Light at the end of the tunnel: a view from Wales

Light at the end of the tunnel:  a view from Wales

As the Anglican Primates meet in Canterbury this week, we're delighted to be able to share with you this timely, thoughtful and challenging account by Aidan Coleman, Chair of the National Co-ordinating Group of Changing Attitude Trawsnewid Agwedd Cymru, of the History of CA Wales and recent events in the Church in Wales.  It provides a valuable insight into the differences and similarirties between the Church in Wales and other provinces of the Anglican Communion - and a clear manadtae for the work ahead. We're deeply grateful to Aidan for allowing us to bring his article to a wider audience.  You can also download a copy of the paper here.  

Finding Light At the End Of The Tunnel

The foundational meeting of Changing Attitude Cymru was held at St. Peter’s Church in Holywell, Flintshire in July 2013. About twenty people from across the Diocese of St. Asaph met that day for the launch. All of us I believe felt that the time was long overdue for the Church in Wales to openly affirm committed same-sex relationships and also to allow those Anglican priests, whose conscience permitted, to be granted the freedom to officiate at ceremonies where the love between same-sex couples would be publicly and equally celebrated and honoured.

As the vicar of the parish of Holywell I attended the inaugural meeting because for me there has always been something fundamental to my Christianity tied up in the question of how willing the Church is to find a way to offer a meaningful welcome to Christians in love with a partner of the same sex. The Rev’d Colin Coward who had already done so much in helping those with a more open view of sexuality within the Church of England to have their voices heard also joined us for the launch. By the end of our discussion that day we had resolved that marriage is indeed part of the dynamic of love and that if gay and lesbian people are to be treated lovingly by the Church then they must be treated equally by the Church and that that must mean equal marriage.

Sharing a meal together with Colin later that afternoon he asked me why I was getting involved. The question took me by surprise but I answered as best I could. However, four years later if I was asked that question again I would answer it in three ways. Firstly, I would speak about growing up in Northern Ireland where as a child and adolescent I had been raised in the Roman Catholicism of my Mother. My Father, who was an English Anglican, had converted because otherwise his love for my Mother would not have been acceptable to the Roman Catholic Church and my parents would not have been able to marry in my Mother’s home town. One of the discoveries I made growing up in Northern Ireland was that the idea of marriage between a Catholic and a Protestant created a deep sick feeling in the stomachs of some people for it was felt by some to be not quite the natural order of things. I would speak too about a way of talking about God that I have held to and been passionate about for the last forty years and more, from the time indeed when I first owned Christianity for myself. It wasn’t until my late teens that I began to read the Bible for myself and discovered within its pages the book of Isaiah and in particular the prophets record of these words spoken directly by God in Chapter 58,

                      

Is not this what I require of you

to loose the fetters of injustice,

to untie the knots of the yoke,

to snap every yoke

and set free those who have been crushed”.

I hadn’t heard about this God in the institutional Church before but if this was the God of the Bible then I wanted to know more.

I became a priest in the Church in Wales in 1999 wanting to see a Church standing for the outcasts and those crushed by every form of yoke. For a Christian not to strive to help in this way was, it seemed to me, to be an abandonment of the very name of Christian. It remains my hope today to see a Church fully committed to difference and diversity and rejecting of the kind of God talk that has for centuries seen different forms of people put under a yoke and put out onto the pavements of the Church. Secondly then, in answer to Colin’s question I would say that to be involved in Changing Attitude Cymru is for me an important form of practical theology.

    The third thing that I would say is that I am involved in the work of Changing Attitude as an ally of the LGBT community because my pastoral freedom as a priest to affirm gay and lesbian men and women in their committed and loving relationships is fundamentally tied up with gay and lesbian freedom. I can be free to be fully and properly pastoral when they are free to present themselves to me and to my fellow priests in the Church in Wales for their loving relationships to be affirmed by the Church and in the sight of God.

