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Church in Wales Governing Body: Welsh agree to same-sex blessings in church

06 September 2021

Bill passed after robust and measured debate by the Governing Body this week

Church in Wales

The Bishop of St Asaph, Rt Revd Gregory Cameron, presiding over the debate on Monday afternoon

The Bishop of St Asaph, Rt Revd Gregory Cameron, presiding over the debate on Monday afternoon

THE Church in Wales has passed a Bill that will allow same-sex couples to have their civil partnership or marriage blessed in church (News, 27 August). The Governing Body, meeting in person at the International Convention Centre in Newport on Monday, devoted almost a full day of its two-day meeting to the debate, which was both robust and measured.

The vote by Orders saw a two-thirds majority in all three to allow experimental use of the rite for a five-year period. Laity voted 49 for and 10 against, with one abstention. Clergy voted 28 for and 12 against, with two abstentions. The bishops were unanimously in favour.

The Bishop of Bangor, the Rt Revd Andy John, acknowledged in his presidential address at the start of the meeting that many on the Governing Body were “extremely vexed and troubled” by the debate. The change of polity would be not only painful to some, but would be seen as “a departure, an aberration, an act of disobedience to depart from Christ’s word and from Christ himself”.

Every development, however, was to some degree a departure — from the issue of slavery to the Church’s changing its mind about meat with blood in it. Change, he said, was “a courageous embrace of what God is doing today”.

A total of 41 amendments were tabled, many concerning typographical or stylistic changes to the text or rubric. The meeting voted to suspend standing orders to enable the Governing Body to sit as a committee to deal with these, presided over by Judge Andrew Keyser QC. All the changes supported by the select committee and were carried briskly.

But Judge Keyser fired what he described as “a shot across the bows” of the Revd Dr Jonathon Wright (Swansea & Brecon), who submitted a wrecking amendment that touched on a fundamental part of the Bill. Dr Wright sought to have it delayed until it could be considered holistically as part of the Church’s doctrine on marriage, and introduced with same-sex marriage at some future date.

As the Anglican Communion was not of one mind, there should be no presumption to authorise any rite until the Lambeth Conference had met in 2022, he said. Passing the Bill would allow the issue of same-sex marriage to be “kicked down the road”: the amendment would “keep the dialogue open”.

Judge Keyser said that he had been inclined to take the nuclear option and dismiss the amendment as inadmissible because it undermined the basic purpose of the Bill, but he allowed restricted debate. It attracted 14 speakers. Those passionately opposed included the Bishop of Monmouth, the Rt Revd Cherry Vann, who said that it would be “a huge missional and pastoral opportunity lost for yet another generation. . . The cry will go up, ‘How long, O Lord, how long?’”

The Archdeacon for New Church Communities in St Davids diocese, the Ven. Mones Farah (co-opted), who supported the amendment, described the Bill as “a halfway measure that only leaves us feeling cheated”.

Steven Kirk (Llandaff) spoke of “a sign that the Church is saying, God might bless couples some time in the future, but he won’t bless them now”.

The debate on the amendment took the whole of the allocated morning session. At the end of it, the amendment was lost, by 77 votes to 27, with no abstentions.

After lunch, the main debate on the Bill took a further three-and-a-half hours, with 31 speakers.

Introducing this portion of the debate, the Bishop of St Asaph, the Rt Revd Gregory Cameron, said that, far from being a “sell-out to the secular spirit of the age”, the step should be taken “because I am seeking to be a faithful follower of Christ. We are talking about real disciples of Jesus Christ and not categories of people. . . They’re not abstractions, not folk who are promiscuous. At a time when marriage is deemed unnecessary in our society, it is LGBT couples coming to church for support for a union sanctioned by law.

“It is not an adequate response for the Church to say: ‘Repent, go away, and sin no more,’ or ‘We prefer you to go and live in secrecy or shame.’” Bishop Cameron said: “I read the Bible to understand the principles by which God engages with humanity. Isn’t it time to apply contextual reading to the Bible on matters of sex?”

Porneia in classical Greek must be understood in the context of unbridled lust: it meant, in fact, harlotry. “Same-sex couples in a civil partnership or marriage are committing themselves to the very opposite,” he said. “This about fidelity, constancy, and faith.”

