The Pilling Report: A detailed look – No 1: Talking about same sex relationships in isolation

The Report of the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality, chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling, was published on November 28th 2013.

This is the first of what I hope will be a series of reflections on the Pilling Report.

Jessica Martin’s prologue ‘Living with holiness and desire’ surveys certain features of the contemporary context and offers a theological perspective on human relationships. It laments the commercialisation and idolization of sexual desire, and a commodified culture of instant gratification which impacts negatively on the vulnerable, especially children. Yet it is also hopeful, acknowledging the persistence of fidelity, despite this hostile climate, and the holiness of human relationships. The tone is both realistic and, in the proper sense, idealistic, thus making it a fitting preliminary to the main report, and not least because what it outlines applies to everyone, heterosexual and homosexual. This is made very clear (emphases mine):

Is this a set of circumstances into which an Anglican bishops’ ’Working Group on human sexuality‘, born out of a very specific set of anxieties about same sex relationships, can offer much? In looking at this one aspect of human sexuality we have discerned two basics. First, that we cannot talk about same sex relationships in isolation. Culturally the whole issue is being made to bear more freight than it can or should possibly carry. Second, that we cannot say anything about human sexuality without speaking first of our sense of the body and bodily relationships as holy. Christianity is incarnational: God and body come together in Christ. Anything Christians might think about same sex relationships (especially as we have not discerned how to speak with a single voice on this topic) has no value except as part of this larger vision of all our human relationships; and for this reason the vision itself comes first, before we ever start talking about single-issue specifics.’

Sadly, these two ‘basic’ starting points are lost sight of in the rest of the report, and it will be important to return to them and ‘measure’ the report against them.

The Introduction, which follows, sets out the membership and terms of reference for the working group, along with a brief history of the listening process on human sexuality in the Church of England (paragraphs 18-23) and the listening exercise undertaken by the working group (24-38). After a series of ‘evidence days’, when the group engaged with representatives from some of the organisations which had prepared submissions, there were also meetings across the country so that they could simply hear people’s stories. The report describes the latter constituency thus:

The design team did not include any who had presented to our group’s meetings – they were not chosen from among the lobby groups – and represented a diversity of people, lay and ordained.

One can understand that the working party wished to ‘get behind the arguments’ – especially as these can often appear irreconcilable – by meeting with people who were not activists, but whose lives are affected by the issues. There is an attempt at fairness here as if they are saying: ‘we not only spoke to the lobbying groups but to “ordinary people”’. I think it was a mistake, though, not to consult with the lobby groups about this, as these organisations, though fronted by well-known activists, are also in touch with hundreds of ‘ordinary folk’.

Nevertheless, it is apparent from the summary – ten bullet points – of these informal meetings (paragraph 30), that the people the working party met with were fairly representative of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, lay and ordained and it is good to see the ‘evidence’ presented at this point. However, as with Jessica Martin’s ‘two basics’, from a practical theology perspective, one would expect the issues raised here to be prioritised in the report. Some of them are discussed later, of course, but these ten bullet points constitute an important marker or indicator of the report’s credibility with LGB&T people. How far has it addressed them? This is a subject I will return to in later posts.

One striking omission at this stage in the report is that there is no corresponding summary of the submissions made by the ‘lobbying groups’, nor from the individuals listed at the end of the document. Even if the working group had reservations about these submissions, or decided to reject them, it would have been courteous, as part of a listening exercise, to acknowledge what had been said via this formal process, and why the working party chose to adopt a different approach.

This point is especially pertinent in relation to the submission from the Sibyls, Christian spirituality for trans people, which had noted that, although trans people are mainly concerned with gender identity, rather than sexual orientation, gender, sexuality, and spirituality are inextricably linked, and went on to highlight the predicament of married transsexual people who, at that time, prior to the passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, could only obtain gender recognition by dissolving their marriage. This anomaly is a concrete, and highly emotive, example of the interface between gender and sexuality as it affects trans people, but the working party chose not to address this, nor indeed, trans people’s needs at all:

This report focuses on questions concerning same sex relationships. However, the group believes that the experiences of those with transgender and intersex conditions raise important theological and pastoral issues. Some of these issues were outlined in chapter 7 of the 2003 House of Bishops report “Some Issues in Human Sexuality” and the Church of England needs to address them‘. (paragraph 38)

As the report does not engage with the arguments of the Sibyls’ submission as to why it was important to include trans people in the remit of the working party, one must assume that the decision was taken on the basis of the working party’s meeting with transgender people, which it summaries thus:

The issues raised by the transgendered people we encountered were not primarily about sexuality as such, but about feelings of shame and exclusion in relation to gender.’

Rachel Mann, who is one of the trans people – and one wonders how many others there were – the working party met with, has written that this is not how she remembers the conversation that she took part in

This is worrying: for if that is true of one person’s experience of the listening process undertaken by the working group, then perhaps it is true of others too, and that either they were misheard, or what they said has been misunderstood or is poorly reported. Whatever the reason it does not inspire confidence in a document that is dedicated to a review of the listening process on human sexuality.

There’s another difficulty here, which the report acknowledges (paragraph 72), namely that of power, especially the power of the institutional church. Apparently,

Everyone from the Working Group felt that the listening exercise that it had engaged in was extremely worthwhile. They felt moved and privileged to listen to the stories that were shared with them on the listening days. ‘  (paragraph 31)

and again,

A number of members of the Working Group noted that they had been impressed by the quality of the relationships of the people they had met during the exercise and felt that this needed to be taken into account in any theological reflection on such relationships.’ (paragraph 33)

Yes, one would hope that theological reflection would be based on experience, but comments of this kind can sound patronising because the conversation was one-sided; it was ‘us’, members of the working group, listening to ‘them’, LGB&T people, which, of course, is how the listening process was set up. Lambeth 1.10 committed the Church to ‘listen to the experience of homosexual persons’. (It also assured them that they are ‘loved by God, and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the body of Christ’.)

It’s clear from this initial listening exercise that the working group did not appreciate the implications of Jessica Martin’s ‘two basics’, namely that the conversation about human sexuality in the Church of England can no longer be about ‘us’ and ‘them’, but has to be reciprocal. In my experience, LGB&T Christian people are used to telling their stories, in safe settings, but there is no safety where one group of people makes itself vulnerable by speaking honestly about themselves, while another group merely listens on. The time has come for the Church of England to facilitate a really grown up conversation about sexuality, and more importantly perhaps, human intimacy.

To be continued.






  1. says

    There is some validity to saying that ‘the conversation about sexuality can no longer be about ‘us’ and ‘them”.

    To quote the Anglican Communion website on the Listening Process: ‘Listening is sometimes feared as a potential tool for forcing the listener to change their mind. However, the object of listening is not to have one’s mind changed, but to hear the joys as well as the struggles of following Christ as a gay or lesbian person.

    Listening is about hearing the struggles of individuals as they seek to follow Christ and this will change our hearts and how we speak. Listening is about seeking to understand the way the speaker understands the Bible, tradition and reason.

    Listening is about hearing the experience of parents, children and friends of lesbian and gay people.’ It humanises the debate to show how sincere and earnest Christians can come to vastly differing conclusions in matters of sexuality. Our over-simplified answers fall away as the gospel forces us to roll up our sleeves, kneel down and wash each others’ feet.

    Even St. Paul, on the matter of Moses’ Law, could testify of his fellow Jews that they had a ‘zeal of Gôd’, even though it was not in accordance with the full apostolic revelation.

    Unfortunately, the debate has become so polarised as to demonise all who dare challenge either traditional or liberal orthodoxy.

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