The 2013 inauguration of Changing Attitude Cymru is perhaps best put into context by reference to the 2005 statement on homosexuality issued by the Bishops of the Church in Wales. In that statement the Welsh Bishops acknowledged the wide range of scriptural interpretation that exists within the Christian Church relating to same-sex relationships. They went on to offer five outcomes from that scriptural interpretation which they felt reflected the range of views held within the Church in Wales. These five views ranged from the outright rejection of homosexual practice through views which expressed an increasingly sympathetic understanding and treatment to the view taken by those who hold that it is now timely for the Church in Wales to affirm committed same-sex relationships. Each one of these views the Bishop’s make clear in their statement has been arrived at by Christians in the Church in Wales from “reading the Scriptures with integrity”. Changing Attitude Cymru works confidently then in this context, in the recognition that the range of views held within the Church are accorded equal legitimacy whether that view be that you wish to see equal marriage or you hold that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. Both views and several in between can be held with integrity from a reading of scripture.

The question that Changing Attitude Cymru was formed to ask in 2013, and is still asking today is: why is it that only one of these five views is excluded from the practice of the Church in Wales, when the Bishops agree it is held with equal integrity by many in the Church in Wales, and is based upon an equally legitimate reading of holy scripture? Why is it that one cleric in the Church in Wales having read the scriptures with integrity and reaching the conclusion that the only proper context for sexual activity is marriage between a man and a woman can have their view upheld and defended by the Church? Whilst yet another cleric reading the scripture with integrity and reaching the conclusion that it is timely for the Church to begin to affirm committed same-sex relationships finds any attempt to do so, as I painfully discovered, is labelled illegitimate and liable to sanction?

 

Around the same time as Changing Attitude Cymru was being formed, the Bench of Bishops of the Church in Wales had in 2013 invited the Doctrinal Commission to produce a report making three theological cases. The first was a case for the maintenance of the status quo, secondly a case for the affirming of same-sex relationships in the form of a blessing in Church on civil marriages, and thirdly a case for affirming same-sex marriage in Church. Changing Attitude Cymru was able to make some small contribution to the argument behind this third case and indeed the subsequent document produced by the Doctrinal Commission under the heading ‘A Case For Marriage As A Union Of Loving Equals’ was an exemplary and well argued piece of work that should serve the Church as a reference piece into the future.

At the same time as the Doctrinal Commission was preparing its report, the Human Sexuality Group, which had been set up by the Bishop of St. Asaph, was proposing a survey of clergy attitudes towards this question in the Diocese. A large number of clergy responded to the request for their opinions. Of the 73 clerics who responded 81% felt able to affirm same-sex relationships with 36% saying that they would be personally willing to officiate at a same-sex marriage.

However, the main thread of the history of the first four years of Changing Attitude Cymru continues with what followed from the publication of the report by the Doctrinal Commission. The delegates to Governing Body in April 2014 were invited to form small groups to discuss this report and it was noted by the Bishops at Governing Body the following September that these discussions had shown a desire amongst members of Governing Body to affirm in some way faithful monogamous same-sex relationships. The Bishops’ statement to Governing Body read,

                             

given that the Governing Body is indicating

that it would like to consider these questions

but is unclear about future provision, the

Bishops have decided that they wish to

consult with the Dioceses. In the light of the

results of this consultation the Bishops intend

to bring the matter back to the Governing Body

with proposals for a way ahead”.

 

By the end of 2014 therefore there was a hint from the Bishops of some “future provision” in the affirming of same-sex relationships and indeed the promise of proposals “for a way ahead”.

 

The Diocesan consultations took place as promised across the Province during the first six months of 2015 and clerical members of Changing Attitude Cymru were to the forefront in hosting consultations in their respective parishes in the Diocese of St. Asaph. In the parish of Holywell the consultation was held on the evening of February 17th and was attended by over 50% of those who come regularly to Sunday morning worship. This particular consultation employed the Indaba formula of respectful listening and at the end of the evening a ballot was taken to gauge feelings.

Fifty-one votes were cast in the ballot with twenty-eight present voting in favour of equal marriage, nineteen voting in favour of the Church in Wales moving to bless the civil marriages of same-sex couples and four of those present voting for no change. Across the Diocese of St. Asaph over 300 people attended the two Diocesan consultations. At these 180 people voted in favour of equal marriage, 160 for the Church to bless civil marriage and 140 voted for no change.

