One supporter of Changing Attitude wrote a lengthy, considered response to the Pilling Report. It is reproduced in full:
I was hopeful when I read that the committee ‘not been able to achieve a unanimous report.’ Then I discovered that the dissenting voice was from a conservative who thought that it was too liberal. Well, I don’t think it was liberal enough. The report upholds the current teaching of the Church of England. The overall message is: let’s be kind to the gays but still tell them that they are sinful. It concludes: ‘we do not regard the teaching of the Church as simply malleable or open to change without the most rigorous testing against Scripture, experience, and the mind of the Church. As we have discovered, that testing continues but has, so far, not demonstrated case for change which all of us can accept.’
I tend to believe that if enough gay people give their testimonies, the conservatives will realise that the traditional teaching is inappropriate. This hasn’t been the case and I wonder how much was actual hearing, rather than tokenistic listening. It doesn’t seem like any attitudes have changed. Indeed, the report says ‘listening is no guaranteed path to consensus.’
The tone is set by a seductive prologue by The Revd Dr Jessica Martin, former Eng. Lit. lecturer, now a parish priest in a seemingly evangelical church. She rightly says that human desire is ultimately, if sometimes unknowingly, for God. She goes on to say that commercialism seduces us so not all our desires are good. Some are based on idolatry that leads us to use and abuse people. I can’t help recalling the communist view that homosexuality is a reflection of bourgeois, capitalist lifestyles. I am also alarmed at the word ‘abuse’ – an alarm that was justified in what was to come later when it suggests that abuse has come to light since the 1960s and its commodification of people. Do they seriously believe there was no abuse until the 1960s? What planet are they on.
Another concern that I have with this prologue is the suggestion that desires can be flawed. This could take us down the Roman Catholic line: that homosexual acts are sinful but merely being homosexual in orientation is ‘an intrinsic disorder.’
We are then treated to an admiration of those gay Christians who remain celibate as if they are heroes rather than possibly misguided and repressed. It says that they would experience any change in a more permissive direction by the Church of England as a betrayal. What about the church’s betrayal, over centuries, of its ‘practicing’ gays?
The report rightly acknowledges that Church has become more cautious since Archbishop Ramsey furthered the gay cause through the House of Lords after the Wolfenden Report. Indeed, the church has gone backwards while the rest of society has moved forwards.
Scripture, tradition and reason, the classic way of deciding ethics since Richard Hooker, are employed but with the Bible in first place. This section is useful on the way scripture, tradition and reason have been understood in C of E. Reason is dethroned since it comes with baggage. But doesn’t our interpretation of scripture come with baggage?
There is an appeal to the conservative Anglicans in places like Nigeria and Uganda. So why are we not following the example of these conservatives by calling for recriminalisation and the death penalty? Are we unable to change anything without reference to them? Why have we gone ahead with the ordination of women?
Some changes have to happen since the Church of England is by law established, so it has to accept the reality of civil partnerships.
Younger people see the traditional teaching as alien but they don’t seem to matter because they are the least likely to go to church anyway. Their views are not seen as important as those of the older people already in the church. When it is pointed out that this is a barrier to evangelism and potential suicide by the church, the report says that we should not accommodate to worldly views. There seems to be no discernment that the Holy Spirit is speaking through the world to challenge the church.
One of the worst features of this report is its flawed use of statistics about the percentage who are gay. Yes, the Kinsey Report was discredited but most reckon that he under, not over-estimated. The bishops obviously can’t face up to the reality that being gay is to be part of a very large minority. And when are they going to wake up to the fact that many younger people no longer accept labels and have sex with either gender when the fancy takes them without them having a fixed orientation? Instead, they argue from a flawed survey where people self-identified and we get a tiny percentage. The questions were asked on the doorstep so many didn’t want to ‘admit’ anything face to face with a stranger. So the commission believed it was talking about 1.7%, the same percentage as for intersex.
I predicted that this report would be deeply conservative the moment I discovered that Prof. Glyn Harrison was involved. Despite having held the chair of psychology at a Russell Group university, he has persistently disagreed with his profession. A ‘cure’ is not possible according to most psychiatrists but Harrison but disputes the evidence as he claims it is merely anecdotal. His view doesn’t, therefore, seem to be based on the experiences of his patients but in some absolute reality. Does he regard his patents’ experiences as merely anecdotal?’ And dismiss them. There was no counter-balance to him on this commission.
Then we get this oft-repeated assertion that ‘a greater instance of mental and physical illness and substance abuse among homosexual people than among the population at large. It’s obvious to most people that this is the result of prejudice but the conservatives like to believe that the ‘lifestyle’ makes them vulnerable. What is this ‘lifestyle’? For most, it is arguing about the shopping in Tesco but I suspect the commission envisages endless clubbing and dark rooms.
Then there’s the other assertion that gay relationships are less enduring. Well, I know a gay couple who’ve been together for forty-eight years. That’s longer than any marriage that I know of. Have the commission ever wondered if it is the lack of support that militates against stable, lasting coupledom?
