Presidential address – Governing Body April 2012

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In this address I want to tackle a moral issue which faces our church and world.  I am aware as I do so, that I am entering a minefield because there are no easy simple answers to complicated ethical problems, nor is there a straightforward single Christian perspective on it, in spite of what some people may think.

Presidential addresses are one way of trying to open up discussions and hopefully enabling all of us to think further.  I am talking, of course, about same sex relationships.

In December last year, a new law came into force regarding the registration of civil partnerships in religious premises.  Since 2005, when the Civil Partnership Act was passed by Parliament allowing two people of the same sex to register as civil partners, that partnership had to be performed in a Register Office or in approved premises and there was a prohibition on them being performed on religious premises.  The Equality Act of 2011 removed that prohibition so that civil partnerships can now be registered on religious premises if the various churches want that to happen.

A working party chaired by Bishop Dominic agreed that in our case, the Governing Body, as our supreme legislative Body, would have to decide the matter. Should the Governing Body give that permission, then the church, at a local level, would still have to apply to the Local Authority for a specific building to be licensed.  There are therefore two stages to be got through – one a general permission in principle to be taken by the Governing Body as to whether our buildings as a whole can be used and if the answer is “yes”, a licence to be applied for in the case of a particular church building from a particular Local Authority.

We are yet to have that discussion at Governing Body level and until we do, church buildings cannot be used for civil partnership registrations.  Some have accused us of cowardice for not permitting such registrations and some have just said it is because we are homophobic.

Now we have to acknowledge that the record of the church in its dealings with same sex issues has not been good but registering civil partnerships in our churches is not the real issue to my mind.  For even if the Governing Body did decide to give its approval for it, all we would be doing would be allowing a secular  ceremony to be carried out by a Civil Registrar in our churches, something we do not permit in the case of civil weddings. Admittedly that might be regarded as giving tacit approval to such partnerships but it would be an odd thing to allow without any religious content or input, for how would we, as a Church, explain the nature of what was happening?  Christians who want their civil partnerships to be held on religious premises would not be satisfied with the church merely hosting such ceremonies.  They would want prayers to be said or for their partnerships to be blessed.  And that, of course, is where the problems begin because it is an issue which has virtually torn the Communion apart and opinion within every Church is divided.  And if that were not a difficult enough issue, the Government has now embarked on a consultation process to see whether civil marriages can be extended to same gender couples.

Many individual Christians and churches insist homosexual relationships are against God’s law as revealed in Scripture and contrary to nature and that we ought not to be even considering the matter, let alone the civil marriage of people of the same gender.

I will come back to the Government’s consultation on civil marriage which raises a whole host of theological questions for the church.  My concern at the moment is that in any discussion which might ensue on this, gay people may once more gain the impression that the church is uncaring and unsympathetic.  Things could be said in the coming months which I think could seriously damage people pastorally so it is that pastoral issue that I want to address and to make some general points about sexual relationships and in that context, I bring to your attention a statement issued by the Bench last month and put on the Church in Wales website:

Human Sexuality
The Bench of Bishops

  1. abides by the Christian doctrine of marriage as the union of one man with one woman freely entered into for life.
  2. acknowledges 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.
  3. is committed to further listening, prayerful reflection and discernment regarding same-sex relationships.

The real question is, how do we hold together faithfulness to Scripture and tradition with the wider New Testament call to love our neighbour?  Within a local congregation, homosexual people and their partners often form an uncomfortable mis-match with what some in the Church regard as a lifestyle condemned in Scripture.  Homosexual people often feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, and sometimes leave for a more accepting Church.  Their doing so might solve the tension within that particular congregation, but further heightens the tension between so-called conservatives and liberals in the Church.  If the moral aim of the gospel is to encourage love of neighbour, how can that happen when people are made to feel unwanted, unloved, and sinful?  How is the gospel good news for homosexuals?

