Presidential Address – Governing Body April 2014

At this Governing Body we will discuss a number of important issues for our Church and nation. These are about gender, same-sex relationships, assisted dying and ecumenism. I cannot recall a Governing Body where the number of so many important topics were all under discussion at the same time. No decisions however are required from us either about assisted dying or same-sex relationships. People on either side of the debate will talk to us about assisted dying and then there will be an opportunity for us to meet in groups to discuss what we have heard; as far as same-sex relationships are concerned, you will all have received the Doctrinal Commission’s Report setting out possible approaches.

The Rev’d Canon Dr Peter Sedgwick, Chairman of the Doctrinal Commission, will introduce that report and we will again gather in groups to talk about it. Again, no decision is required of us at this stage, although it would be very useful to know the general drift of the discussions in groups for the bishops to think about whether or how to proceed on this matter.

There is also going to be a chance for this Body to air its views on what it thinks the Bishops’ Code of Practice should contain, as the Bill making it possible for women to be ordained as bishops comes into force in September. This will be along the same lines as the discussions already held in every diocese this year. The task of the bishops will be to listen to what is said. No decision is required by the Governing Body, since you specifically gave the bishops the task of drawing up the Code, in the Bill you passed last year.

One decision we do however have to make, and it is an important one, to consider a provincial response to the proposals launched at The Gathering in Aberystwyth in October 2012, for the creation of a Uniting Church in Wales.

What all these issues highlight is that there is genuine disagreement among Christians about moral, doctrinal and ecumenical issues. Put another way, there is no one Christian viewpoint on same-sex relationships, assisted dying or the ordination of women to the episcopate. The discussions will hopefully enable us, as a Church, as far as the first two issues I have named are concerned, discern how we should eventually respond because we have to remember that how we respond and what we have to say affects people’s lives.

What I would like to do now is make a few remarks which give no answers but highlight the complexities of the issues in front of us.

First, not one of us approaches these matters neutrally. We have all been shaped one way or another by our upbringing, education and life experiences to see things in certain ways. This was brought home to me very vividly last month at a Continuing Ministerial Education day for the clergy of the Llandaff Diocese on gender awareness. At one point, half of us were given spectacles with red lens and the other half spectacles with blue lens and asked to write what we saw on the screen in front of us.

Those of us with red lens (I don’t think there was anything significant about the colours) saw texts such as “In Christ there is no male or female”; “Women can pray and prophesy in church”; “Women were co-workers and co-leaders – Phoebe was a deacon, Junia an apostle”; “Priscilla taught Paul the faith”; “Authority within a marriage is mutual and reciprocal”; “Husbands and wives have equal authority”.

Those with blue lens saw “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority”; “Women should be silent in church”; “It is disgraceful for a woman to speak in church”; “The husband is the head of the wife and wives need to submit to their husbands”.

Yet we were all looking at the same screen and all these texts were there, except that your particular coloured lens filtered out the texts which the other colour lens highlighted. We often see what we want to see. We often use Scripture to reinforce viewpoints that we have already arrived at in other ways and for other reasons. Some people have changed their minds for example on women’s ministry and same-sex relationships when they have experienced the ministry of a woman priest in the one case, or discovered their own son or daughter to be gay in the other.

It can be said that the Bible is very clear in its directives on same-sex relationships and by even discussing them the church is giving in to the culture of the age. The church’s relation to its culture is of course an important one and Richard Niebuhr, an American scholar, wrote a very important book entitled “Christ and Culture” in 1951. He outlined five possible Christian attitudes to the question of Christ’s relationship to culture. By culture, we mean the accepted beliefs and values of our age. Is Christ against culture, calling Christians to reject the world entirely? Or is Christ allied with culture as the perfector of all that is good in society? Or is Christ above culture, drawing us out to become what God means us to become as human beings? Or are Christ and culture totally separate, and set apart, until God’s Kingdom arrives? Or is Christ the transformer of culture, rejecting the bad aspects and enabling us to bring all that is good into God’s redemptive love? As the Gospel of John puts it ‘being in but not of the world’.

The trouble is you can find all these different attitudes to culture in the Bible if you look hard enough. The Bible, for example, sees the created world as God’s handiwork and so is to be cherished, valued and affirmed. When, however, Israel wants to have a king rather than a prophet as its leader, she does so initially because she wants to conform to the pattern and culture of neighbouring nations and against the advice of the prophet Samuel. In spite of that, the institution of kingship was introduced and came to be venerated but individual kings were castigated for their idolatry and mistreatment of the poor and “doing that which was evil in the sight of the Lord”. In other words, the culture of surrounding nations changed Israel’s own culture – a culture that was sometimes endorsed and sometimes criticised by the prophets.