The minutes of St. Asaph Diocese Bishop’s Council/Standing Committee for June 9th 2015 record that,

 

around two thirds of the responses indicated

a desire for change and it is clear that doing

nothing is not an option”.

 

Bishop Gregory Cameron said of the results,

 

with very strong commitments to traditional

Christian teaching in some quarters and

equally strong commitment to changing the

definition of marriage among other. It is hard

to see how everyone’s hopes on this matter

will be easily fulfilled”.

 

In fact the majority commitment was for change and yet to date the only hopes that have been fulfilled are those of the minority opinion who wanted no change. Despite the promise of “proposals for a way ahead”, Changing Attitude Cymru was informed on June 26th 2015 that, “no clear recommendation would be going to Governing Body in September 2015” and that the reason for this was because the discussions by the Bench of Bishops following the Diocesan consultations had proved inconclusive. What in fact the Bishops did propose was a formal debate at Governing Body in Lampeter in September 2015 followed by a non-binding vote that would once again “indicate the mind of Governing Body”.

The reason given by the Bishops for the volte face on the 2014 promise of “proposals for a way ahead” was not only that the discussion between the Bishops had proved inconclusive but also that the outcome from the Province wide consultation had, in their view, proven to be inconclusive. Three of the six Dioceses in the Church of Wales had indicated a clear desire for change whilst the remaining three had indicated a desire for no change. However, to the best knowledge of Changing Attitude Cymru no comprehensive review of the consultation process was ever produced by the Church in Wales. Such a review would have allowed for a comparison of how each Diocesan Bishop had approached the exercise, would have offered a breakdown of the results from each Diocese and indicated just how many clerics and laity engaged with the process from across the Church in Wales.

The Same-Sex Marriage Debate was subsequently held at Governing Body in September 2015. Of the 120 delegates in attendance that day 33 people spoke in the debate. The Bishops, by agreement, said nothing. In the straw poll that followed the debate 61 delegates gave their first preference vote to equal marriage with five more giving their second preference vote to this option. Of the 120 delegates a total of 70 voted for the affirmation of same-sex relationships in the Church in Wales either in the form of marriage or the blessing of civil marriage. In the December/January issue of the St. Asaph Diocesan magazine Teulu Asaph under the heading of ‘Equal Marriage Update’ Bishop Gregory effectively announced the end of the process, writing,

                         

that the Bishops have decided that because

the results of the consultation were so mixed

proposals for change cannot be considered by

Governing Body”.

 

Naturally, Changing Attitude Cymru was deeply disappointed. We had felt that the result of the straw poll conducted at Governing Body in Lampeter had shown unexpected and significant support for change and that this was something that the Bishops could and should have sought to build upon.

Throughout this period however members of Changing Attitude Cymru had been greatly encouraged by developments within the wider Church. The Church of Scotland had voted in 2013 to allow individual congregations, where conscience permitted, to appoint a minister who was in a same-sex marriage. The following year the Methodist Church agreed that a Methodist minister who marries a person of the same sex would not risk disciplinary action and Methodist congregations would be free if they so wished to host blessings of same-sex marriages. At the same time the Church of England had published the conclusions of the Pilling Report which had recommended that, on pastoral grounds, permanent same-sex relationships could be marked by a public act of worship in church. In September 2014 the Welsh Bishops had agreed on a combined Presidential address to Governing Body in which they stressed Jesus’ challenge to the religious purity laws of his day and his ministry of compassion and inclusivity toward the outsider. They went on to suggest that,

 

the danger is that we can exclude, not when

perhaps there is a fundamental threat to the

true preaching of the Gospel but because we

happen to think differently from other

Christians”.

 

There were exciting developments too within the Episcopal Church of Scotland which voted in 2016 to remove from Canon 31 the doctrinal statement that marriage is to be understood as a union of one man and one woman. In June 2017 this was followed through with a vote to allow same-sex marriage within the Episcopal Church in Scotland. In 2016 the United Reformed Church voted to allow its congregations, where conscience allowed, to conduct same-sex marriages.

