The Church in Wales steps back from Same-Sex Marriage.

Sep 21, 2015 by

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A report for Anglican Mainstream by Ven Dr Will Strange, Archdeacon of Cardigan.

On the second day of its meeting in Lampeter on September 16-17 2015, the Governing Body of the Church in Wales debated the possibility of offering a blessing or of offering a full marriage service to same-sex couples. This was not intended to lead to a vote, but to an expression of preference to guide the Bishops on whether to bring forward a Bill to permit either of these possibilities.

Ruth Gledhill has reported the outcome on the Christian Today website as ‘The Church in Wales shows support for Same-Sex Marriage’. It might be better expressed as ‘The Church in Wales takes a decisive step away from Same-Sex Marriage’. Some background will help explain why.

The bench of Bishops set out the Church in Wales’ stance on same-sex marriage in a statement from 2012:

We abide by the Christian doctrine of marriage as the union of one man with one woman freely entered into for life. We acknowledge that whilst issues of human sexuality are not resolved, there are couples living in other life-long committed relationships who deserve the welcome, pastoral care and support of the Church. We are committed to further listening, prayerful reflection and discernment regarding same sex relationships.

This is more or less in line with Lambeth 1.10 (from the 1998 Lambeth Conference), though the two previous Archbishops of Wales and the present Archbishop of Wales were among the 166 signatories to the Pastoral Statement offering an apology to homosexual persons which was issued at the end of that Conference. One might note that the phrase about ‘other life-long relationships’ is somewhat vague, and leaves the door open to change.

With the advent of civil partnerships and then of same-sex marriage, the Bishops charged the Doctrinal Commission of the Church in Wales to produce a report for them on the issues involved. This report was presented to the April 2014 meeting of the Governing Body. The report proposed three options:

  1. a restatement of the traditional position, that marriage is only between a man and a woman;
  2. the blessing of same- sex partnerships;
  3. marriage between a couple irrespective of sexual difference.

The Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, has reminded the province that blessings, still less marriages of same-sex couples, are not permitted in our churches. But when he has referred to Lambeth 1.10, for instance in the Presidential Address to Governing Body in April 2012, he has only mentioned its commitment to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and to assure them that they are loved by God and are full members of the Body of Christ, and not so much to Lambeth 1.10’s strong affirmation of Christian teaching on sexual ethics. In speaking to Governing Body in April 2014 the Archbishop dealt with biblical texts, and concluded that

. . .it can be argued that homosexual relationships as we understand them in terms of committed, faithful, monogamous, long lasting relationships, were unknown in biblical times and what the texts rail against is sexual promiscuity and experimentation. . . .We cannot just quote Biblical texts on different subject matters and think that that settles an issue.

At that same meeting at Llandudno in April 2014 Governing Body members discussed in small groups pastoral questions on same-sex relationships given to them by the Bishops. The reports back from these groups suggested that there was strong support for at least blessing and recognising same-sex relationships and quite definite support for marrying people of the same sex in church.

In the light of this evidence of apparent readiness to change, the Bishops wished to test the mind of the province by a poll at Governing Body’s September 2015 meeting. To prepare for that meeting, each diocese arranged consultations. Unfortunately every diocese was left to decide for itself how it conducted these consultations, so the results are difficult to interpret. But opinion seemed to lie between the diocese of St Davids, where around 60% of the Diocesan Conference (the equivalent of Diocesan Synod) voted for keeping traditional marriage, to the diocese of Llandaff, where about the same number were in favour of same-sex marriage.

This was the background to the debate in September 2015. In order to help gauge the possible strength of support for the three options proposed by the Doctrine Commission, members were given first and second preference choices.

The debate itself was long – Governing Body is a smaller meeting than General Synod, and anyone who wishes to speak is able to do so. In the end thirty-four people went to the podium. The Bishops did not take part. The debate was courteous and reasonable, and the arguments put forward on either side were those one would expect. More speakers supported option 3 (same-sex marriage) than option 1 (maintaining the status quo) by a margin of nearly two to one.

The key thing the Bishops were looking for was an indication that two-thirds of Governing Body, in each of three houses, might support either options 2 or 3. This is because either of these options would require a Bill to permit a change of doctrine, something which could only happen with a two-thirds majority in the house of bishops, of clergy and of laity separately.

The key thing which the results showed once they were counted was that a two-thirds majority in either the house of clergy or of laity is, at present, unattainable. Yes, support for option 3 was strong: 54% of clergy and 48% of laity. But even if one adds the second preference support, the figures reach only 57% and 51% respectively. Support for option 1 was solid: 44% of clergy and 43% of laity. The Bishops, too, were divided, which is very unusual: one supported option 1, two option 2, and three option 3. It is also interesting to note that while the percentages in the house of clergy and the house of laity supporting change were almost exactly the same, the house of Bishops was out of step with the other houses, with 83% favouring changing our marriage discipline (either options 1 or 2), compared with 56% of clergy and 57% of laity.

So it is no wonder that Archbishop Barry commented to BBC Wales immediately afterward:

It would be a very brave, or perhaps a very foolish bench of bishops who were to bring a bill before the Governing Body at this stage because that might just rip the Church apart and lead to the acrimony which has been absent from this debate.

Why is this a step back from same-sex marriage in the Church in Wales? Up until September 17th there appeared to be a strong tide of opinion in the Church in Wales running towards changing our marriage discipline. To some it seemed irresistible. But things have changed. After the Governing Body and the ballot, it is not realistic to expect a Bill to be brought forward by the Bishops in the immediate future. Quite apart from the hard evidence that it would fall short of the numbers required under Bill procedure, the Archbishop’s observation is fully justified: this is a highly divisive issue which has engaged passions even more than the debate over women bishops, and in which further action would do no more than create an acrimonious stalemate.

That is not to say the debate is finished. Those pressing for change will be disappointed that they did not persuade Governing Body on this occasion and they will no doubt hope to carry the fight on. They have strong support in all three houses and the ballot revealed the important fact that they have the majority of Bishops behind them, something which had never been shown publically before or acknowledged officially.

But significantly, and surprisingly to many of us, the Governing Body of a province which is often regarded as one of the most liberal in the Anglican Communion has found its own voice and shown that it can be faithful to the teaching of scripture and to the witness of tradition. We have to pray that the province as a whole can remain so in the days ahead.

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