Same Sex Marriage & Scripture: An Affirming Evangelical Response (Part 3)

The Revd David Runcorn is a theological teacher, writer and Spiritual Director. He is presently a Director of Ordinands and Warden of Readers in the Diocese of Gloucester

David Runcorn

I have been invited to offer a response to the recent letter by 11 Evangelical Bishops to the Coordinating Group for Living in Love and Faith (LLF), concerning the church’s understanding of marriage and same-sex relationships. I gratefully acknowledge the helpful contributions already made by Bishops David Atkinson and David Gillett. I also gladly support all they both affirm in their responses to the Bishop’s letter.

I found particularly helpful the way the 11 Bishops’ letter acknowledges the tensions inherent in being communities faithful to the reforming Word of God.

‘The church must always be reformed according to the Word of God, and God has “more truth yet to break forth out of His Holy Word”. But neither can we simply abandon what we have received in order to appear relevant and avoid feeling uncomfortable. As God’s people carefully re-read Scripture together, allowing it to teach us, we may be challenged where we are wrong and be led into deep learning, serious intellectual persuasion, and heart-felt repentance for past errors.’

These words suggest a relationship with scripture that is always unfolding, never exhausted and where understandings may need to change and evolve over time. It is precisely this understanding of the re-forming Word that leads folk like me to support the extending of the marriage covenant to same-sex couples. But the letter remains insistent there can be no change in the ‘traditional’ understanding of marriage. I want to ask – on the basis of the letter’s own understanding of the re-forming Word – why not?

In his book ‘Having words with God – the Bible as conversation’, Karl Allen Kuhn writes,  ‘Scripture itself provides no indication that the dynamic nature of God’s instruction is suddenly to cease. To insist, as some do, that all of the specific injunctions of the New Testament concerning particular behaviours must stand for all time is to assign to biblical instruction a role that it has never before performed.’ (2008:89 my emphasis)

This does begin to offer us a faithful way to address the question of how to read the scriptures for guidance about issues or people it  a) originally addressed in very different contexts, b) does not directly address at all, or c) possibly does not even know exists. This is an approach to bible reading variously described as a ‘Redemptive’ or ‘Christological’ trajectory, a ‘continuing unfolding’ or a ‘developing understanding’ of what scripture teaches and calls us to across time. (The reply fairly made here that while all the other ‘trajectories’ already have positive hints in the New Testament the teaching about homosexuality is always negative. But this is only partially true. The argument needs more care. Firstly, ‘homosexual’ is not a biblical word. The word first appears in any English bible translation in the first edition of the new RSV in 1946. Those texts traditionally presumed to be teaching against homosexual relationships in every case describe subjugation, rape or violence, excessive lustful activity, patterns of coercive male dominance and a total disregard of acceptable norms of social, religious and sexual behaviour. So it is more accurate to say that these Bible texts condemn abusive sexual behaviour of any kind. They are not for applying to what is loving, faithful and committed).

The idea of a developing reading of scripture is not as novel an idea as may first appear. We have been reading the Bible in this way for some time. The Church of England, for example, does not believe the New Testament speaks with a final voice on the partnership of men and women in society, church leadership or marriage. And slavery? We believe today that slavery is an appalling unchristian evil. But where does the bible ever say this? There is not one condemning text and a great deal else that appears to allow the opposite.

Furthermore an unfolding revelation is evident within the scriptures. When Peter is told in a dream to eat food forbidden in Torah and then goes into the house of a Gentile and sees the Spirit of God fall on outsiders, where is he to go biblically to explain this? Something very new is going on. Don’t underestimate how disturbing this would have been. On a discussion thread about same-sex relationships a conservative contributor wrote that when people talked about allowing these things, ‘I feel as if my face is being pushed into vomit.’ On his Joppa rooftop Peter would have understood that feeling very well. But he learned that revulsion is not a reliable guide to good theology, divine will and purpose.

