was “set free” by reading the opening words of St John’s Gospel: “Without him was not anything made that was made.” Churches and clerics had always blessed some things that others disagreed with: his training incumbent used to bless the hunt on Christmas Day, for instance, and bishops had, in the past, blessed nuclear submarines. “But if I have a same-sex couple who are in a loving relationship, and they want me to bless that relationship, I cannot do that?” He was not sure how to move forward and keep the Church together, but was hoping that the bishops would produce a “rabbit from the hat”.

Archbishop Davies summed up the debate by reminding the Governing Body that if they voted “No” to the Bishops’ statement they would be telling them to maintain the status quo. The Bench itself would not vote, because it wanted to hear the mind of the Church.

The vote was then taken on paper ballots in secret and anonymously; it was an indicative ballot only, and not a formal division of the Governing Body.

When asked whether or not they agreed with the statement “It is pastorally unsustainable for the Church to make no formal provision for those in same-gender relationships”, 76 voted “Yes”, and 21 voted “No”.

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