There isn’t as much scripture as in previous reports because the commission points us to the previous document, ‘Some Issues in Human Sexuality. I have argued, previously, that this document is deeply flawed, if not downright dishonest in its cherry picking of scholars in order to preach its pre-ordained conclusion. A house built on this sand cannot stand.
The dissenting bishop of Birkenhead imbalances this report by having not one, but two, papers. In his biblical paper he argues that there is ‘overwhelming evidence’ that one particular translation is correct. His ‘evidence’, in the footnotes, is a couple of scholars plus the infamous and obsessed Robert Gagnon. A little knowledge is a very dangerous thing.
Later, Birkenhead says he will listen but his mind is already made up. Bibliolatry comes before persons.
Birkenhead not withstanding, ‘some of the words in Scripture that are relevant to issues of sexuality occur infrequently and their meanings cannot easily be tested by comparing different contexts.’
Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, one of the best contributors, observed that ‘for most of the Church’s history, sexual conduct has neither been a major concern nor understood primarily in terms of rules. The shift began at the Reformation but ‘… my suspicion is that both this obsession with sex and a stress on rules (are) both relatively late and alien to traditional Christianity’. Instead, Fr Radcliffe proposes ‘a Eucharistic sexual ethic ‘ that avoids body/soul dualism and an implicit contempt for the body’. He talks of intercourse as ‘mutual generosity’.
Oliver O’Donovan is sceptical of constructed identities: ‘Identities are ‘homes to venture out from and explore. If Christianity has a saving message to speak to human beings, it must surely be, “You may be free from the constraints of your identities”.’
The Commission acknowledges that heterosexual relations also ‘fall short’ of the ideal but I bet there will be many sermons about homosexuality and few about heterosexuality. Evangelicals are proud of the percentage of young people in their pews but less forthcoming about the number who cohabit.
The Achilles’ heel in the ‘Issues’ report was the differentiation of clergy and laity. Laity who could, in conscience’ enter gay relationships had some acceptance whereas clergy were expected to live by a ‘higher standard’. Liberals had predicted that there would be the same standard for all, i.e. both clergy and laity could enter such relationships. I predicted the opposite – that laity would be expected to live by the same ‘high standard’ as the clergy.
Neither of these predictions has come true. However, clergy mustn’t frighten the horses. They must be accessible. How accessible are they to gay people? Must they be accessible to racists but not be free to marry someone of a different ethnicity?
At least we are promised no heresy hunts.
The Bishop of Birkenhead, from whom we hear too much, points out the inconsistency of saying that gay relationships are, basically, wrong and then suggesting that they may be blessed. Well, some bless battleships. He wants to ‘set out the whole attractive biblical vision for the ordering of human relationships.’(Attractive? Not to gays it isn’t. It’s toxic)
Why is homosexuality such a big issue? Aren’t there more pressing issues of doctrine? Not according to the former Bishop of Durham, N T Wright, who argues that the authority of scripture is a first-order issue.
The only breath of fresh air in this report is a paper by David Runcorn (from an evangelical background but whose views have been modified by his experienced as a spiritual director and who has also written about desire in a much more engaging way than that in the prologue to this report). He talks of ‘this demanding and holy vocation and to be human and sexual. ‘God has created you a sexual being… God is at the heart of your striving, still creating you, always pursuing, luring, drawing, never letting go… Whatever your unique mix and measure of sexuality, be very glad: to be a human sexual is fundamental and ordinary and exceptional.’
The report concludes that there should be facilitated conversations at national and diocesan level. Lambeth also called for conversations but these have rarely happened, despite the claims of this commission.
How representative was the membership of this commission? Jonathan Fulham was a flying bishop from Forward in Faith.
+Michael Gloucester trained at a liberal college and is best known as a liturgist
Joe Pilling (Chair) is a former Permanent Secretary of the Northern Ireland Office and chaired the group that produced the report on senior church appointments, Talent and Calling, published in 2007. He claimed that he would be neutral, whatever his personal views.
Robert Song is professor of theology at Durham. He has written in appreciation of Oliver O’ Donovan (who has consistently written against gays) so I suppose that makes him an evangelical sympathiser.
Rachel Treweek, a former speech therapist, is Archdeacon of Hackney. Prior to that, she was vicar of a church whose website never once mentions the Eucharist, by any of its names, but simply advertises one ‘service’ per week. It would seem to be ‘open evangelical’. Her previous church only had Holy Communion fortnightly
+John Warwick went to Queens Birmingham – low to middle of the road and ecumenical.
+Keith Birkenhead is one of the patrons of the True Freedom Trust (affiliated to the Evangelical Alliance and the Association of Christian Counsellors, which believes in client autonomy but which has Glynn Harrison on its book list). TFT seeks to help Christians who are ‘struggling with same-sex attraction’ to remain celibate.
So they are all male except for one and I presume they are all straight and married. Three are or seem to be evangelical, one trad. Anglo-catholic, two might be (or were) liberal. It seems to me to be heavily weighted towards the traditionalists.