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The Church in Wales and Same-sex Partnerships – a report by the Standing Doctrinal Commission of the Church in Wales

April 13, 2014

C in WThe big question is at para 49: ‘If further, more extensive research is found to support the above hypothesis, it is possible that for some the scientific studies will prompt a redefining of the theological enterprise – so that the imperative is not “how can homosexual desires be modified?” but “what did God mean by making the world like this?”

What a welcome relief after the Pilling Report. Maybe it is because there are far less evangelicals over the border. This report doesn’t fudge statistics and it sets out the options without loading them. It doesn’t have the harsh, condemnatory tone of Pilling. Whereas Pilling’s subtext was ‘how do we hold the line against secular changes? This report feels more like ‘How exciting it is to live in changing times. What can we offer people? What can we learn from them?’

This commission met for six days, under the chairmanship of Peter Sedgewick, who most of us regard as a heavyweight theologian. They also listened to ‘devout Christians’ with different opinions.

They began by noting that there is no one definition of marriage – not all married couples live together or share finances. In some West African societies “a woman may have another woman as a ‘female husband’ and any children the first woman brings to the marriage or are subsequently born are recognized as the children of the female husband”   In ancient Rome, it was a contract and “a newborn was presented to the husband who could then decide whether to acknowledge it as legitimate or have it exposed.”

Jewish marriage had two stages. Betrothal “signalled consent by the man giving the woman a ring and claiming her as his exclusive sexual property, and the woman silently accepting it. The marriage contract specified what the bride and groom’s families would give the couple and what the bride could expect in the case of divorce”

The early church seems to have accepted the norms of the societies in which it was placed but Paul’s letters seek to modify the role of the paterfamilias.

Later on, celibacy was seen as superior and challenged sexual norms.

Divorce and remarriage were “treated as pastoral issues. Marriage is seen as part of the whole business of Christian living rather than an issue on which the Church must set boundaries. This changed when Constantine the Great gave bishops the right to act as magistrates, and so to decide on difficult and disputed cases. The law codes of the Christian Emperor Justinian in the sixth century formulated much earlier law and became the basis of Western marriage law for a millennium and more. Eligibility is determined by the legally-defined age of puberty (fourteen for boys, twelve for girls). The couple’s consent remains the basis of marriage but paternal permission must be obtained. Co-habiting couples are not recognised as married and their children are illegitimate, with the same status as children of prostitutes, although courts can regularize their status if their parents later marry. It assumes that a marrying couple are male-female.”

From the 4th Century onwards, clergy blessed marriages. “By 1100, the normal pattern throughout Europe was for a couple to become betrothed then, on the wedding day, to come to church, where the priest met them at the door and asked if they consented to the marriage. He then asked the bride’s father’s consent and supervised the handing over of the dowry, blessed the ring that the groom gave the bride and blessed the marriage. During the nuptial mass the bride would be veiled and blessed. At the kiss of peace, the priest kissed the groom who then kissed the bride. “ In the 1220s, marriage became seen as a sacrament.

However, “The ministers of the sacrament were the couple themselves”, which “meant that, strictly speaking, no ceremony or blessing was necessary”. If that was so, then maybe gay couples can minister to each other and define the nature of relationship. This could have been more fully explored.

“Luther, by contrast, believed that it was not the Church’s business to define marriage law. He understood marriage as consent between two individuals, a legal agreement rather than a sacrament, something common to all humanity: “No one can deny that marriage is an external and secular matter, like food and clothing, houses and land, subject to civil supervision.” The Church ought, therefore, to “leave each city and state to its own practices in this regard”. Calvin agreed with this and the infant Anglican Church’s own birth did not allow it to be too highly sacramental about marriage.”

“In his Homily on Marriage, Bishop Jewel goes further, portraying married life as a form of spiritual warfare, in which Satan tries to disrupt the harmony of the God-given bond. Husband and wife are to be partners together in prayer for this reason. He emphasises the love which the couple have for each other and the need to take steps to guard this valuable thing: “That whereas now there is pleasant and sweet love betwixt you, he [the devil] will in the stead thereof, bring in most bitter & unpleasant discord.” The English Church was developing a theology of marriage which was able to affirm the married state, not as a second-best for failed Christians, but as an arena for Christian discipleship and growth.”

In 1754, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Hardwicke, pushed a bill through parliament which forms the basis of marriage law in Britain today. Hardwicke’s Marriage Act stated that, to be considered valid in England and Wales, a marriage must take place in the local Anglican Church, with the Anglican clergyman conducting the ceremony according to the prayer book, with banns called and the couple having parental permission if under 21. The only exceptions to this were Jews, Quakers and members of the Royal Family. ….The Act also introduced the principle that the state defined who was married and how that marriage came about and the Anglican Church policed this law for the state. “

State marriages without the church began wit the French Revolution.

People’s expectations of marriage have changed. Instead of a ‘remedy against sin;’ it is seen as a gift and is often the ‘crown’ after a period of cohabitation. Romantic love is required to prove that a marriage isn’t a cover for bogus immigration.

