On Monday, the Governing Body of the Church in Wales made history. It voted by a very secure two thirds majority to authorise an Order of Service for Blessing Same-Sex Relationships. For technical reasons this is an experimental rite, so it can be tweaked in the light of using it, but I don’t think anyone seriously thinks the concept is experimental. This is a major change in policy and practice. I spoke in favour of the proposal during Monday’s debate and I want to spend a moment this morning exploring some of my thinking and why I believe this is not binning the Bible but it is the result of going into it far more deeply than mere surface reading.
There are some very loud voices that would have everyone believe that you either follow the Bible as they read it or you are not a real Christian. To be a Bible Christian is seen by them to go with condemning same-sex relationships. To affirm them is to ignore the Bible and sell out to the spirit of the age. I reject that false split very strongly.
I have been ordained for nearly 30 years and in each place I have ministered there have been faithful members of the congregations in long-term committed same-sex relationships. Some kept it secret out of fear, borne out of painful experience. For some the world has moved on and they can now risk being open in a way they previously dared not. Some have taken leadership roles in churches, and all have been much loved members of the communities.
It is observing these relationships and many before them, the quality of their commitment and love, that convinced me that we needed to look more deeply at the Biblical texts. I think of two men in a former parish and the naturalness and tenderness of their love. I think of two women, one of whom told me about how they met and she knew in that moment that no man would ever make her feel as the other did. This was who she was and not some random lifestyle choice. Many have spoken about attempts to ‘heal’ them, ‘convert’ them; of being shunned and driven out, rejected and told that they were an ‘evil influence’. There may well be people here or viewing online who can relate directly to these experiences.
The pastoral, how life really is, should always make us ask deeper questions about the Bible, not thinner ones. And this debate was a case study in different approaches to the Bible. The more we look at the key texts often used to condemn same-sex relationships the less they say what they seem at first to say, mainly because we view them through layers of interpretation. The Biblical case to affirm same-sex relationships is a cumulative one. It is not one based on one text. We are looking for a path through the scriptures which leads us to a different place; which transforms us and how we view one another.
There are parallels with the changes in how we see slavery, apartheid, buying things on credit, divorce and remarriage, the death penalty – we don’t stone people, birth control, the place of women in society and the church. Take slavery, at no point in the Bible does it say that slavery is wrong. In fact, it is an assumed part of life. We have to look at a wider sweep and see compassion, equality from all being children of God, and justice. This case had to made against strong voices opposed to it.
There are seven key texts often pulled out of the Bible to prove that same-sex relationships are not compatible with a Christian way of living. If we look at them deeply, we find they don’t actually say what they are assumed or made to say. Passages in Genesis (19:1-29) and Judges (19:1-30) actually condemn gang rape. Two texts in Leviticus (18:22 and 20:13) are more about abuse and are not about consensual activity. Passages in 1 Corinthians (6:9-10) and 1 Timothy (1:9-10) again touch on exploitation. Romans (1:26-27) is concerned with idolatry and pagan cultic erotic practices. This is not the place to take these in great detail, but the point is that they are not the proof texts they are taken to be. When we go into these they are not condemning same-sex, stable committed relationships at all.
Whenever we read the Bible we have to ask a series of questions: what does it actually say, remember we read a translation and don’t always have the best one in front of us; who was it first written for and what situation is it seeking to address and why, that takes a lot of scholarship; how would the original audience have understood it and only then can we ask what its relevance for today might be. Every text has a context in which it was written and in which it is read, so we have to dig deeper not shallower.
The Bible is actually silent on committed, faithful and stable same-sex relationships. It is not an option or something the writers address. It was Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Wales and of course Canterbury and Bishop of this diocese (Monmouth), who wrote over 30 years ago in his 1989 lecture ‘The Body’s Grace’ about the Biblical traditions and concepts of love, of grace, of commitment and how we live in that grace, and how these open up a deeper window onto same-sex partnerships for Christians. There have been forests of printed works by medics and psychologists expounding on developments in understanding. I have felt for a long time that what we need is a way of recognising and promoting stability and fidelity.
The liturgy authorised on Monday is a pastoral provision. Pastoral is always about how we care in the Gospel. Some have said that we should really have gone the whole way and approved marriages. I think that is a wider discussion, not least because marriage is not the clear concept that we like to think it is. But that’s another story. The decision made on Monday was to bless relationships, to enable people to live consecrated lives in God’s grace, where unions formed to be faithful and stable can be affirmed for their reflection of God’s love. That is what I believe them to be and that is why I voted for pastoral liturgical provision.
The Bible always has the ability to shock and surprise us, for its grace and challenge. The letter of James (3:1-12) spoke about blessing emanating from a spring and that calls on us to not take short cuts. We need to be so infused in the Spirit that lives and breathes in the Bible that it shapes and colours our outlook. If we need a shorthand, the word love is probably a good one to start with. Not soppy love, but love that has the passion of the cross (Mark 8:27-38) and brings life in all its fullness. May we flourish in that life and love and longing for God’s grace to dwell in us abundantly, so much that it overflows to transform the world. Blessing same-sex relationships does not mean binning the Bible, rather it flows from a deep reading of its grace and love, that wherever these are found God is present at work in their lives and that the so called condemning passages actually have something else entirely in their sights. In the words of 1 John, used at the beginning of the marriage service:
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 John 4:16b)
Sermon preached at Newport Cathedral on Sunday 12th September 2021
*If you would like to follow up any of these references in more detail the following recent publications may be of interest:
- David Runcorn ‘Love means love: Same-sex relationships and the Bible‘ SPCK 2020
- ‘God in love unites us: The report of the marriage and relationships task group 2019 for study and prayerful discussion’ The Methodist Church 2019