The Bishop of Llandaff, the Rt Revd June Osborne, seconded the motion. The Bench of bishops had a single mind on the rightness of this provision, she said. She spoke of the privilege of the stories that she had heard, in which every same-sex relationship had its own distinctive take.

“We do terrible injustice to the sanctity of these relationships if we treat them all as a type, reducing them only to what happens in the bedroom. The very distinctiveness of them is one of great dignity.”

The Church in Wales had repentance on its mind — over racism, Black Lives Matter, and colonialism, she said. “In the broader climate, we are already calling for public and private repentance.” She reminded the Governing Body that a picture of Alan Turing (who took his own life after being required to undergo chemical castration following conviction for a homosexual offence) had now been put on a banknote. “These public morals have changed. If we are to play our part in shaping society, then we have to earn our place of influence.”

Susan Fogarty (Bangor) wanted to salute all those who had stayed the course and worked within the Church for unity and equality. Dr Henry Shephard (Llandaff) was not sure that the Church had a theology on civil partnerships as it had on marriage; so should not perhaps be blessing them.

Jacob Martin, a co-opted member aged under 30, believed that there was no empirical evidence to suggest that the move would result in the revival of a Church whose numbers had plummeted to a fraction of the Welsh population. “People are crying out for the Church to be again the Church it was,” he said. “We are out of step with God’s will. We should prefer God’s voice to the voice of our culture.”

The Dean of Newport, the Very Revd Ian Black, had observed the quality and faithfulness of same-sex relationships over 30 years. He urged members to look again at the biblical texts: “The debate is not about binning the Bible, but going into it more deeply. Many of the texts used to condemn are more complex than they are said to be. There are hate-filled voices who use religious language to justify their abuse. We can turn rejection into welcome.”

The Revd Andy Jones (St Asaph) had blessed dogs, hamsters, and even a snake. Trident submarines had been blessed, she said; but two people married according to the law of the land were prevented from receiving a blessing. Daniel Starkey (Bangor) said that history showed that same-sex relationships had always been part of human experience and always would be — passing the Bill was “completely necessary to truly upholding our values as Christians”.

Several clergy acknowledged the struggles that they had on the issue. The Revd Richard Wood (Bangor) believed that those opposed to the Bill had been misrepresented: “We disagree how we read scripture. I stand here not as a bigot, but as someone who has struggled to a point where I believe this Bill would be crossing a boundary,” he said. “My position has been maligned. A pastoral response is not to offer kindness for kindness’s sake.”

Melody Lewis (St Asaph) said that as someone under 20, she had “never been part of a community outwardly disrespectful to the LGBT community”. The Church’s foundational teaching was love, she said: “It’s, not the faith that needs to apologise — the faith is loving.” The Church, she said, “must find a way of saying sorry to the people we have so affected. A step towards an apology would be a step towards equality.”

Sue Sawyer (St Asaph) suggested that a blessing was rather like “a consolation prize rather than full marriage in church”. As a divorced woman marrying her husband 35 years earlier, the only option was a register office: “That was all that was open to me. I hope and pray things will be different.”

Some were not comforted by the fact that the Bench of Bishops was of one mind. The Revd Justin Groves (Monmouth) said that its wholehearted agreement was not necessarily a sign of unity in the Church. “We all see things incredibly differently. The bias of the Bench makes us feel not listened to. This has never been an open and transparent process. We’ve been instructed to ‘disagree well’. Unity cannot be imposed from the top down. The Bench of Bishops is looking to appease and accommodate, to twist scripture to make it more palatable.”

Many spoke movingly of their own experiences as gay couples. Mr Kirk acknowledged the “strength, support, encouragement and love I have received from the man who has shared my life for 25 years”. Cathryn Brooker, a lay member from Monmouth, spoke “from my heart. . . It is not illegal to be gay. It is not an aberration. It is not perverse. Christ’s teaching is remarkably simple. If Jesus Christ walked through the door, what would he ask us? Vote with Christianity — not churchianity — in your heart and soul.”

Ian Hibble (Llandaff) believed that the Bill would “advance God’s sanctifying purposes”. It was not just a valid option, but a requirement of Christian faithfulness — pastorally and missionally, we need to make this provision.”