Even Lambeth 1:10 in 1998 recognised homosexual orientation and the need for pastoral care of homosexuals.  It went further and committed the Church “to listen to the experience of homosexual persons” and to give them the assurance that “they are loved by God and…are full members of the Body of Christ.”  It also condemned irrational fear of homosexuals.  Gays and lesbians, however, claim they are still treated as second-class citizens, tolerated at best and vilified at worst.  The Royal College of Psychiatrists, in a recent report, stressed the need to support gay people and expressed concern that continued attention to this one section of the population unwittingly promotes mental illness among them.  Very often homosexuality is talked about as if real people were not involved; and gays and lesbians complain of being talked about rather than talked to in Church.

Lambeth 1998, as I said, accepted homosexual orientation – what some have regarded as “a natural attribute for some people,” that is, a natural predisposition toward people of the same sex –which has only been fully understood fairly recently.  Even so, the Lambeth answer was to separate orientation from practice and commend celibacy.

But can celibacy be imposed?  Shouldn’t it be freely undertaken as a personal vocation by heterosexuals and homosexuals alike?  As Rowan Williams once put it, “anyone who knows the complexities of the true celibate vocation, would be the last to have any sympathy with the extraordinary idea that sexual orientation is an automatic pointer to a celibate life: almost as if celibacy before God is less costly, even less risky to the homosexual than the heterosexual.”  And is not separating mind and body or feelings or orientation from practice a kind of dualism which the church has condemned in the past since human beings are a unified whole and cannot be compartmentalised in such a way.  If that is true of humanity in general, why should we expect people of a homosexual disposition to be singled out in this way?

The Church in Wales’s Bench of Bishops issued a statement in 2005 acknowledging the variety of viewpoints held by Christians within the Church in Wales, with integrity.  These ranged from the view that the only proper context for sexual activity is marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, so that homosexual practice of any kind is rejected, to the view that, in the light of a developing understanding of the nature of humanity and sexuality, the time had arrived for the Church to affirm committed homosexual relationships.   That last view is based on the premise that the Bible does not explicitly recognise loving and committed sexual relationships between two people of the same sex and therefore does not really address the issue of homosexuality, as we understand it.

The Government’s consultation paper forces us to think about all these issues.  The Church in Wales’ doctrine of marriage is that it is a lifelong committed relationship between people of different sexes.  And as The Times put it “the State cannot prescribe the content of Christian doctrine”.  The Times went on to say, however, that “the State has an obligation to enact the social contract of equality and the law, that binds its citizens.  That principle implies full homosexual equality and therefore the right to marry”.  That changes the nature of marriage in our society.  The Home Secretary says that the Government does not propose to touch religious marriage.  By that she means only that “It will not be legally possible under these proposals for religious organisations to solemnise religious marriages for same-sex couples and there will be no obligation or requirement for religious organisations or ministers of religion to do so.  Nor will it be possible for same-sex couples to have a civil marriage ceremony on religious premises.  Marriages of any sort on religious premises would still only be legally possible between a man and a woman”.  Civil marriages between partners of the same sex may be prohibited from being held in church but the marriage service ceremony will have exactly the same effect in law whether people get married in church or not. The State’s understanding of marriage will be the same as the church’s namely a commitment for life, except that it will now be offered to same sex couples. It is not absolutely clear whether civil partnership ceremonies are meant to be lifelong, although that is the implication.

If the legislation to allow civil marriage is passed, I cannot see how we as a church, will be able to ignore the legality of the status of such partnerships and we ought not to want to do so.  There is a further complication and that is that just as the Government only initially allowed civil partnerships outside religious premises but has now extended that provision to include them, the same may happen as far as what they call civil marriage is concerned and indeed some argue that it is against European law to separate the two since there is no distinction in law in this country between marriage in church and marriage in a register office.

The question then as now is, will the church protect and support pastorally, faithful, stable, lifelong relationships of whatever kind in order to encourage human values such as love and fidelity and recognise the need in Christian people for some public religious support.  As Helen says in the novel “Nightwatch” by Sarah Waters – a novel written in 2006, “what could she do to say to the world that Julia was hers?”  She could have gone on to ask “what can the church do to show that this relationship is not simply something between my partner and I but that somehow God is in our midst as well and longs for our wellbeing”.  It is a discussion we need to have.