Peter and the Jerusalem Council proceeded in vulnerable obedience under the compelling guidance of the Spirit. And when we try to pull out Old Testament verses that talk about the inclusion of Gentiles we are still missing the challenge faced by the first Christians. Those prophecies saw Gentiles welcomed into the Jewish world and religion on Jewish terms. That is why so much of the argument centred around how Jewish Gentile believers needed to become – food, circumcision, behaviour etc.  What they could not even receive yet – except as a nightmare – was that God was creating a community based on radically new belonging and identity in Christ, one that is yet to be fully revealed – neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female.

What begins at Joppa goes beyond the received revelation as long understood. But not surprisingly the Jewish/Gentile tension seems to run unresolved through the whole New Testament church. It was their version of our sexuality debates. Perhaps they too wondered if good disagreement was possible?

I do want to question the way the 11 Bishops letter tends to only set the Word of God/teaching of the church over and against those voices challenging traditional teaching.  A familiar response to those arguing for a more including approach is that they have been ‘influenced by the culture of the day’ (a culture presumed to be wholly negative and faithless). But I would say ‘yes we are – and thank God for that’! What accelerated the movement to abolish slavery in Britain and apartheid in South Africa was not compelling biblical teaching. Large numbers of Christians supported both precisely on the basis of scripture. It began in a very similar way to how opinions and beliefs about the gay community have been changing in recent years. People began to tell stories of what it was actually like. The inhumanity. The brutality. The exclusion. And that led Christians back to the re-forming Word with new sensitivity. The same happened with contraception debates during the 1920-30s (a topic on which it is hard to find any clear biblical texts). It was fiercely opposed by the Mothers Union and by successive Lambeth conferences who could only see it as a licence for promiscuity. Slowly an awareness of the brutal realities of women’s health and life expectancy, of large families living in poverty, of children’s welfare and dire social deprivation began to be heard. (It has been noted elsewhere that the quotation about marriage in the letter from the 1920 Lambeth Conference is unfortunate in being lifted from a highly reactionary and conservative debate opposing contraception. In its original context the quote is supporting a view of marriage and family the church, and these signatories do not hold).

Of course not all cultural pressure is Godly or wise. It needs testing. Christian faith is profoundly counter-cultural. But then, as now, cultural and social pressure play an important part in raising awareness and awakening conscience in a way that has forced a revisiting of how we have been reading and interpreting the bible for today. So, as the letter acknowledges, the unsettling process of reading, re-examining, repenting, re-interpreting and revising even long unquestioned Biblical convictions under the compelling of the Spirit is not a task the Evangelical tradition is unfamiliar with or unwilling to undertake. In fact its understanding of scripture actually requires it.

In his book ‘Beyond the Bible – moving from scripture to theology ’  the revered evangelical theologian and Bible commentator I Howard Marshall admits the risk involved in this – of going beyond the received Biblical texts. But he insists there is another risk. It is that of misleading the church by dwelling in the first century or earlier and refusing to go beyond the letter of Scripture. ‘We must be aware of the danger of failing to understand what God is saying to his people today and muzzling his voice.  Scripture itself constrains us to the task of on-going theological development’  (2004:78).

In all this debate I acknowledge my place in a conflicted community. I contribute to both hope and pain with words like these. I walk with close friends and colleagues who deeply disagree with me. I respect them and long to continue this journey of faith with the re-forming Word. And in that renewing and awakening Word I believe there is another story being told; one that is yet to be fully revealed; one that is found both within and beyond the texts; one that is always breaking through. It is one that we can trust with our lives – and even our divisions.

END

This is part of a three-part series by Affirming Evangelicals.