 

In Wales, by the beginning of 2016, it felt to many of us within Changing Attitude Cymru that the Bishops had taken us just so far along a path towards substantive change only then to suffer cold feet and to draw back. The process of the previous two years had been unmistakably the Bishops’ process, with Changing Attitude Cymru being little more than a spectator to it. It was the Bishops who had asked the Doctrinal Commission to prepare a report in 2013 and, following small group discussions at Governing Body in April 2014, it had been the Bishops who had decided to consult their respective Dioceses. The Bishops too were responsible for initiating the formal debate at Governing Body in September 2015 and it was the Bishops who had called an end to the process. It might therefore be instructive to look at the goals that appeared to be guiding the Bishops in all of this. Firstly, it was said on more than one occasion in the two and a half years of the process that the reason for undertaking it was to “discern the mind of the Church in Wales”. Secondly, the Bishops had shown throughout this process that they wished to remain the traditional focus of unity, which was perhaps best exemplified by their decision not to join the debate at Governing Body in 2015. They felt that being above the fray would better allow a consensus on the way ahead to emerge. Thirdly, the process was to proceed by adhering to the classic three fold Anglican balance between tradition, scripture and reason. How then does the January 2016 announcement by the Bishops that, “proposals for change cannot be considered” reflect upon these three goals?

 

    On the first question, that of discovering the mind of the Church in Wales, it is clear that the Bishops have been successful in that endeavour and what has emerged concerning the mind of the Church should not be forgotten and should not require further discernment. A clear majority of Governing Body voted for change in September 2015, whilst the Diocesan consultations of the same year showed that three of the six Diocese strongly supported change. However, for the Bishops then to declare unilaterally that they will not allow gay love to be openly seen and openly heard represents in the view of Changing Attitude Cymru a failure of their second stated aim, that of being a focus for consensus building by remaining a friend to all sides. It represents a failure also to find a proper balance between Christian tradition, the interrogation of scripture and the exercise of reason.

Just how it was going to be possible to find a way forward by consensus building was never clear to Changing Attitude Cymru. It seemed to us an illusory and impossible task and remains so in our opinion. If a way forward is to be found then the Bishops of the Church in Wales must abandon this model and find another intellectual foundation and scaffolding upon which to build. This is vital if the Church in Wales is to live in a healthier way towards the people of Wales, whatever their sexuality or gender identity, so that the dignity and the openness that has been granted by the law of the land is no longer denied by the Church. Might an alternative model for the Bishops to work with be that of the common good? Professor Anna Rowlands writing in the book ‘Together For The Common Good’ speaks of it in these terms,

 

measured less according to the greatest good

for the greatest number and more against the

     well being and participation of the least. It seeks

    to render the existence and social experience of

of the most marginalized and superfluous visible

in the mathematics of our calculations”.

 

Another model that might better help to offer a solution is that of compromise, which looks for a solution that partially satisfies both parties rather then the win-win of consensus building. This is the model being actively pursued by the Anglican Church of New Zealand since 2016. Here it is being proposed that the Church would bless same-sex marriages contracted in a civil ceremony with no Diocese compelled to agree to the change. In those Dioceses that do agree to this change no priest would be compelled to conduct such a blessing. These proposals have been viewed by the Church Times as a “true compromise in that no party gets all that it wants” (Feb 26th 2016) and “as a way forward that would keep both sides of the debate walking with one another” (August 11th 2017)

If the goal of consensus building has come up against a brick wall then the process that we have been through has proven equally problematic when it comes to the goal of giving weight to the three strands that have historically guided Anglican decision making, those of tradition, scripture and reason. In the four years that Changing Attitude Cymru has been in existence and well before that, within the Church in Wales and within the wider Church, both the biblical tradition of marriage and the use by traditionalists of particular Bible verses, the so called clobber texts, have been powerfully interrogated. Some of the very best theological minds in the Church have rigorously exposed the weakness of the claims constructed around these verses by traditionalists. Likewise, the objection by traditionalists that the Church of Wales is in danger of conforming itself too much to the world if it follows the lead taken by secular society on equal marriage has been strongly challenged. Not least in this regard by the 2013 Pilling Report which outlined how the relationship between the Church of England and English society on the matter of human sexuality and the position taken by the Church was “becoming an increasing scandal to many”.

