Will Pilling and the House of Bishops engage with the full spectrum of experience?

Theology “must engage with our affective side, the emotions and feelings that arise from the experiences of exclusion and discrimination.”

This statement comes from a review of a new book, Black Theology, in last Friday’s Church Times by Jesse Zink, Assistant Chaplain at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. The book’s author, Anthony Reddie, claims that black theology “seeks to reinterpret the very meaning of the Christian faith for the sole and explicit purpose of fighting for Black liberation in this world”. Zink says that to do so it must engage with the real life setting of poverty and oppression which many Black people experience as well as engage with our emotions and feelings.

Whether exploring race or gender or sexuality, theology must engage with the spectrum of human and biblical experience – emotions and feelings, real life experiences, pastoral need, justice and liberation – as well as with the head and the intellect, tradition, scripture and reason.

I have anxieties about the outcome of Sir Joe Pilling’s Review Group. I have anxieties about the contents of the report and what the House of Bishops will do with the report. My conversations with many people at Synod in July and before and after Synod show that no one knows what the report is likely to say and that many people share my anxiety. A lot hangs on the outcome of Pilling.

Anxiety is a common trait in humans and each of us has our own way of dealing with anxiety. Getting into our heads and detaching from our bodies and our emotions is a rampantly common strategy in western cultures. In faith communities and religious organisations, many people use faith as a way to contain their anxiety. It’s a helpful way of containing anxiety, but it can also invite all of us collude in avoiding making difficult decisions or taking the challenging option.

I fear that might be the outcome of the Pilling Review Group or of what the House of Bishops does with the report.

Andrew Goddard has published an article about the Pilling Group on the Fulcrum website and Savi Hensman has published on Ekklesia where she asks, Is error really better than uncertainty?

Savi thinks Andrew is thought provoking but flawed, perhaps reflecting a fear that the Pilling review may propose more freedom for priests and congregations who want to celebrate lifelong loving same-sex relationships. A comment from a different source on Thinking Anglicans describes Andrew’s article as sterile, all about the church, doctrine, and discipline with nothing about pastoral care, love or the lived experience of faith by LGBT people.

I fear Andrew has put dogma before everything else and to the exclusion of everything else, including the fundamentals of Biblical and Christian teaching from which dogma may evolve but which it should never override. Jesus’ life and teaching was rooted in love of God, self and neighbour. He was concerned with the lives of the marginalized and despised and how we respond in love to them and ourselves. He was often critical of those who were primarily concerned with doctrine, discipline and the religious institutions.

Andrew article outlines his thinking about the Pilling report in the context of Archbishop Justin’s words about our revolutionary situation in his General Synod presidential address. The report, says Andrew, will play a major part in shaping any radical or imaginative response.

I really hope it does, but to achieve a radical, imaginative response is going to require far more revolutionary Christian vision and awareness than Andrew displays.

His starting point is to list the various reports and statements and resolutions that address Church of England and Anglican thinking and teaching about LGB&T people. I’ll list the documents at the end of the blog, otherwise I’ll get locked straight into legal, head stuff, and that’s where the problem starts.

Human beings feel safer in their heads and with the discipline of laws and rules to contain thinking and practice. Intelligent thinking and the construction of doctrine are important, but they are not the only qualities needed in a reconsideration of the Church of England’s teaching about sexuality.

Andrew says the Pilling report will have to defend its conclusions carefully from Scripture and tradition and Christian reasoning because a world undergoing revolution will not be interested in listening to any argument that it can see lacks internal rational coherence.

That, of course, is exactly the situation the church finds itself in at the moment. Those peers in the House of Lords can no longer understand why the Church of England reads the Bible and constructs doctrine to enshrine what they believe is prejudice and discrimination. It looks and is unloving and it leads to the brutalization of people as the Twitter trolls scandal against women and the continuing anti-gay rhetoric in some schools show.

No amount of careful reasoning in the light of previous authoritative reasoned statements is going to deal with the problem the church has of unloving, prejudiced, exclusive attitudes based on gender and sexuality.

Of course any changes to teaching need to be argued from a theological rationale based on “an exceptionally strong critical mass to justify it” (Andrew is quoting Rowan Williams and says he meant in the Communion and ecumenically not just within one province).

Andrew refers to the General Synod motion of February 2007 that commended “continuing efforts to prevent the diversity of opinion about human sexuality creating further division and impaired fellowship within the Church of England and the Anglican Communion” would “not be advanced by doing anything that could be perceived as the Church of England qualifying its commitment to the entirety of the relevant Lambeth Conference Resolutions (1978: 10; 1988: 64; 1998: 1.10)”.