Part 1 is by Rt Revd David Gillett, former Principal of Trinity College, Bristol (1989-99) and former Bishop of Bolton

Part 2 is by Rt Revd David Atkinson, former lecturer at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and former Bishop of Thetford 

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20 Responses to Same Sex Marriage & Scripture: An Affirming Evangelical Response (Part 3)

  1. Pingback: Reactions to the letter from eleven bishops – Thinking Anglicans

  2. Thank you for this, David (does one have to be called David to comment on the bishops’ letter? It is beginning to look like it!). We need always to have Paul’s much-ignored statement in mind: ‘The letter kills, but the Spirit brings life’. We are *not* a people of the book, in the sense that Jews and Muslims are so described; we are a people of the Spirit, and the Spirit always leads us in new directions – not directions that dismiss the book, but directions that follow the overarching trajectory of the book towards justice and compassion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • davidsja says:

      I like your comments Veronica (nice name) – we Evangelicals are accused of Biblioatry (Father, Son & Holy Scripture) and need to remind people the Spirit leads us into All truth. – signed (another) David…

      Like

  3. ckatsarelis says:

    Wow! Awesome! Thank you! I treasure your contribution David because it is a learned demonstration that those of us who take the inclusive view do so *because of Scripture* and not in spite of it or because of a blind capitulation to culture. As an LGBTQIA person, I could not exist in the church with any integrity without really engaging deeply in Scripture, though far short of being a trained theologian. That work saved me, in many meanings of the word “save.” But more than that, this engagement opened my eyes to the suffering of others, and how it’s caused, and why it’s caused, and what role Christians should play in economic justice, refugees, climate change, etc. It seemed to me that there are no limits on “love your neighbor.” I sometimes wonder if we get hung up on issues like LGBT+ inclusion because if we really followed Christ, it would require significant sacrifice.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. stasisonline says:

    I’m troubled by the part; “We believe today that slavery is an appalling unchristian evil. But where does the bible ever say this? There is not one condemning text and a great deal else that appears to allow the opposite.”

    What about 1 Timothy 1? It’s condemnation of slave trading couldn’t be much more severe.

    I’m also troubled by the part; “Those texts traditionally presumed to be teaching against homosexual relationships in every case describe subjugation, rape or violence, excessive lustful activity, patterns of coercive male dominance and a total disregard of acceptable norms of social, religious and sexual behaviour.” That doesn’t seem to be an objective reading of that same verse I’ve sighted above. And for some other relevant verses.

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    • I am not sure who I am writing to here. But greetings.
      1 Tim 1 does indeed contact a reference to ‘slave traders’. The question is what activity is being condemned here? It is quite a specific phrase. Meanwhile everywhere elsewhere the NT assumes the continuation of slavery. Paul tells slaves to be faithful to their masters etc. So I stand by my statement.
      As to your send point. I assume you are referring to ‘sodomisers’ (NRSV trans). The question again is what do we understand to be the activity that is judgment – by whom, on whom and where exactly? For example Eugene Petersen in The Message translation here assumes this list refers to – those ‘who defy all authority, riding roughshod over God, life, sex, truth, whatever!’ This supports my statement you note above. It is abusive behaviour that is being condemned – not what is faithful and loving and committed to God.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Affirming Evangelical Bishops Response | Kiwianglo's Blog

  6. Pingback: Same Sex Marriage & Scripture: Affirming Evangelical Response (Part 2) | ViaMedia.News

  7. Pingback: Same Sex Marriage & Scripture: Affirming Evangelical Response (Part 1) | ViaMedia.News

  8. David Shepherd says:

    Hi David,

    Thanks for sharing insight into your carefully considered rationale for affirming PSF same-sex couples.

    You wrote: ”In his book ‘Having words with God – the Bible as conversation’, Karl Allen Kuhn writes, ‘Scripture itself provides no indication that the dynamic nature of God’s instruction is suddenly to cease.

    While the dynamic nature of divine instruction is not in dispute, scripture itself, in Paul’s words to the Galatians, warns against teachings which contradict the gospel as revealed the coherent witness of Christ to the apostles.

    Paul laid such emphasis on church members maintaining their united witness of godly living in response to the gospel, e.g. which he described as “the grace of God that brings salvation.”

    Since that witness to the gospel involves “denying all ungodliness and worldly lusts” (Tit. 2:1), we need to make sure that any “fresh understanding” doesn’t become an endorsement of the very behaviour that God calls upon us, through the gospel, to reject .
    As you’re fully aware, concerning that gospel to which the Church should bear witness in both word and godly living, Paul wrote quite sternly: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! 9As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!”

