Changing Attitude England’s initial reaction to the Pilling Report

Changing Attitude England is first of all grateful to Sir Joe Pilling and the members of the Working Party for the work undertaken by the group. The group consulted widely and listened well.

They have explored a lot of the ground which is fundamental to the dilemmas faced by the church as it continues to think about human sexuality. We are not over-excited by the detail of the report, but it explores many of the issues which are fundamental to review if the Church of England is ever to speak truthfully and lovingly to those whose sexuality and gender are variants on the heterosexist, patriarchal assumptions of too much theology and Christian teaching.

The door has been opened to allow conversations and representations about homophobia, prejudice, ethics, sexual intimacy, blessing of relationships, and pastoral practice in the church.

Changing Attitude’s submission

In our submission to the Review Group we said the need for a radical change in Christian attitudes towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGB&T) people is now urgent. We asked whether the members of the review group are going to advocate that the Church of England recognises the reality of the presence of LGB&T people in the Church or whether they are going to maintain the present culture of secrecy, denial of reality, suppression of identity and the unhealthy attitudes in which many LGB&T Christians remain trapped.

This report does not herald radical change and does not therefore fulfil the expectations of Changing Attitude. There are no practical proposals which will begin to dismantle the present culture of secrecy, denial of reality, suppression of identity and the maintenance of unhealthy attitudes. The group has met people and listened and the unhealthy attitudes remain unchanged as the report demonstrates.

Changing Attitude’s goals

Changing Attitude has two core goals, the achievement of which would mark a radical transformation in the experience of LGB&T Christians, and we believe, for the church as a whole. The goals are:

  • Celebrating the loving, permanent, faithful, stable of lesbian and gay relationships, lay and ordained
  • Equality in ministry, lay and ordained, in the selection, training and appointment process and the end of hypocrisy and secrecy – the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ culture.

A third goal has become critically important – to identify and eradicate prejudice against LGB&T people and the systemic homophobia which corrupts Christian attitudes and teaching.

1  Welcoming gay and lesbian people

The Report recognises that ‘there is widespread experience of homosexual people not being accepted and welcomed into church unconditionally (370). It admits that ‘The pastoral and missiological pressure to find ways of communicating good news to people in same sex relationships is becoming acute, although all of us recognise that sharing the good news is not always the same as meeting demand within the Church (386). We are not sure what the second half of that sentence implies. What we know is that many LGB&T Anglicans find the message and culture of the Church toxic.

The first item in the summary on p149 claims to be the foundation of the report. It says: We warmly welcome and affirm the presence and ministry within the Church of gay and lesbian people, both lay and ordained.

The report itself doesn’t say that. Paragraphs 72-74 are hesitant and ambiguous. The group admits that many hear their unanimous desire for the Church to welcome gay and lesbian people as inadequate. The report, far from reassuring us, goes so far out of its way to balance the needs of conservatives that it reinforces the lack of welcome for lesbian and gay people.

Changing Attitude is disappointed that the Report deals so superficially with transgender (198) and intersex people (197) despite having received a submission from the Sibyls. Changing Attitude England and other LGB&T Christian organizations also identified the need to address transgender and intersex experience and expectations in our submissions. The reality of transgender and intersex experience is directly relevant to the question asked in paragraphs 195/6 – are human beings sexually dimorphic, and in paragraphs 199/200 – is sexual attraction fixed and immutable.

The Reverend Colin Coward, Director of Changing Attitude England, said:

“The Working Party remains trapped within a particular world view of human sexuality held by the church as an organisation. As a result, LGB&T people may find a welcome at the local level in congregations that are open and inclusive and loving of all, but the Pilling Report maintains the Church of England’s unwelcome stance. It is still shockingly inadequate.”

2  Celebrating and blessing relationships

The report believes ‘that there can be circumstances where a priest, with the agreement of the relevant PCC, should be free to mark the formation of a permanent same sex relationship in a public service but should be under no obligation to do so.’ This would be in the nature of a ‘pastoral accommodation’. This goes some way to fulfilling Changing Attitude’s first goal.

Some members of the group ‘believe there is scope to consider less formal approaches to recognising and praying for same sex couples after they have registered a civil partnership or entered into a same sex marriage.’

But the group is not prepared to recommend a formal liturgy, episcopally and Synodically approved, because this would have important doctrinal implications, dependent on the Church of England agreeing to some modification of its current teaching on committed, permanent and faithful relationships between two men or two women.

Blessings already occur in churches and many bishops know this perfectly well.

3  Equality in ministry

The second of Changing Attitude’s goals is equality in ministry, lay and ordained. The section of the report dealing with ministry – The Church’s Practice – is sadly inadequate, dealing with those in ordained but not in lay ministry. It reviews the questions asked of candidates and the advice given to DDOs. It believes that all candidates for ministry should be treated in the same way regarding their sexual conduct. They ‘believe that care should be taken to ensure that questions do not require a homosexual candidate to go into more intimate detail about their life than would be required of a heterosexual candidate.’ They leave resolution of the question as to whether laity and clergy should be expected to observe different disciplines to the facilitated conversations.

Intrusive questions will only end when the guidelines are clear and when conservative DDOs and bishops understand that such questions are predicated on prejudice and are intolerable.

For three years Changing Attitude has been asking bishops questions about the rules as they apply to Reader ministry and other lay ministries. We gave evidence to the Working Party chaired by the Bishop of Sodor and Man and had expectations that the group’s report would address this. The report was not published and we understood that its work on Reader ministry had been subsumed into the Pilling Report. It is nowhere to be found in the report. When and how is the House of Bishops going to address our questions about the disparity of practice between dioceses in approving partnered lesbian and gay people in Reader ministry?