The Revd Adam Pawley (St Asaph) opposed the motion. The Government had introduced same-sex marriage, but what of those who had taken refuge in the Church as a safe space for those who did not hold that view? “Blessing is not a marriage. If we are prepared to bless, we should be prepared to marry.”

The Archdeacon of St Asaph, the Ven. Andy Grimwood (St Asaph), was concerned for the unity of the Anglican Communion. If the Bill was passed, it would be “throwing away 400 years of traditional orthodox teaching”. It would also mark the end of church growth. He noted the conscience clause, and asked that it be made permanent for both clergy and laity.

The Revd Matthew Davis (Monmouth) said that he would once have rejected the Bill on the grounds of its being unbiblical. But he described a Damascus-road experience. “Having encountered the living Christ in LGBT brothers and sisters in the Church, that view is no longer compatible with the Bible I read or the beliefs I hold.” He urged the Church in Wales to stand firm at the Lambeth Conference 2022, after several speakers expressed concern for the impairment with the Anglican Communion that would result if the Bill was passed.

His concerns were shared by the Revd Lance Sharpe (Swansea & Brecon). The Church in Wales had around 30,000 worshippers: the Communion had tens of millions. “The vast majority of Anglicans are not where you are at present,” he told the meeting. The Revd Peter Ratcliffe (St Davids) was of the same mind and wanted to wait for a steer from Lambeth 2022.

Jonathan Sadler, a co-opted member aged under 30, believed that celibate lay Christians as a group would feel “oppressed and crushed”. Dr Heather Payne (Llandaff) and Ian Lloyd (Monmouth) both supported the Bill. “This is not a zero-sum game,” Dr Payne said. “We must not leave it here: the Bench of Bishops must commit to taking the next step, of equal marriage.” Mr Lloyd, a head teacher, brought “the experience of the young people and families I serve”.

Andrew Sims (Llandaff), who supported the Bill, declared:, “This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church.” He deplored the attitude that “I may not be like you but I have decided for you that your relationship is less [than mine].” Anthony Mullins (Llandaff) asked with regard to Lambeth 2022, “Why should Wales wait? Why must we always follow on the tail of what has been agreed?”

The Revd Philip Bettinson (St Asaph) knew clergy in committed relationships who were on the verge of giving up. The Bill was needed “if this Church has any chance of surviving. It’s a tough Bill. It will change who and what we are. We will be able to say to the Anglican Communion, ‘We are love.’”

Hannah Burch (Llandaff), who described herself as a gay woman in a loving committed relationship with a bisexual woman, said: “Our faith is hugely important to us. We are deeply called to the Anglican Church and the Church in Wales.”

The Archdeacon of Meirionnydd, the Ven. Andrew Jones (Bangor), appealed to the undecided to vote in favour of the bill. “I fully support it,” he said. “The time and circumstances are right, and as a Province we are in a good place to say yes to this Bill. It says ‘yes’ to people like me, affirming us.”

Helen Franklin (Bangor) was opposed. She described the day as “an emotional day, and people have bared their souls”. There had been a lot of balance, but a lot of opinion had focused on welcome: “Jesus welcomed, but he challenged people to deny self. We can’t always be his disciples and simply do what we want. This is not the right time for the health of the Church.”

The Revd Dr Adrian Morgan (co-opted) believed that monumental change in the Church was possible: “The pandemic has taught us that. People on both sides who in good conscience hold their views need to be heard. If we are going to say yes, our yes must be yes. Make the move wholeheartedly.” He urged “good, robust debate” at parish and diocesan levels.

Paul Murray (Swansea & Brecon) was for the Bill. His decision was “based on five loving couples I know. The love that emanates from those relationships is amazing.”

Bishop Cameron, summing up the debate, described it as “the most difficult job I’ve ever been given”. He sought to assure the Evangelical constituency that he had not chosen to misrepresent or condemn their views.

“When I talked about my understanding of scripture, I was speaking autobiographically. It was not intended as rubbishing of conservative Evangelical thinking, theology, or ministry.

“But I don’t agree with you that the Bible can only be read as hostile to gay relationships. I refuse to be told that I am ‘unorthodox’. . . We should not ‘disfellowship’ each other because we do not agree on this issue. . . Christ compels me to stand with the vulnerable and oppressed. I will not betray them at any price in this world or the next.”

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