‘Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.’ (Isaiah 5:20)
These words were addressed by the prophet Isaiah to the people of Judah as part of his warning of forthcoming divine judgement. They warn that God will judge those who seek to justify sin by arguing that it is not really sinful at all because good is evil and evil is really good. They came to mind following the announcement this week that the Governing Body of the Church in Wales had voted to support a proposal from the Welsh bishops to explore ‘formal provision for those in same-gender relationships.’
In this post I shall explain why the words of Isaiah apply to the Welsh decision.
The announcement from the Church in Wales did not explain exactly what is meant by ‘formal provision’ but the context of the statement as part of the long running Welsh discussion of same-sex relationships makes it clear that what is meant is at a minimum the liturgical blessing of same-sex relationships in Church and more probably the introduction of same-sex marriages. The fact that the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church was invited to talk to the Governing Body about the process by which the Scots came to allow the celebration of same-sex marriages is a clear indication that this is what the Welsh have in mind.
In 2015 the Governing Body voted in a secret ballot to allow same-sex marriages to be conducted in the Church in Wales, but the majority was not large enough to allow the matter to proceed further. The passing of the motion this week indicates that the intention is to re-visit this issue with a view to making it happen this time.
The motion voted on this week by took the form of the Governing Body being asked whether or not they agreed that it is ‘It is pastorally unsustainable for the Church to make no formal provision for those in same-gender relationships.’ In an explanatory memorandum provided for the debate on the motion the bishops declared ‘that it is pastorally unsustainable and unjust for the Church to continue to make no formal provision for those in committed same-gender relationships’ and what the Governing Body did was accept this argument.
What is meant by the current situation in the Church in Wales being ‘pastorally unsustainable and unjust’ is not entirely clear. The bishops did not spell this out in their explanatory memorandum and it has not been explained subsequently. However the argument seems to be that the current situation does not allow proper pastoral care to be offered to people with same-sex attraction and this is unjust. Making formal provision for same-sex relationships would allow proper pastoral care to be offered and this would be just.
It is this implicit argument that I think amounts to the bishops calling ‘evil good and good evil.’ To explain why, I want to start by considering what is meant by justice. To call something unjust means to say that it as an action that violates justice and so to evaluate the bishops’ argument we have to be clear about what justice involves.
The basic understanding of justice which those of us who are part of Western culture operate with (and which the Welsh bishops’ argument presupposes) is that classically expressed by the third century Roman writer Ulpian who said that the virtue of justice (iustitia) is ‘a steady and enduring will to render to each his or her ius (suum ius cuique tribuere).’ The word ius means that which someone has a right to, that which is their due. Hence the popular version of Ulpian’s maxim is that justice consists in ‘giving to each their due.’ We may owe people love, or money, or service, or whatever, but in each case justice consists in giving people what we owe them, that which is their due.
From a Christian perspective the fundamental obligation that we have as God’s creatures is an obligation to God. This obligation is to love God for who he is and what he has done for us, what the General Thanksgiving in the Prayer Book summarises as ‘our creation, preservation and all the blessings of this life’ and above all ‘the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ…the means of grace…and the hope of glory.’ To act with justice is to fulfil this obligation. So important is this obligation that Jesus declared that the first commandment is to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’ (Mark 12:30).
Loving God in this way involves obeying living in obedience to his commandments. ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’ (John 14:15). These commandments take many specific forms, but these are all variations on one basic obligation, which is to observe the order established in creation by God when he created the world, an order which sin has disrupted, but which Jesus Christ has acted to restore. For those of you who like C S Lewis, what we are talking about is the deep magic placed in Narnia at the dawn of time.
In order to understand what acting with justice in this way means in relation to the pastoral care of people with same-sex attraction we have to move on to consider what is meant by pastoral care.
The language of pastoral care is language taken from farming. It means to care for ‘the flock of God’ (1 Peter 5:2), both those who are currently part of God’s fold and the ‘lost sheep’ (Luke 15: 3-7) who are currently outside it, just as a good shepherd cares for their sheep.
Since human beings are not sheep, what does this caring for the flock involve? The overall answer given in Scripture, and in the Tradition of the Church following Scripture, is that it involves offering people the grace of God through word and sacrament in order that they will repent of their sins, receive God’s forgiveness, enter into the new life Christ has made possible through his death and resurrection and grow in holiness, so that in the next world they will live joyfully with God and his people forever. When this happens the order established by God is honoured because people live as the creatures he made them to be.