To-day those within the Church of Wales who have argued in defence of tradition must be delighted that their tactic of not giving an inch in 50 years of campaigning on this issue has successfully beaten reason into a cocked hat. It appears to many within the Church in Wales that all the interrogation by reason in the last 50 years has not been worth the paper upon which it has been written and once again as Francis Spufford writes, the Church has shown that,

 

                      “it constantly contrives to signal that it rates

                        the unhappiness of the traditionally minded

                        higher in the scale of priorities than any

                        injustice suffered by those whom tradition

                        excludes”.

 

The Bishops have set themselves up as a focus for unity and being all things to all people. All that seems to have resulted from this is a veto in aid of those who want things to continue as close as possible to the way they have always done.

 

At the beginning of a marriage service or any blessing of a civil marriage the priest will often explain to the congregation what is going to unfold in the service. They will explain that the wedding service begins with the words of the introduction in which the man and woman seeking to be joined in life long union are presented before God and the assembled congregation. Then follow the readings, which in turn are followed by the words of commitment, when the couple give consent or renew their consent, exchange vows or re-dedicate themselves anew to those vows and exchange symbols of commitment or have those symbols prayed over. The wedding service or service of blessing of a wedding concludes with the prayers. Of course we also sing.

At the beginning of 2016 the Welsh Bishops made a heartfelt apology to gay and lesbian people for the ostracism they have experienced and for the burden of having to express their love in secret. The Bishops went on to offer same-sex couples the concluding part of the marriage service, the prayers. They are very good prayers and I, together with many priests in the Church in Wales will no doubt find them very helpful when they marry or bless the marriages of heterosexual couples. Despite this apology from the Bishops it is clear that gay love is simply still not acceptable in the Church. It is clear too that it will take courage and real leadership from the Bishops to make their apology meaningful. Perhaps it requires the kind of leadership shown by the Archbishop of Canterbury in the recent progress that has been made towards equality for women in the Church. There are some striking parallels between the struggle for the rights of women to be accepted for ordination as priest and Bishop and the struggle to be affirming towards the love of same-sex couples. The argument for example that female ordination to the priesthood and episcopate would weaken and split the Church continues to be an argument used by traditionalists in opposing any move by the Church to sanction equal marriage. In the matter of the ordination of female Bishops the question of arriving at a consensus also featured as a precondition to change. Until, that is, in 2014 when it was reported that Archbishop Justin Welby had spoken of being prepared to “drive through legislation” (The Guardian 10.7.14) to allow female Bishops, if the proposal was again rejected by the Church of England’s Governing Body.

 This apology by the Bishops and the offer of prayers to be said in Church with same-sex couples coincided with the meeting in Canterbury of the Primates of the world wide Anglican Communion in January 2016, the outcome of which formed to serve as a further justification as to why the Bishops could not do more or go further. This was because the Primates at Canterbury had,

                          

re-asserted the understanding within the

Anglican communion as a whole that

marriage is between a man and a woman

in faithful, life long union.”

 

Having used this Canterbury statement as a specific defence for not being able to do more or to go further it is incumbent upon the Bishops of the Church in Wales to now offer guidance to their fellow priests on just how they are to respond, given this definition of marriage, when it comes to their pastoral handling of those who approach the Church seeking a second marriage following divorce.

