The Explanatory Memorandum from the Bishops of the Church in Wales – a response.

The Church in Wales has now published a Bill which, if passed, will allow services of blessing to take place in Welsh churches after Civil Partnership ceremony or civil partnership between two people of the same sex.[1]

The justification for this proposed development is found in the ‘Explanatory Memorandum’ from the Welsh bench of bishops which has been published alongside the Bill. The justification the bishops offer runs as follows. 

‘The Christian tradition from the early centuries received the union of one man and one woman for life as the normative and exclusive context for sexual intimacy, and received the Scriptures as enjoining this ideal, despite the fact that different patterns of polygamy are witnessed, and even seem to have tacit approval, in the pages of the Bible.

As with many aspects of human life, however, experience of human relations is rarely as straightforward as the traditional view of the ideal, and Scripture itself bears witness to a process of accommodation in relation, for example, to divorce, while differing levels of tolerance have been shown by the Christian Church down through the centuries to sexual activity in the context of betrothal and so-called “common law marriages”.  In the same way, patterns of sexual expression which seem accepted in Scripture without condemnation, such as sexual intercourse between a master and slave, or between a man and a concubine, are clearly now regarded as repugnant.

In the view of the bench, the Scriptures condemn “porneia”, unbridled lust, in which sexual activity is divorced from faithful and mutual commitment. It is true that in Scripture such faithful commitment is always portrayed as between a man and woman in covenanted union (marriage), and all other sexual activity, including references to same-sex activity, is portrayed as an expression of porneia. However, with new social, scientific and psychological understandings of sexuality in the last one and a half centuries, we believe that same-sex relationships can be understood in a radically different way, and that the teaching of Scripture should therefore be re-interrogated.

Same-sex friendships – although without any clear implication of sexual activity – are celebrated in the Bible. If Scripture is correctly read as condemning porneia, then the question can be asked whether loving and faithful long term same-sex commitments are properly categorised as the expression of “unbridled lust” (cf. Romans 1)’

What is said in this justification is wrong in multiple ways.

First, while polygamy is indeed witnessed to in Scripture (along with numerous other departures from the pattern for sexual established by God at creation) it is very rare, it is always implicitly condemned when it is described, and it is specifically ruled out by the Mosaic Law in Leviticus 18:18 and Deuteronomy 17:17.[2]

Secondly, while the Old Testament does make accommodation for divorce, divorce is never approved of and the New Testament makes it clear that divorce is only permitted in two circumstances  -where the marriage covenant has been broken by adultery (Matthew 19:3-9) and the repudiation of marriage by an unbelieving spouse (1 Corinthians 7:12-16). Rather than the Bible witnessing to a ‘process of accommodation’ in relation to divorce in which a gradually more permissive approach is taken, what we actually see in Scripture is a  process in which there is less accommodation of divorce in the New Testament than there is in the Old. 

Thirdly, following Jewish precedent, the teaching of the Church in both East and West has always been that it is not legitimate for a betrothed couple to have sexual intercourse. Sexual intercourse has always been seen as something that should only take place within marriage.

Fourthly, in so far as the Church has seen sexual intercourse in common law marriages as legitimate this is because it has seen these relationships as genuine marriages that conform to the pattern of marriage established by God in Genesis 2:18-24 even though a marriage ceremony has not taken place in church.

Fifthly, the Old Testament does not regard having sex with a concubine as acceptable, and under the terms of Exodus 21:7-11 a man is only allowed to have sex with a slave girl if she has become his wife.[3]

Sixthly, ‘porneia’ does not mean ‘unbridled lust’, it means ‘unlawful sexual intercourse’[4] which in the Bible means any form of sexual activity forbidden in the Law of Moses, which in turn means any form of sexual activity which falls outside the pattern of marriage between one man and one woman established by God in Genesis 2.

Seventhly, it is not clear (and the bishops do not explain) what the ‘new social, scientific and psychological understandings of sexuality in the last one and a half centuries’ are that mean we can now understand same sex relationships ‘in a radically different way.’ All we know now is what we have always known, which is (a) that some human beings are sexually attracted to members of their own sex, either permanently, or at some point in their lives, and (b) they are free to make the moral decision as to whether to act on this attraction (just like those attracted to members of the opposite sex).

Eighthly, it is not a question of the same sex friendships celebrated  in the Bible (such as Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan and Jesus and the beloved disciple) not having ‘any clear indication’ of sexual activity, but rather that the issue of sexual activity doesn’t even arise. There is nothing in the accounts of these friendships to suggest even the possibility of sexual activity. The mention of these same sex friendships is thus a red herring.

Finally, when Paul talks in Romans 1:27 about men ‘burning with desire’ for other men this is simply a conventional Jewish way of saying that they have been overcome by a sinful form of desire. In a similar way, Sirach 23:16, for example, talks about a fornicator being overcome with ‘hot passion that blazes like a fire’ and Philo writes in that ‘all those who are rebellious will continue to be burned by their inward lusts, which like a flame will ravage the whole life of those in whom they dwell.’ [5]

This means that for Paul even those involved in ‘loving and faithful long term same-sex commitments’ would still rightly be described as ‘burning with desire’ if they continued to engage in same-sex sexual activity. For Paul (and for the Bible as whole) the issue is not that same-sex relationships are wrong because they involve ‘one night stands’ rather than committed relationships, they are wrong because God created human beings to have sex with the opposite sex (as evidenced by the design of their bodies – the point Paul is making in  Romans 1) and ordained heterosexual marriage as the context for sexual activity to take place.

What the Welsh bishops write thus simply does not hold water and thus does not provide a theological basis for the revision of the Church in Wales’ position which they support.

[1] Details can be found on the Church in Wales website at us/governing-body/meetings/

[2] For details see Richard Davidson, Flame of Yahweh – Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), ch. 5. 

[3] See Davidson pp.191-193.

[4] Walter Bauer, F W Gingrich and Frederick Danker, A Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament (Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press, 1979), p.693.

[5] Philo, De Decalogo 49, quoted in Thomas Schmidt, Straight & Narrow (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995), p. 74.