Christians have an obligation both to God and to their fellow human creatures to offer pastoral care in this way (see John 21:15-17, Acts 20:28-30, 1 Peter 5:2-4). It follows that it is just to offer such pastoral care and unjust not to offer it.
We can therefore agree with the Welsh bishops in saying that justice requires that people with same-sex attraction should be offered proper pastoral care, However, the issue that this leaves open is what form such proper pastoral care should take in this particular case.
To decide this issue we need to return to the idea that God has established an order in the world according to which his human creatures should live. What does this order look like in relation to human sexuality?
We find the answer to this question through the study of Scripture and the exercise of reason. Scripture (in the creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2 and in the rest of the biblical text building on them) and reason, looking at the observable reality of what human beings are like, tell us that:
- The human race is a dimorphic species consisting of men and women whose sex is determined by the biology of their bodies;
- Sexual intercourse is designed to take place between men and women and has as its purpose not only physical and emotional pleasure, but the procreation of children;
- God ordained marriage between two people of the opposite sex as the sole legitimate setting for sexual intercourse.
Honouring God’s order means thankfully accepting that this is how God in his wisdom and goodness created us to be, living according to this created pattern ourselves, and encouraging and supporting others to do likewise.
It is true, of course, that there are people who are sexually attracted to people of their own sex, either for the whole of their life, or for some period within it.
From a biblical perspective, however, these people’s experiences are not due to God’s creative intention (they are not part of God’s order, see Romans 1:24-27). They are instead a result of the disorder introduced into the world as a result of the Fall, a disorder which Christ came into the world to overcome.
As a result, proper pastoral care for same-sex attracted people does not mean accepting this disorder as something good, but seeking to combat it by helping the people involved to live in a way that reflects as far as possible God’s original creative intention in anticipation of God’s final kingdom in which all things will finally be made whole.
What this means in practice is helping people who are same-sex attracted to understand that God did not create three types of people, men, women and gay people, but only two, men and women. This being the case, for them to live rightly before God means living as a man or a women. This in turn means for them (as for everyone else) being open either to entering into (heterosexual) marriage, or living a life of sexual abstinence as a single person. If their calling is to be single, then they will need a network of friendship and support to sustain this vocation.
As with people with opposite-sex attraction, either of these vocations may represent God’s calling to a particular individual. Neither is better than the other. They are equally good ways to ‘glorify God in your body’ (1 Corinthians 6:20). It is sometimes suggested that those with same-sex attraction will not be able successfully marry those of the opposite sex, or that it is impossible for people with same-sex attraction to lead fulfilled Christian lives as single people, but there are numerous counter examples which challenge both these suggestions.
Justice requires that pastoral care be offered to same-sex attracted people along the lines just described. However, there is nothing in the current situation in the Church in Wales that prevents this happening. Therefore the suggestion by the Welsh bishops that it does, and that this situation is ‘pastorally unsustainable’ and therefore unjust, is simply untrue. They have called good evil.
Furthermore they have also called evil good by suggesting that proper pastoral care involves the Church making formal provision for same-gender relationships. This means suggesting that same-sex sexual relationships can be blessed by God and can even constitute marriage. Both of these suggestions are untrue and acting upon them would involve the Church in Wales leading people astray by encouraging those who are in such relationships to remain in them and those who are not yet in them to think that entering into them would be acceptable to God. In both ways the Church in Wales will be encouraging sin by calling it good. If it does this it will be turning its back on what God has said and leading people into a situation in which they are in danger of being cut off from God for ever (1 Corinthians 6:9-10), Galatians 5:16-21).
So what should faithful Christians do in response to the Welsh decision? In a word, pray. Pray for the Welsh bishops that they may be convicted of their error and turn back to God in repentance. Pray for the Welsh Governing Body that it may overturn the decision it has just made. Pray for the Evangelical Fellowship of the Church in Wales as it members seek to witness to the truth in an increasingly dark situation.
M B Davie 14.9.18
 Governing Body, Same-gender relationships, Explanatory Memorandum and procedural note.
 Quotation in Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice in Love, Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2011, p.85.
 For a detailed discussion of the idea of divine order and its relation to Christian ethics see Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order 2ed, Leicester: Apollos, 1994.