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A pastoral response is vital when considering same-sex partnerships, according to a thought-provoking report by the Standing Doctrinal Commission of the Church in Wales. The Church in Wales and same-sex partnerships may also be useful to other churches grappling with sexual ethics.
Against the background of a change in the law allowing lesbian and gay couples to get legally married, the Commission examined the issue of same-sex partnerships, listening to people with a range of views. The seriousness with which they approached the task is reflected in the report.
It outlines the history of marriage in the west from Roman times and examines relevant scientific evidence. It then sets out a theological case for each of three options: a) marriage between a man and a woman is the only type of sexual relationship which should be blessed, b) blessing for same-sex partnerships should be offered but not marriage, c) marriage is a union of loving equals, irrespective of sexual difference. It ends by emphasising the importance of a pastoral response which takes account of lived experience.
The report recognises that “defining marriage is exceptionally difficult” and outlines some of the ways in which understanding of its meaning has shifted. The mediaeval Christian belief that “The ministers of the sacrament were the couple themselves”, which “meant that, strictly speaking, no ceremony or blessing was necessary” is mentioned, though the possible implications for current controversies are not fully explored.
The section on science acknowledges that “Scientific evidence gathered to date supports the perspective that homosexual orientation should not be regarded as a pathology but as a natural characteristic which, for a small but significant proportion of the population, is acquired before birth”; though this “does not in itself clinch the argument of whether or not same-sex acts are morally or theologically acceptable.”
More on the history of attempts to change people’s sexual orientation, with often deeply damaging results, would have been useful. Nevertheless these sections set the scene for three different but powerfully-made arguments, for positions a), b) and c), all drawing heavily on the Bible but focusing on “the search to recognise holiness.” This also has implications for attitudes to gender identity, though this is not covered in detail.
The concluding section focuses on the need for a pastoral approach:
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. John 1.14 (NRSV)
“The Gospels bear witness to a Saviour who is fully God and fully human, who chooses the way of humility and sacrifice, and who calls all people into a pattern of life-giving relationship exemplified in God himself. As such, Christianity is an incarnational faith which does not begin with dogma or doctrine but with people and call.”
The pastoral needs of “those for whom these questions are not merely theory but bound up in a deeply personal way with their own experience and identity” are highlighted. But there is also mention of the “pastoral needs of those who would be appalled by the thought of their church countenancing same- sex partnerships at all.” To me, however, how these should be met is by no means obvious.
If someone does not just disagree with the idea of blessing same-sex relationships but reacts strongly against even considering the possibility, this may be a symptom of prejudice or insecurity. Shying away from greater inclusion in such instances may be a disservice not only to those excluded but also, less obviously, to those whose barriers against ‘the other’ are reinforced.
The report suggests that “it may be possible in some sense to hold together a range of convictions in order to create space for genuinely new insights to emerge.” When the Church in Wales governing body meets later in April, hopefully clergy and parishes could be given freedom to choose among a), b) and c) as part of discernment process that may take some years.
While neutrality on sexual ethics is hard to achieve, a genuine effort is made to acknowledge something of the breadth of views among churchgoers in Wales and beyond. Though the report is not perfect, it is far better than most other Anglican publications on the subject, including those by the Church of England in recent years, and could be a valuable resource for other denominations too.
* The report can be found on http://www.churchinwales.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/SameSexPartne..., with other papers on http://www.churchinwales.org.uk/structure/governing-body/meetings/23-24-....
*Church views on sexuality: recovering the middle ground http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19512
© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector.Tweet