Any changes proposed in the Pilling Report would need to address this resolution and every other document and resolution (including Higton from 1987) on which the Church of England’s current teaching about homosexuality is based.

Pretending that nothing has changed is absurd and impossible, says Andrew. In times of revolution we too in the church, in the Church of England, must have a revolution which enables us to live for the greater glory of God in the freedom which is the gift of Christ. We now face a new and revolutionary missionary context – can we find a way of together recognizing the mind of Christ and so responding radically, imaginatively, biblically, faithfully and reasonably?

We are not going to begin to find a way of recognizing the mind of Christ together unless we are prepared to engage with the full spectrum of human and biblical experience – emotions and feelings, real life experiences, pastoral needs, justice and liberation – resolving the sometimes conflicting and incredibly diverse witness of Scripture to the work of God in creation and evolution.

The revolution taking place in almost every society and culture on our planet is about far more than gender and sexuality (though these are fundamental). There is a reconfiguration of awareness and communication, authority and tradition, prayer and faith experience, religious tradition and dogma, head and heart, body and soul.

If the Pilling Report and the subsequent consideration of the report fails to engage with our revolutionary times and is constrained by the need to conform to past resolutions and documents, there will be no life-changing, life giving outcome for the church nor for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who seek truth, love and holiness. Our theology must engage with our affective side, the emotions and feelings that arise from the experiences of exclusion and discrimination.

The Church in it’s various denominational guises and through adherence to current teaching and dogma, is instrumental in holding back the transformation of attitudes which must take place if LGB&T people are to be respected as equal in society and loved as children of God, created in the image of God.

The Doctrine of the Church of England (excerpt from the C of E web site)

In relation to doctrine the Church of England has clear teaching on the substantive issues of sexual ethics.  This is set out in the 1987 General Synod motion, 1991 Issues (and 2003 Some Issues) and the 2005 House of Bishops Statement on Civil Partnerships reaffirmed in December 2012.  It agrees with the teaching of the Communion in Lambeth Resolutions and with wider catholic moral teaching.

The mind of the Church has been expressed formally on two occasions. First, on 11 November 1987, the General Synod passed by 403 votes to 8 the following motion at the end of the debate initiated by the Revd Tony Higton:

‘That this Synod affirms that the biblical and traditional teaching on chastity and fidelity in personal relationships in a response to, and expression of, God’s love for each one of us, and in particular affirms:

  1. that sexual intercourse is an act of total commitment which belongs properly within a permanent married relationship;
  2. that fornication and adultery are sins against this ideal, and are to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion;
  3. that homosexual genital acts also fall short of this ideal, and are likewise to be met by a call to repentance and the exercise of compassion;
  4. that all Christians are called to be exemplary in all spheres of morality, including sexual morality; and that holiness of life is particularly required of Christian leaders.’

Secondly, in December 1991, the House of Bishops published a statement Issues in Human Sexualiy (CHP 1991). This endorsed the traditional Christian belief that the teaching of the Bible is that heterosexual marriage is the proper context for sexual activity between two people. It went on to declare that what it called ‘homophile’ orientation and activity could not be endorsed by the Church as:

‘… a parallel and alternative form of human sexuality as complete within the terms of the created order as the heterosexual. The convergence of Scripture, Tradition and reasoned reflection on experience, even including the newly sympathetic and perceptive thinking of our own day, makes it impossible for the Church to come with integrity to any other conclusion. Heterosexuality and homosexuality are not equally congruous with the observed order of creation or with the insights of revelation as the Church engages with these in the light of her pastoral ministry.’

It also argued that the conscientious decision of those who enter into such relationships must be respected, and that the Church must ‘not reject those who sincerely believe it is God’s call to them’.

Nevertheless, because of the ‘distinctive nature of their calling, status and consecration’, the clergy ‘cannot claim the liberty to enter into sexually active homophile relationships’ (Some Issues 1.3.19-20).

In July 1997 General Synod passed a private member’s motion moved by the Archdeacon of Wandsworth to:

  1. commend for discussion in dioceses the House of Bishops’ report Issues in Human Sexuality and acknowledge it is not the last word on the subject;
  2. in particular, urge deanery synods, clergy chapters and congregations to find time for prayerful study and reflection on the issues addressed by the report.

The 1987 Synod motion and Issues in Human Sexuality are the two authoritative Church of England statements on the issue of homosexuality.

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