Same-sex partnerships and the Church in Wales

In advance of the meeting of its Governing Body[1] on 23-24 April, the Church in Wales has circulated three documents concerning same-sex partnerships: a report by the Standing Doctrinal Commission, The Church in Wales & Same Sex Partnerships; an Executive Summary of the report, and a Procedural Note. This is the first occasion in which the Governing Body has discussed same-sex partnerships, for which groups will be asked to consider the following question:

“A couple of the same sex come to worship in your parish.  After a period of attendance, and enthusiastic participation in church life, they enquire if their relationship can be blessed.  How can the Church in Wales respond to same sex couples – theologically and pastorally?”

Reports from the groups will be considered by the Bench of Bishops at its meeting in June with a view to reporting back to the following Governing Body meeting in September.  In the light of this consideration will be given to what steps the Church in Wales should take to respond to the question being considered by the groups.

Background

In March 2012, the Bishops of the Church in Wales agreed the following statement on Same-sex marriage

“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.”

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 makes the marriage of same sex couples lawful in England and Wales from 29 March 2014, although it

“ensures that the common law legal duty on the clergy of the Church of England and the Church in Wales to marry parishioners does not extend to same sex couples. It also protects the Church of England’s Canon law, which says that marriage is the union of one man with one woman, so that it does not conflict with civil law”.

[…]

“Should the Church in Wales decide to allow marriage of same sex couples, the Act sets out a procedure for its Governing Body to ask the Lord Chancellor to make secondary legislation enabling it to do so [2]

The latter relates to the provisions within section 8 of the Act, and was introduced during the Report stage of the Bill at the express request of the Church of Wales in order “to give full effect to the religious autonomy principle”.

In April 2013, the Doctrinal Commission was asked by the Archbishop “to examine the whole issue of same-sex relationships”, following which it met for six days, in addition to informal communication between its members.  The final, relatively brief report is designed to enable discussion at the Governing Body, but in addition a number of longer papers, mainly on scripture and doctrine, are available on the CiW website: Marriage as a Sacrament; Sexuality and the Image of God; The concept of Flourishing in Relation to Marriage as a Good, and the Question of Gay Partnerships; Same Sex Marriage – Biblical Considerations; and Fundamental Scriptural Approaches. These papers have been seen by the whole Commission, but are the views of members themselves, and are made available for “those who want to pursue those arguments”.

Report of the Doctrinal Commission

The  Introduction gives background information on the CiW’s considerations of same-sex partnerships and the associated legislation, which are addressed in the Report under the headings

– Historical Context, paras 1 to 30

– The science of Sexual Orientation: Implications for the Church’s Consideration of Same-Sex Partnerships, (paras 31 to 51);

– The place of Scripture and doctrine, (paras 52 to 54)

– Introduction to the three options, (para 55)

– Option One: Marriage as the Union Only of Man and Woman (paras 56 to 77)

– Option Two: Blessing Same-Sex Partnerships, (paras 78 to 102);

– Option 3: Marriage as a Union of Loving Equals Irrespective of Sexual Difference, (paras 103 to 113)

– The Kingdom of God and a New Creation, (paras 114 to 136)

– Conclusion : Some principles for a pastoral response, (para. 137 to 158)

Comment

The Governing Body will be presented with three options – certainly more practicable than the ten for consideration by the New Zealand General Synod in the Ma Whea? Report[3], and with a total membership of 156, a more manageable size for group considerations than the Church of England General Synod’s 467  members.  There is a certain logic in presenting the “middle ground” Option Two as a starting point for discussions, and the Report states:

“[t]he argument for blessings, rather than marriage, is in three stages.  First, across the world the Anglican Communion is experiencing the reality of faithful Anglicans forming same-sex partnerships … Secondly, marriage is in the view of many theologians to be understood as being only between a man and a woman … Thirdly, a liturgical blessing of same-sex partnerships would be a novelty in the history of Christian liturgy”.

It will be noted that the Report speaks in of “partnerships” rather than specifying same-sex marriage or civil partnerships, reflecting the comment in the Pilling Report [para 383] that

“… a willingness to offer public recognition and prayer for a committed same sex relationship in an act of public worship would, in practice, be hard to implement now for civil partnerships without also doing so for same sex marriage (which, like civil partnerships, makes no assumption, in law, about sexual activity).”

The Report by the Standing Doctrinal Commission notes [para. 81] that there is “a growing movement within the Anglican Communion” for the blessing of same-sex partnerships for which the argument is “clear and consistent”. Examples in the Anglican Church of Canada; the Episcopal Church, United Stated; Australia and New Zealand are cited.  In Great Britain, it notes a degree of support within the Church of England, and the views of the College of Bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church, within which the Provost of the Anglican Cathedral in Glasgow is identified as one of those in Scotland who conducts such blessings.

In addition to these examples, it considers the theology of blessing, stating that “a blessing is not the same as a marriage”, and quoting a TEC spokesperson, “[w]e have authorized a blessing, and a blessing is different [from] a marriage.  A blessing is a theological response to a monogamous, committed relationship.” As the Church of England experienced in relation to blessings following civil partnership, there is a spectrum of understanding in the meaning of what is meant by “blessing”.

However, the critical point raised by the question to the Governing Body is the nature of the pastoral response to the couple in question rather than the form that any blessing might take, and the theological background to such a response. Each group will therefore need to consider the whole gamut of relationships, including: marriage; civil partnership; and cohabitation, and these in turn will need to be viewed in the light of Options One and Three.

Although the Doctrinal Commission has posed a seemingly simple question, the reasoning behind the answers is likely to be complex.  The outcome of the these deliberations will no doubt be subject to detailed scrutiny.


[1] The Governing Body is composed of three “orders”: the Bench of Bishops (i.e. 6 diocesan bishops); Clergy (51 clerical representatives); and the Laity (86 non-clerical representatives).  The majority of the clergy and lay representatives are elected at a diocesan level.  Although some changes only require an overall majority, most major changes require a majority in each house to be passed.

[2] Summary in government Factsheet, which adds “[to] enable marriage of same-sex couples according to its rites, the Church of England would need to bring forward to the Synod an Amending Canon to amend its Canon law and a Measure to amend the Book of Common Prayer and primary legislation as necessary. Like all Synodical legislation the Measure would be subject to parliamentary approval.”

[3] Anglican General Synod Commission on Same Gender Blessings and Ordinations Ma Whea?/Mei Fe Ki Fe?/Where to?: Report to the General Synod May 2014.

 

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