Evangelical Fellowship of the Church in Wales responds to the Bishops’ Pastoral Letter

Apr 29, 2016 by


At the Governing Body (GB) meeting in Llandudno on April 6th 2016, the Archbishop announced to GB that the Bishops would be circulating a document entitled ‘A Pastoral Letter from the Bishops of the Church in Wales to all the faithful concerning gay and lesbian Christians’.

The Pastoral Letter (subsequently made available on the Church in Wales website) constitutes the Bishops’ response to the situation following the previous GB. On that occasion a secret ballot made clear that the clergy and laity would not offer enough support to enable the Bishops to introduce a Bill to permit either same-sex marriages in church or blessings of same-sex unions. The Bishops took a different view from GB as a whole: three expressed a willingness to support same-sex marriages and two were willing to support blessings of same-sex unions. For that reason alone many people expected them to make some sort of announcement in April. The bishops were no doubt conscious of pressure on them to ‘do something’, as witness a question sponsored by ten members of GB at the April 2016 meeting, asking them ‘now to respond to continuing calls by the LGBT members of the Church in Wales and their supporters for full and equal inclusion and acceptance’.


The Pastoral Letter rehearses the lead-up to the September 2015 GB and the result of the debate there. It mentions the Canterbury Primates’ Meeting in January 2016, focussing first on the Primates’ condemnation of homophobic prejudice and violence. It only then notes the reaffirmation by the Primates of marriage as the lifelong marriage of a man and a woman. However, it suggests that the only reason for holding to this standard is ‘mutual accountability and interdependence’ between Provinces, rather than because it is right in itself.

For these reasons, both internal and external, the Bishops say that they cannot ‘at this time’ support a change in the marriage policy of the Church in Wales. But the Bishops insert at this point a text addressed to ‘gay and lesbian’ members of our church. This is worth reading in detail, but the essential point is its apology to ‘gay and lesbian’ church members for the church’s persecution and ostracism of them. The Bishops then come to the action on which they have agreed: ‘we believe that it is appropriate to offer prayers in response to the pastoral need of those gay and lesbian persons who are making profound commitments to friendship and partnership’.

By way of an appendix, the Pastoral Letter includes two forms of prayer which the Bishops authorise for use. The first consists of three prayers to be offered by a leader: for the couple, for their home and for their family and friends. The second includes congregational responses. Both forms of prayer are based on the assumption that same-sex partnerships are an unquestioned good, which can be celebrated unequivocally by the church. Form One boldly adapts the prayer from the Baptism service concerning Jesus’ earthly home at Nazareth, applying it to a household composed of two men or of two women, and indicating that they are the moral equivalent of Mary and Joseph. Both forms appear to assume the presence of a congregation, which is somewhat at odds with the Bishops’ assurance that they would not permit public liturgies of blessing.

Doctrinal and Ethical Assumptions in the Pastoral Letter

This Pastoral Letter raises two questions: from what understanding does it proceed, doctrinally and ethically; and to what end does it point in the future?

There is a studied ambiguity in the Pastoral Letter’s manner of describing the relationships it is talking about. As so often in revisionist Christian discussion of same-sex relationships, a certain coyness of expression sets in when it comes to saying explicitly to what it is referring. The Bishops mention ‘profound commitments to friendship and partnership’. And the prayers make no mention of sexual activity. The whole issue only makes sense, though, if we are talking about sexually-active relationships, even if the Bishops do not feel able to say so.

The phrase ‘profound commitments to friendship and partnership’ reveals a view of marriage as a form of sexualised friendship. This defective view of marriage is, of course, one of the things which has confused debate on many occasions. Friendship is one thing and marriage is another. Apart from anything else, there is no reason that a person should be committed to only one friend. So for those who try to make marriage or sexual partnership a form of friendship, there can be no reason to restrict marriage to monogamy.

The Pastoral Letter assumes that sexual relations between a man and a man or between a woman and a woman are good things within God’s will for humankind, but offers no justification for believing that. One would not think, from the content of the Letter, that Scripture, Christian tradition and the majority of contemporary Christian opinion around the world maintain the very opposite (on which, now see S.D.Fortson & R.G.Grams, Unchanging Witness, 2016). The January 2016 Primates meeting also revealed that the Primates take a different view from our Bishops. Nor is there anything like overwhelming support in the Church in Wales for the kind of thing the Bishops are now permitting. The services of prayer the Bishops now authorise are based on a view of sexual relationship which GB has effectively rejected, and this authorisation really needs some theological basis. Simply rehearsing the persecution and ostracism which same-sex attracted persons have suffered from the church, or referring to pastoral need, is not enough. This persecution and ostracism has been real (and is still in places), and same-sex attracted persons have pastoral needs which also are real. These facts remind us all that we have had a share in treating same-sex attracted people with a lack of respect and care. But these facts do not offer a reason for altering the church’s consistent teaching on sex and marriage.

The Future?

The second question is: where is this going? Ostensibly, of course, it is not going anywhere. The Pastoral Letter simply permits, but does not prescribe, certain forms of prayer for use with same-sex couples.

But the language of the Pastoral Letter suggests strongly that this is a temporary measure only – as far as the Bishops feel they can go at the moment but in reality merely a staging-post, ‘as bishops work for a Church in which you [gay and lesbian persons] can be fully affirmed as equal disciples of Jesus Christ or seekers after truth’. Same-sex attracted Christians are, of course, already equal disciples of Jesus Christ. Many same-sex attracted people have made, and continue to make, outstanding contributions to the churches’ mission and witness. So perhaps this statement should be taken as a coded reference to an eventual goal of same-sex marriage, which, following September’s GB, is known to be the aspiration of half the Bench.

The Pastoral Letter speaks of responding to ‘the pastoral need of those gay and lesbian persons who are making profound commitments to friendship or partnership’. But to affirm those partnerships by offering prayers to God for them can only be possible if one is already convinced that they are good things. And that is just the question which the Church in Wales through its official decision-making body has not resolved. The careful avoidance of the term ‘blessing’ enables the Bishops to say that the Pastoral Letter and its appended prayers are not the equivalent of Option 2, rejected by GB in September 2015. Those who advocate further concessions towards same-sex marriage are certainly disappointed and some have been very critical of the Bishops for not doing more. However, it appears more natural to interpret the Letter and prayers as the functional equivalent of Option 2, even if not Option 2 in name. The Bishops can legitimately claim that GB took no vote, and merely sounded out opinion. But in the background of this Letter hovers a constitutional question about the respective responsibilities and decision-making powers of the GB and of the Bishops.

The announcement by the Bishops of these forms of prayer must be a source of deep disquiet. One source of disquiet is the appearance they give of coming close to overruling the mind of GB by episcopal fiat. Disquieting, too, to any member of the Church in Wales who values its scriptural obedience, its adherence to Christian tradition, or its continued relationship to orthodox Christian bodies around the world.

Read also: A Pastoral Letter from the Bishops of the Church in Wales to all the faithful concerning gay and lesbian Christians (pdf)

A response to the Pastoral letter from the Bishops of the Church in Wales by Martin Davie

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