Despite the disappointment of the process being brought to a premature conclusion, our work continued into 2016 with a particular focus on moving towards our goal of becoming a truly all-Wales campaigning group. Until 2016 we had really only functioned as a St. Asaph Diocesan group, even though our aim was always to establish similar groups to ours in each of the six Diocese in Wales. To that end we organized a national Welsh conference at Llandrindod Wells in April 2016 entitled ‘All One In Christ’. This conference brought together fifty people from across Wales and was the beginning of Changing Attitude Cymru becoming a national organization. A steering group was formed that has to date met on three occasions. On the day of the conference we were joined by a film crew from the Iris Prize, an LGBT international film festival based in Wales, who made a film based around our event as part of their community outreach film project. In December 2016 this film was shown as part of an Iris Prize film festival in St. Asaph Cathedral. Later our film was shortlisted to be shown with others at an award ceremony in Cine World in Llandudno Junction on February 16th 2017, where Changing Attitude Cymru was awarded the Community and Education Award and a special Leadership Award. The festival director Berwyn Rowlands speaking of our film said,

 

every now and again something happens

which reminds you that things can change.

Something reminds you how amazing and

resilient people can be. Every now and

again something happens that reminds you

that there might be more good in this world

than bad.”

 

The award was going he said to an organization,

 

which has overwhelmingly demonstrated

that you can find light at the end of the tunnel”

 

These awards were a significant achievement for Changing Attitude Cymru and a great encouragement to us. Also in 2016 the Rev’d Sarah Hildreth Osborn was appointed by Bishop Gregory of St. Asaph to lead the first Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Chaplaincy in the Church in Wales. This was a development that has since been replicated in the neighbouring Diocese of Bangor.

So what is the way ahead for Changing Attitude Cymru? Firstly, I believe we need to continue to focus our efforts on strengthening and building a national organization in Wales. Secondly, to continue to challenge the Bishops to act with courage in finding a solution that respects the view of those who believe the time is long overdue for the Church in Wales to permit its priests to affirm committed same-sex relationships in the Church. Thirdly, Changing Attitude Cymru must begin to engage with wider society in Wales by bringing to the attention of the people of Wales the opt-outs that the Church in Wales currently enjoys from the 2010 Equality Act. Fourthly, those of us who feel able must I believe begin to engage in imaginative acts of direct action as a way to draw public attention to this issue.

 

Archbishop Justin Welby in his presidential address to the General Synod of the Church of England in July 2013 warned that the cultural and political ground was changing: there is, he said, “a revolution going on”. He went on to describe his experience of sitting in the House of Lords listening to the Second Reading Debate of the Same-Sex Marriage Bill and being struck “by the overwhelming change of cultural hinterland”. Part of what Justin Welby heard during that debate, and he spoke in General Synod of being appalled by it, was that in the United States of America suicide as a result of homophobic bullying was the principle cause of death of gay adolescents and that in the United Kingdom 97% of gay teenagers reported homophobic bullying. What the Archbishop did not mention is that the research also shows that the suicide rate for gay teenagers in the U.K. is up to three times the rate for hetero-sexual teenagers. That same research goes on to show that a more supportive environment at home, in school and within the community could and does make a difference to these statistics. Changing Attitude Cymru believes that the Church in Wales could and should be doing so much more to contribute to creating a more supportive environment within our communities. By allowing those priests, whose conscience permits, to affirm committed same-sex relationships in church settings, and by showing teenagers and all the people of Wales same-sex couples leaving our Church buildings to showers of confetti, we can powerfully demonstrate that gay love is no less than mine or anyone else’s. What could be more supportive than that.

The Biblical literalists may argue that their position is divinely ordained and so is beyond the possibility of challenge. But David Smith in his book “Seeking A City With Foundations” challenges the Church to ask the same question as asked by the Dutch missionary theologian Johannes Verkuyl, “what kind of day is it today”? In the asking of this question, change and emergence will be discovered to be the unavoidable consequence of evangelical faithfulness, argues Smith. Some argue that the Church is breaking with tradition if it moves to equal marriage. Rather, for Changing Attitude Cymru the Church is growing and is emerging still: it is still in a state of becoming and will be so until our Lord returns and its mission is complete.

References

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity can still make Surprising Emotional Sense by Francis Spufford. Faber & Faber 2012 Page 192

In Chapter 1 of Part 1 of Together For The Common Good edited by Nicholas Sagovsky & Peter McGrail.SCM Press 2015 Page 10

Seeking A City With Foundations by David W. Smith.

Inter-Varsity Press 2011  Page 234