    Furthermore, there’s significant distinction between the condemnation of a previously tolerated behaviour (e.g. slavery) and the representative divine affirmation by ordained ministers of a previously prohibited behaviour.

    I appreciate that we’d probably disagree on whether the absence of certain assumed concomitant factors (e.g. overt idolatry, or lack of consent) would sufficiently distinguish scripturally prohibited sexual activities from the intimacy of modern same-sex couples, but that by itself does not diminish the distinction. Especially when We consider Paul’s repeated parallel use of “ellaxan” and “metellaxan” regarding abandonment of the self-evidently ordered creation.

    Finally, as a black man, I will again register my offence at repeated comparisons with race which serve to justify sexual and gender identities being treated as quasi-ethnicities.

    Gay is not the new black.

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    • ckatsarelis says:

      David, I get that “gay is not the new black,” for a number of reasons. However, it is a cautionary tale to know that the Bible was used extensively to support slavery, just as it was used to justify anti-semitism and to burn heretics and witches – witches often being uppity women and sometimes lesbians. The science is overwhelming that sexual orientation is a state of being, not a choice. And so it puts us in the category of minorities, which has similarities and differences with ethnic minorities. That we are a part of God’s Creation most certainly raises theological issues. That science affirms that we are born gay raises moral questions, an attack on a person’s being for who they are is brutal. And that is true of women (a power minority) and ethnic minorities.

      On the US side, we have a great deal of scholarship that looks at the language and culture of the time of Scripture and wrestles with the best information we have. David Runcorn is spot on in saying that the Bible does not address committed same-sex couples, let alone condemn us (I got married 3 years ago to my partner of 27 years, in my Episcopal parish).

      So how does one go about discerning God’s will? No doubt you’ve heard the liberal position that the stories of the Ethiopian Eunuch and the sharing the Gospel with the Gentiles (uncircumcised) all point to the inclusion of people who were previously excluded. Jesus’ most harsh words are for the Pharisees who used the letter of the Law to oppose the Spirit of the Law. To many, actions speak louder than a couple of arcane, virtually untranslatable words. Some of us are dumbfounded by the fact that the Bible includes polygamy as a norm and condemns divorce and sex outside of marriage – somehow Rebecca and I are a threat to marriage???

      The thing that bothers me, is having all these nice Christian people debate “God’s Will” for MY life. As if we LGBTQ+ people are passive ignorants… Talking about us without us. And as if the witness of our lives just isn’t a factor, compared to splitting hairs on unclear words penned two millennia ago.

      Gay isn’t the new black. But it is a recent group claiming our being as Children of God, receiving the Good News, and doing our best to be the Good News to others. Peace.

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      • chris russell says:

        COMMENT REMOVED BY REQUEST

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      • ckatsarelis says:

        Chris Russell, you certainly get to the heart of the matter with your questions. The crux is whether or not one believes in continuing revelation. And if one believes, where is this revelation occurring? Is it in the lives of individuals, sometimes coming together collectively as “the church,” or is continuing revelation limited to bishops and popes, i.e. church hierarchy? Does revelation come through splashy miracles or quietly in the lives of people?

        The magnificent sweep of Scripture is the story of the liberation of God’s people, like in Exodus. The Incarnation came to be the Good News to All People Everywhere. His summary of the Law was to love God and love your neighbor (all of them, without exception), and in Acts we have the Apostles working out what that means, baptizing the Ethiopian Eunuch, determining whether the gentiles needed to be circumcised, etc. This continuing revelation has always been informed by the Holy Spirit, working through people. After Jesus is gone, Peter and Paul have to work it out, and so do we.

        “Literal” readings of Scripture is a 19th Century phenomenon. Before that, the mythic truths and lessons were the received knowledge and I find those truths powerful. How does one reconcile the conflicting Creation stories? Why would one say that the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was due to homosexuality when Ezekiel is quite plain about the sin of Sodom? If heterosexuality was such a crucial issue, why didn’t God mention it to Moses and get it in writing (i.e. the Ten Commandments). It’s just as easy to ask your question backward (revelation in the past) as well as forwards (what is revelation now?).

