Ten and a half months to go before Pilling reports

One question is dominating 2013 for Changing Attitude England – what will Sir Joseph Pilling’s review group recommend in their report to the House of Bishops’ meeting in December and what decisions will the House of Bishops then announce. There are now ten and a half months before they need to resolve their differences and find the common mind and courage to be radical which they eventually found over women in the episcopate. Can we hope that the number of bishops dissenting from a radical outcome will be as small as those who voted against at the July Synod?

The decision in December will be taken in the context of more and more leaders coming out in support of equality for LGB&T people in church and society.

Steve Chalke, a leading evangelical came out in support of dedicating and blessing civil partnerships two weeks ago.  Steve is leader of the Christ Church and Upton Chapel, Waterloo (now known as Oasis Church), and founder of Oasis Trust and the Faithworks Movement. Steve said:

“When we refuse to make room for gay people to live in loving, stable relationships, we consign them to lives of loneliness, secrecy and fear. It’s one thing to be critical of a promiscuous lifestyle – but shouldn’t the Church consider nurturing positive models for permanent and monogamous homosexual relationships?

“In autumn 2012 I conducted a dedication and blessing service following the Civil Partnership of two wonderful gay Christians. Why? Not to challenge the traditional understanding of marriage – far from it – but to extend to these people what I would do to others – the love and support of our local Church. Too often, those who seek to enter an exclusive, same-sex, relationship have found themselves stigmatised and excluded by the Church. I have come to believe this is an injustice and out of step with God’s character as seen through Christ. I leave it to others to debate whether a Civil Partnership plus a dedication and blessing should equal a marriage or not. But I do believe that the Church has a God given responsibility to include those who have for so long found themselves excluded.”

Barack Obama supported equality for gay people in his inauguration speech on Monday:  

“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall…  It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law — for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

The Church of England’s presentational disaster

Commenting on the negative media reports that followed the BBC’s unearthing of the House of Bishops notes on the December meeting, revealing the decision taken on the eligibility of clergy in civil partnerships to become bishops, Andrew Goddard commented:

“… from what has undoubtedly been a presentational disaster, irrespective of one’s views on the decision itself.  That disaster does not bode well for the handling of this contentious issue by the church’s leadership in the coming year.”

The presentational disaster has been repeated several times of late. It happened before Christmas when the Church reacted to David Cameron’s revelation that the Government intended to legislate for equal marriage. The presentational disaster is the product of a number of dynamics in the Church of England.

A culture that withholds information

The first dynamic is the culture of what some might call secrecy and others might call the withholding of information. The media people at Church House don’t seem to know how to manage the release of news in a way that provides accurate, complete information about issues they know will provoke strong reactions. There was no media statement about the changed policy of bishops in civil partnerships. There has been no information about how the decision came to be taken or the process and report of the Sodor and Man review group.

A culture of intimidation

In part, the media people are the victims of a widespread fear of the conservative lobby groups in the Church of England. I have witnessed the deep anxiety some face when encountering the pressure from organisations like Reform, Anglican Mainstream, Church of England Evangelical Council and Forward in Faith. Each of these groups has members on General Synod, Archbishops’ Council and in the House of Bishops, and in staff posts at Church House and Lambeth Palace.

They are unafraid of dominating discussion, expressing their opinions forcefully and using emotional manipulation and emotional blackmail to achieve their ends. They are not always successful, of course. Some will say that Changing Attitude has members on some of these bodies, and so we do. We have bishops who are patrons and a trustee and ex-trustee on General Synod. But no-one has ever accused them of issuing threats in order to get their own way or of using emotional blackmail and manipulation, whereas I am told that conservatives do this in the House of Bishops and I’ve witnessed it in General Synod.

A culture trying to satisfy the extremes

One of the functions of a bishop is to be a focus of unity in the diocese. This rightly means being there pastorally for every person, lay and ordained, in the diocese. It also means bending over backwards to accommodate people with extreme views, and that almost always means those opposed to the full inclusion of women and LGB&T people in the Church.

Fifty years ago the Church of England was able to believe in itself as a broad church with a spectrum from those using the Roman Missal at one end to evangelicals with a tenuous connection to the Church of England at the other end. I walked past one such church on my way home from school.

The Church of England is no longer able to maintain an easy relationship of difference across a wide spectrum of liturgical practice, tradition, teaching and dogma. The Church is now riven with tensions in the context of a society which has adopted attitudes and policies for the inclusion of women and LGB&T people which the majority of Anglicans accept as right and approved by God and a small but vociferous minority vigorously oppose.

Managing the tension

What I experience over and over again is a Church trying to manage these tensions, trying and failing over and over again. General Synod and the House of Bishops struggled to find a formula for women in the episcopate that would satisfy a sufficient number to gain the necessary two-thirds majority. They were faced with a minority who were never going to accept any kind of compromise and never will.

The same will be true of any attempt by Sir Joseph Pilling’s group and the House of Bishops to reform Church of England practice and teaching in relation to LGB&T people. Some, possibly the majority, of bishops will try to achieve a compromise designed to satisfy those who will oppose reform most vociferously.

Managing this tension is the aim of individuals and corporate Church of England bodies. Managing the tension dominates almost everything else. It inhibits the Church’s ability to speak to English society and proclaim the Gospel of universal love incarnate in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

Will Pilling and the House of Bishops be radical?

If the House of Bishops, having argued over Sir Joe’s report, don’t announce changes which are progressive for LGB&T people and which the majority of people in Church and society recognise as appropriate, the crisis in the Church of England will deepen. People will leave, the Government will be critical, and biblical fundamentalism will trump spiritual wisdom and intelligent faith.

Conformity to Biblical rules as interpreted by a minority of fundamentalists will trump the potential for transformation of the human person into truth and glory.

The protected enclaves of prejudice in the Church of England will expand to the detriment of those seeking to encounter the God they already know in their hearts and souls as infinite, self-giving love.

So, members of the Pilling review group, you have ten and half months to produce a report which will survive the attacks of conservative fundamentalists and begin to transform the landscape of the Church of England for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, our partners, families, friends, colleagues and congregations. What will you recommend?

House of Bishops, in ten and a half months you will be presented with a report which we hope will recommend the blessing of civil partnerships in church. Do you have the wisdom to affirm this recommendation? Do you have the courage to manage the inevitable tensions?

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