In the New Testament, Paul in 2 Corinthians 6, seems to ask Christians to separate themselves from non-believers “Come out from among them and be separated” – do not be infected by the world about you”. Yet he was the apostle, along with Peter, who in the end advocated that Gentiles did not have to become Jews first in order to become Christians, so that purity laws concerning food and circumcision did not have to be observed. That was an affirmation of the culture of the Gentiles – a culture that was alien to Judaism – a view that was eventually ratified by the Council of Jerusalem. St. Paul also urges disciples of Jesus to follow whatever is noble, just and true in the culture around them. The issue of faith and culture is not, therefore, as straightforward as it seems.
What then of our use of the Bible? The few texts we have in the Bible about same-sex relationships are very negative. Yet, 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. In 1972 the American Institute of Psychiatrists believed that homosexuality was a mental illness. We no longer believe that to be the case yet, that view was widespread just 40 years ago.

Holy Scripture itself is far more nuanced, subtle and complex than we often realise. If you look at the Book of Deuteronomy, Chapters 23, Verses 1 – 4, it says “no eunuch shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord” (eunuchs had passive sex with other men and were sexually ambivalent). Yet in Isaiah 56, Verses 4 – 5, “Eunuchs who keep my Sabbath and choose the things that please me, and hold fast my covenant, I will welcome to my house and give them within my walls a monument and a name better than my sons and daughters”. Move on to the Book of Acts, Chapter 8, Verse 38, and Philip baptises an Ethiopian eunuch.

So, whereas in Deuteronomy, eunuchs are an abomination to God and are not welcome at worship, Isaiah predicts that eunuchs will be accepted and blessed by God, even more so than Jews, God’s chosen people. Philip goes further and baptises a minister of the Ethiopian Queen, the person in charge of her treasury. Isaiah, therefore, contradicts Deuteronomy and in the Book of Acts, a eunuch is welcomed into the community of faith.

We cannot just quote Biblical texts on different subject matters and think that that settles an issue. It is easy to opt for prohibitions in Scripture and regard them as the word of the Lord and forget that the Bible contains stories which also convey God’s word to us. And, we have to remember that we have not, as a Church, taken a literalist view on marriage and divorce, in spite of the strict utterances of Jesus on this subject.

Same-sex marriages are now permitted by law in this country and although the same legislation does not allow them to be solemnised by the Church in Wales, some of our members will get married by the state, and we will implicitly acknowledge such marriages because they will be members of our churches. We will not seek to deny that these marriages have occurred.

It does, of course, now mean that there is a dissonance between the State’s view of marriage and the Church’s view of marriage as the lifelong faithful union between a man and a woman.

In fact we, as a Church, find ourselves in the same position on this issue as we did on the issue of marriage and divorce some years ago. The State allowed the possibility of divorce and re-marriage for a long time before we did as a Church.

In the 1970’s, the Church in Wales used to refuse even the Sacrament to divorced and re-married people. Abandoning that approach, the Church continued to refuse the blessing of such marriages in church, even though there were many in that situation in our congregations, so that the reality was that we did recognise them as married couples. Not only do we now bless such unions, we actually re-marry divorced people in our churches. In the past, if a cleric divorced and re-married, that person could no longer continue in the ordained ministry in Wales, whereas now that is no longer a bar to continuing in ministry. So our views have evolved and changed on a subject which Jesus pronounced very clearly. He had nothing to say about same-sex relationships.

Will we, as a Church, eventually adopt the same approach as far as same-sex relationships are concerned, as we have done about re-marriage after divorce, or is gay marriage in a different category from the re-marriage of divorced people?
Whatever our viewpoints, I hope that our discussions can be charitable. The manner in which Christians disagree is more important than the fact of our disagreement. Put in a different way, although we may disagree, and at times disagree fundamentally, our relationships with one another continue. As fellow members of the Body of Christ, we are bound to one another because we are bound to Christ. Let me remind you of a statement issued by the Bench of Bishops in 2005 “a variety of viewpoints are held by Christians with integrity, ranging from the view that the only proper context for sexual activity is marriage between a man and a woman in a lifelong union” to the view that “in the light of a developing and understanding of the nature of humanity and sexuality, the time had come for the church to affirm committed homosexual relationships”. We are all somewhere on that spectrum.

Two more things. I have spoken before of the danger of speaking about homosexuality in the abstract as if we were not talking about actual human beings. The Church’s record is not very good in this regard and many have seen us as homophobic. On the other hand, those who want to redress the balance and go ahead and publicly bless such unions in church, need to remember that the Church in Wales has not agreed to it and there are no authorised liturgies for it. Pastoral care means clergy can say prayers with all kinds of people in all kinds of situations privately, but that does not extend to public blessings. Much as some people may want to do so, the rule is the same as was the case over the re-marriage of divorced people – we need to wait for the Church, as a whole, to decide the matter – and we are beginning that process at this GB.