By 2012, TEC blessed gay relationships. Canada started earlier, in 2003. 2005 saw civil partnerships in England and Wales. March 2014 saw gay civil marriages. The report rightly points out the views about marriage between church and state have diverged in the past. “The most enduring aspect of marriage in the West has been the consent of the individuals to live together in marriage. If they are the sacramental ministers of marriage to each other, this is as it should be. This may seem blindingly obvious but it means that state, family and Church are always potentially on the back foot, struggling to offer, for better or worse, advice, structure and protection as couples make their marriages.”

There is some consideration of science but also an admission that people choose their studies to back up their pre-existing opinions. Science is at an early stage, not least because its studies have so far dealt with people who are prepared to come forward as gay. Their numbers will increase in future as stigma wanes. “it cannot presently be claimed that science has solved the question of how sexual orientation originates, but the cumulative evidence of studies undertaken to date does support the case for some biological determinants”

The statistics of those who are gay are higher than those offered in The Pilling Report. In complete contrast to Pilling, this report says “There is a large body of research evidence indicating that being gay, lesbian or bisexual is compatible with normal mental health and social adjustment. However, the experiences of discrimination in society and possible rejection by friends, families, employers and others means that some LGB ( Lesbian- Gay- Bisexual) people experience a greater than expected prevalence of mental health and substance misuse problems. “

It also gives a truer picture of the longevity of gay relationships and states that the reasons for its absence in some people is due to society’s disapproval rather than being something inherent in homosexuality.

More could have been said about reparative therapies and the damage they do. But at least they aren’t held out as a desirable option, as they are in Pilling.

Why this conflict? They quote Rowan Williams one of the urgent needs of the church these days is to understand the ecclesial significance of controversy. To put it more plainly, we need to remember that conflict in the church is not necessarily a matter of revolt against and defence of a settled solution, but a God- given means of discovering what it is we actually believe. That is how the formulations of the classical creeds occurred.

The report sees no merit in trading biblical texts though it draws attention to some papers written by individual members of the commission and available here.

The report goes on to consider three options. First, Marriage as the Union Only of Man and Woman. Other relationships can produce friendship, permanence, stability and partnership but only marriage is potentially procreative and exclusive (aren’t some bat relationships also the latter?). Just because society has changed its view doesn’t mean that the church has to follow. We then get some misguided biblical stuff about the distinctiveness of male and female going right back to creation, similar to what is advanced in Pilling. Leviticus and other clobber texts are cited but less harshly than in Pilling. True, there are examples of polygamy in scripture but these are supposedly cited as causing the breakdown of kingdoms where it was practiced. Marriage was a social union, not just concerned with the wishes of two individuals. If any of seven elements – male/female, adult, monogamy, genetic difference (i.e. not incest), lifelong and exclusive, social recognition and potentially procreative – aren’t thee, it isn’t a true marriage. So what of gays? They should be ‘transformed’: that God loves us as we are, but loves us too much to leave us as we are.   The report gives examples of lives transformed in the NT – fraudsters, swindlers. We then get a whole pages wasted on the views of the Bishop of Birkenhead, as if he hasn’t had far too much influence on this subject already.

The second option is Blessing Same-Sex Partnerships, responding pastorally to the felt needs of faithful Christians in such relationships. After much controversy, this has become the norm in many places though not in Africa. Some opponents of gay marriage urge that we recover a theology of friendship and bless friends. After all, without the beloved disciple, we would not have had his gospel. Blessing civil partnerships would take the pressure off calls for gay marriage. The arguments by John Boswell and Alan Bray that such blessings have an earlier pedigree but was suppressed are dismissed. Is liturgy merely to “ratify the local etiquette”? Of does it relate to the sweep of the Christian story? “A period of experimentation would allow the churches to respond to same-sex couples in an affirming way. Whether marriage is between only a man and a woman in Christian faith is a debate that we must have in the years to come. For now, we need to cherish and love those who follow Christ, join the Anglican Church, and form same-sex partnerships. Not least, that is because the love between them expresses the love of God towards them, and the Church should bless that, just as the Church blesses all that God has made and is very good: swarms of living creatures, birds, great sea monsters, beasts of every kind[1]– and even, we can now argue, same-sex partnerships. The generosity of God in his creation is limited only by the limited response of the Church, just as it was to those of different ethnic backgrounds from our own in past centuries, and of women who a few decades ago sought ordination. It is time to change, and rejoice with God in blessing his creation as very good.

Option three is full-blown gay marriage because “it may help to strengthen our understanding, moving away from a concept of marriage as a matter of fixed biological categories and roles, and towards one of marriage as a union of loving equals in the Spirit…… Current Christian theology, concerned as it is with themes of identity and relationship, characteristically starts from the perspective of the embodied nature of people created in the image of God. Personal identity is now seen as fluid and multifaceted, developing and diverse, not essentialised and constant.”