        While I don’t identify as evangelical, I do have a personal relationship with Jesus. In my life I’ve been extraordinarily blessed and that relationship, that Grace, is my revelation. And it turns out that I’m not the only gay person who has that relationship and Grace. The Spirit has been on the move and the received collective wisdom is that the oppression of LGBTQI people must stop. That is the collective mind of the church in the US Episcopal Church. It comes from a study of Scripture AND the witness of people.

        It must be difficult to have confidence in this new liberation without the personal witness. We are called to love one another, regardless. But we have to work out what that love looks like when continued oppression isn’t really viable.

        Peace.

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  9. David says:

    David Shepherd Thank you for your response. I know we disagree strongly this issue but I am grateful you thank you me for my ‘carefully considered’ position. I now how carefully you approach this debate too.
    I take as seriously as you do the scriptures you quote. But I wonder how you respond to I Howard Marshall’s challenge? He accepts there is a risk on both sides. Firstly of going beyond the received text in a way that actually goes beyond what God reveals/intends – which is the familiar criticism of those arguing for acceptance of ss relationships and marriage. But also of staying stuck in a literal reading of the ancient text and falling into the ‘danger of failing to understand what God is saying to his people today and muzzling his voice. Scripture itself constrains us to the task of on-going theological development’ (2004:78). Coming from a conservative theologian I find those words very challenging. It seems to me he challenges us both in how we read and obey scripture for today. I feel the bishop’s letter acknowledges that scripture has always more to teach us – but shuts the door on how this truth this might apply to marriage.

    I am not sure why you quote the text about “denying all ungodliness and worldly lusts” (Tit. 2:1). No one here is arguing an endorsing lust. This is about supporting those in loving, faithful, committed relationships.

    Finally let me say I respect your ‘offence at repeated comparisons with race which serve to justify sexual and gender identities being treated as quasi-ethnicities. Gay is not the new black.’ But David I have personally never said or argued for this. Nor would I. I do think, as I argued in the blog, that slavery provides a significant example in church history of how long standing understandings of scripture texts can come to be challenged, re-interpreted or even reversed. But I would never argue because we changed on slavery we much change on gender identity or ssm. I also used the example of contraception which offers a challenge to how we read the scriptures for significant social/ethical realities the bible does not address – because it does not know about it.

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  10. davidsja says:

    Reblogged this on Davidsja's Blog and commented:
    We Evangelicals are accused of Biblioatry (Father, Son & Holy Scripture) and need to remind people the Spirit leads us into All truth. – signed (another) David…

    Like

  11. David Shepherd says:

    Dear David,
    Given the dilemma of either “going beyond what God reveals/intends” or “staying stuck in a literal reading of the ancient text”, my hope is that the mutual respect of our dialogue here sets an example of a more respectful, reasoned approach.
    Over-simplifying opposition will result in the Church will eventually accepting this as a norm for resolving difference. Thinly-veiled ridicule becomes a tactic for eliminating not only all criticism, but also all traces of nuance.
    Post-Pilling, Prof. Oliver O’Donovan astutely commended this alternative:
    “A good revision in practice cannot be supported by a ‘revisionist’ theology—on the contrary, it needs a thoroughly catholic and orthodox foundation.”
    You wrote: “No one here is arguing an endorsing lust. This is about supporting those in loving, faithful, committed relationships.”
    While lust, (
    epithumia) is mostly pejorative, in scripture, this negative connotation attaches to any earnest desire which contradicts the revealed will of God.
    The question under discussion is whether faithful, committed same-sex relationships are consonant with the will of God, so embedding this conclusion into your argument is circular.
    Comparison with the anti-slavery movement inevitably projects another caricature that lionises same-sex marriage supporters as much as it demonises supporters of marriage orthodoxy.