The Reverend Colin Coward, Director of Changing Attitude England, said:

“The House of Bishops must now set up another Group to look in detail at how equality will be achieved in practice between heterosexual and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender clergy. This includes those clergy, of course, now in civil partnerships and those who will convert to equal marriages. Equality cannot be achieved until the Church of England accepts that same sex couples are legally married.”

4  Homophobia

The most serious failings of the report are to be found here.

The report deals with homophobia at some length. It acknowledges that the problem of prejudice against lesbian and gay people is still with us, and serious. It addresses institutional and internalised homophobia (179). It defends an open and reasoned discussion of human sexuality and the place of sexuality in public ethics (187). It then describes the work of the ‘Don’t Throw Stones’ initiative, something Changing Attitude has been involved with (189-191).

If the report was serious that the problem homophobia has no place in the Church of England it would have identified the prejudice enshrined in existing documents and teaching and made proposals to eradicate all such prejudice.

The report doesn’t understand that so-called orthodox, traditional teaching, which is literalist and fundamentalist, using the seven texts as proof texts of God’s judgement against homosexuality, underpin and are the source of prejudice against LGB&T people and personal and systemic homophobia in the Church.

The Church of England has to work towards eradicating homophobia and the prejudiced attitudes which result from ignorance about the nature of sexual and gender diversity in creation and misreading of Biblical texts which are applied to gender and sexuality. This report instead maintains the idea that those who oppose the full inclusion of LGB&T people on Biblical grounds are to be respected and have an equal right to their opinion as those of us who think this is a root cause of homophobia.

There should be no place for prejudice and homophobia in the Church. Members of the House and College of Bishops and members of the General Synod need help in understanding how homophobia works and what constitutes homophobic attitudes.

Changing Attitude is shocked that the Report grants equivalence to the submission from the Royal College of Psychiatrists and another from Core Issues Trust, an organisation that exemplifies homophobia. The Report tries to balance theologies and attitudes that create homophobia and prejudice and those that identify homophobia and discrimination and how to deal with it effectively (206, 207).

The Report wants the Church to ‘repent for the homophobic attitudes it has sometimes failed to rebuke and should stand firmly against it whenever and wherever it is found.’

The Reverend Colin Coward, Director of Changing Attitude England, said:

“How can the Church repent when it doesn’t recognise the presence of homophobia? How can it repent when homophobic attitudes are presented in the Report? How is the Church of England going to repent and demonstrate contrition?”

Changing Attitude is willing to work with the Bishops and General Synod to help people understand how, in the context of Scripture and Tradition, homophobia has a pernicious effect on individual LGB&T people and on the whole people of God, on families and congregations in every parish and diocese in England and every Province of the Anglican Communion.

The Church of England is systemically homophobic. The report attempts to whitewash the church’s and Christianity’s role as one of the main originators of homophobia in British society. This has to be confronted.

5  Facilitated conversations

The report proposes that the subject of sexuality would be best addressed by consultation, reflection, attentive listening and facilitated conversations, or something similar to which the Church of England needs to commit itself at national and diocesan level (68). It suggests that a period of two years might be appropriate for the process (83).

Two years? Have people not already been relating to and listening to their LGB&T colleagues, friends, family and congregation members? Don’t bishops listen to their children and LGB&T friends? Not sufficiently, clearly, to register that a far more courageous and radical report was required.

Changing Attitude is ‘listened-out’. Many of us have been involved in conversations for over 20 years, beginning with Issues in Human Sexuality.

The Reverend Colin Coward, Director of Changing Attitude England, said:

“We have some basic minimum expectations about any new process, expectations reinforced by the change of practice by the College and House of Bishops in responding to the equally appropriate expectations of women in the church.

“Any and every conversation has to include openly gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. In future there can be no conversations about us without us being visibly present.

“We expect the House of Bishops to invite LGB&T people to participate in their December meeting when they discuss the Pilling Report.

“We expect the College of Bishops to invite LGB&T people to participate in their meeting on 27 January 2014 when they discuss the Pilling Report.

“We expect LGB&T people to be present at every national and diocesan conversation.

“We suspect the Review Group members have no idea how difficult it is for LGB&T people to be open in such circumstances and what a challenge there may be to find people willing to participate. The anti-gay rhetoric of conservatives has intimidated people to stay in the closet or climb back in, because so-called Biblical teaching about homosexuality is experienced as obnoxious. We can still be intimidated by the strength of prejudice and homophobia that deliberately or unconsciously is systemically present in the Church.”

The House of Bishops have to work out how to achieve a safe, non-abusive environment for these conversations. It will not be easy. LGB&T people are still treated as if we are not fully worthy of respect. We are frequently referred to as if we are not present in language that is hostile and judgmental.

6  Is homosexuality harmful or is harm the result of social prejudice?

Yes, this is the title of a section of the report, a section (205-219) which gives equal weight to a submission from the Royal College of Psychiatrists and a submission by Core Issues Trust.

Core Issues Trust represents the fundamentalist extreme of people who don’t believe gay and lesbian identity has any reality. They do not believe people are born gay. They think people can be healed from their sexuality or can contain sexual attraction and desire in conformity with the will of God as specified in the Bible. They support ex-gay ministries and believe in efforts to change sexual orientation. The report devotes several paragraphs to this (214-218).

This section of the report has already produced outrage amongst supporters of Changing Attitude.

The report has been delivered to the House of Bishops and they are now confronted with the challenge of how to take it further. The challenge is urgent and Changing Attitude’s expectations of action are high.

Our Christian conviction is clear – homosexuality is not harmful. Christian homophobia and prejudice is deeply harmful and results in anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide, violence and murder, the result of social prejudice based on false Christian teaching.

Join the discussion