Embodied reality is not limited by a reductionist ‘binary’ character. Our diversity is held together in unity and this unity in diversity is diminished if we exclude some people. “Adam’s recognition of Eve is one of similarity, not difference….., the incarnation demands that we cannot regard sex as a distinction of ‘kind’, in theological thought. If it were, Jesus could not have been fully human, only fully male. He would have only taken on half our human nature by being made man….. As well as being rooted in creation, Christian blessing of marriage proclaims a reality that transcends and completes creation: it proclaims The Kingdom of God. It may be regarded as sacramental because it embodies in an earthly way a spiritual reality, thereby “signifying to us the mystical union between Christ and his Church” (Book of Common Prayer 1984 Marriage Service). That Church is a diverse Body, able to incorporate the great diversity of humanity unified in Christ (Gal 3:26-28).”

Marriage is for human flourishing and not all marriages involve procreation. “The teaching of Christ prioritises the ‘reconstituted family’ of the Kingdom over the biological families, and the theology of St Paul prioritised adoption as children of God over claims deriving from biological descent. In this way, families who raise the children of others increase, not decrease, the sacramentality of marriage and human relationships.”

“It is remarkable that in a world where there is a great deal of competition and the encouragement of individual self-fulfilment, the fact that people want to get married is a realisation that true fulfilment can only be found in relationships of love” (Archbishop Barry Morgan, Preface to Marriage Services 2010). It is still more remarkable that gay and lesbian people should wish to be married by a Church that has caused them so much pain. We must be humbled that some do, and unsurprised that some do not.”

Gay marriages may teach straights a lot of about mutuality and question the remnants of patriarchy that surrounds our notions of marriage.

As far as mission goes, young people are still open to spirituality but not to the church while it is seen as homophobic and prejudiced. So there is a mission imperative.

Unlike the Bishop of Birkenhead in Pilling, this report acknowledges the self-sacrificing nature of gay relationships.

The report concludes with stress on the incarnation, on Jesus’s pastoral dealings with people who were marginalised.

“Another strand in Jesus’ engagement with those of his day is the recognition that unless people are able fully to identify with a particular lived experience; they find it extremely difficult to formulate an appropriate response. We see this in the Pharisees’ blanket condemnation of those trapped in poverty who are failing to observe the minutiae of the regulations they hold so dear. We see it in the well-meaning attempts of the disciples to dispense with those whom they assumed their Master would regard as a nuisance, and in the endeavours of those disciples to persuade Him to abandon a course of action that they thought ill-advised. It is even evident in Jesus’ own agony that his closest friends proved incapable of comprehending the path that he must tread.

“In direct opposition to such behaviour is the attitude of the risen Christ as he encountered two disciples who, torn apart by disappointment and grief, travelled the road to Emmaus. Here, although he challenged their understanding of Scripture, there was not an attempt to deny their lived experience, or demand that they turn around. There was rather an accompanying, which did eventually lead to transformation in the context of shared hospitality and the breaking of the bread.”

The report is here.

There are some interesting supporting papers. In ‘Does regarding marriage as a sacrament offer new insights into the Church’s current debates surrounding gay marriage’ by Ainsley Griffiths, Sam Wells is quoted as seeing John’s gospel as echoing genesis but referring to the new creation. Christ, the self-giving bridegroom, comes to his bride and “at that very moment of apparently desolate poverty which John regards as the ultimate revelation of glory – the “hour” which at Cana “[had] not yet come” (John 2.4) – the bridegroom cries out “it is finished” (19.30), or in Latin, consummatus est, a cry replete with “erotic resonances.”

Sacraments are transformative by the power of God’s generosity. Their goal is to sanctify the human for participation in the life of the Trinity. Gay marriage adds to and strengthens this generosity rather than ‘undermining marriage.’

Some of the material here echoes some excellent work done by TEC, e.g. exploring the ‘apposite’ as well as ‘opposite’ sex.

As you’d expect from Peter Sedgwick, his paper ‘Sexuality and the Image of God.’ covers new ground. For example, those who argue ‘natural law’ do not take into account that nature evolves. Humanity is not a fixed entity: our covenant relationship with God means that we respond and change in our relationship with God and with each other. Interaction changes us. There is too much Karl Barth in C of E. documents – her sees homosexuality as rebellion against god and takes no account of natural theology, of what IS as opposed to what he things OUGHT to be. His view is based on determinism, not on any notion that in Christ there is a NEW creation.

Good modern theologians are quoted in Green’s paper here.

Will Strange’s paper, http://www.churchinwales.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/SameSexMarriage-BiblicalConsiderations.pdf suggests that the fact that Jesus said nothing about same-sex relationships doesn’t mean he was in favour of them. After all, he questioned other aspects of Jewish aspects but not this one. He author quotes and agrees with Robert Gagnon and says that even if homosexuality is an essentialist identity, and it is likely that there were some in Paul’s time that thought that it was, it doesn’t follow that stable relationships make it OK. Stability isn’t the issue. It is still rebellion against God’s will for humanity.

Matthew Hall’s paper Fundamental Scriptural Approaches follows the more liberal line and the familiar refutations of the ‘clobber texts’. Its fitting conclusion is: when considering the totality of the scriptural witness there are sufficient grounds to warrant a recognition of a permanent, faithful, stable and loving same sex relationship as a way of life capable of being perfected and transformed by the riches of God’s grace to fulfil the demands of the Kingdom.

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[1] Genesis 1:24

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