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  12. David says:

    David Thank you for your response.
    I agree the Greek ‘epithumia’ is a neutral word that means ‘strongly desire’. So the issue is to what end those desires are consecrated or acted upon. But only 3/38 uses of the word in the NT are positive and there are no positive uses of the word at all in English translation. (Jesus is not found saying to his disciples ‘I have strongly lusted to share this meal with you’). The common use of ‘lusting’, like promiscuous, in these discussions, is to describe wholly amoral, unprincipled and undisciplined behaviour. So I find it a very unhelpful word to use when speaking of faithful, devoted married or partnered relationships of any kind and I understand why people find the word offensive when used of their relationships.
    I do not know the context of the O’Donovan quote. There is certainly poor theology and textual analysis to be found on all sides of this debate. In the Pilling Report he urged that there is something genuinely new going on. ‘The human race has often seen homosexual behaviour before, in a variety of contexts; but it has not seen anything like this construction of it, with these sensibilities and aspirations.’ Not surprisingly this is raising new and complex questions about the church’s understanding and response. He continues, “it will require a great deal of straightforward observation, perhaps over several generations, before we can begin to answer any of these questions with confidence” (paras 270-1).
    Finally ridicule, caricaturing and demonising of views are tactics sadly used on all sides of this debate when it gets heated. I want no part of that and hope you do not hear me doing that as we engage here.

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    • David Shepherd says:

      Thanks for engaging. Prof. O’Donovan’s paper (from which I quoted) can be found here: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0953946814530239a

      As a footnote, I’d agree that there has been poor theology and textual analysis on both sides.

      Certainly, supporters of marriage orthodoxy are repeatedly challenged about being overly literal.

      So, finally, (and you don’t need to reply here) I do wonder what you’d make of Prof. O’Donovan’s criticism of the SEC Doctrinal Committee’s approach to scripture, since that flawed reasoning is being repeated in arguments made for the CofE to revise its teaching on marriage:
      If a passage of the New Testament speaks of marriage in a way that reflects a connexion with ideas current in its own times, it does not interest us. We may learn from Jesus and Paul, it appears, only when they stand out in complete isolation from anything their original hearers could have thought. “Jewish ethical ideas of the day” are a misty background into which almost any words spoken by Jesus or Paul can be made to fade away and be lost sight of. (It requires only a moment’s reflection on their relation to the rabbinic culture to see how this principle can leave us with absolutely nothing in the New Testament to talk about.)

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      • David says:

        David Thanks. Re O’Donovan quote. Again I don’t know the context but this reads like deliberate caricature of self evidently poor theological method. But this approach has not been part of the via media responses here have they? In the quote I offered in my via blog by I Howard Marshall he acknowledges the risk to both sides when reading scripture for meaning today – to only live in the present (cf o’Donovan critique) or to only live/read in the original/past context (critique of conservatives).

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    • ckatsarelis says:

      “So I find it a very unhelpful word to use when speaking of faithful, devoted married or partnered relationships of any kind and I understand why people find the word offensive when used of their relationships.”

      Thank you, David! Yes, I find it deeply offensive. We’ve been married for 3 years and together for 27, faithfully, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer. I know that Rebecca is God’s most gracious gift to me.

      While I understand that some people aren’t convinced, it’s almost impossible to use language that isn’t offensive. Saying that the struggle to end the oppression of LGBTQI people is a caricature can only be horrifically hurtful. This hurt gets real when one knows that about 40-50 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQI kids who’ve been thrown out of their “religious” homes. In the street, they are terribly vulnerable and many of them are forced into sex trafficking. Even in loving and accepting homes, the bullying from outside can lead to depression and suicide. This can not possibly be God’s Will for children! Our language needs to take into account this suffering.

      Anytime any group is viewed as “less than” or “falling short,” they are exposed to horrific abuse. That is the truth and it applies to racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, etc. I don’t know how the “marriage orthodoxy” people can express their belief without contributing to this, but efforts must be made on behalf of the children and vulnerable adults.

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