This is the second of a series of blog posts on the Pilling Report. The first post looked at Jessica Martin’s prologue and the first section of Part 1, The Introduction. In this post I comment on the second of the five sections of the Introduction:
A rapidly changing context
This is a curious section. The quotation from Archbishop Justin, with which it begins, and the text (paragraph 41) both acknowledge that the bishops lost the argument in Parliament, but it nowhere mentions that the government listened and ‘heard’ the ‘Church of England’s’ opposition to same-sex marriage, granting to it and, to other religious bodies, the ‘protection’ of the quadruple locks which will make it illegal for CofE clergy to conduct same-sex marriages.
The equal marriage legislation, which will come into force in the spring is the context in which the Church of England will hold its facilitated conversations on human sexuality, but same sex marriage was not in the working party’s terms of reference, so the report chooses only to note the fact that it is happening, but does so in odd ways.
For example, it says (paragraph 40) that the Church of England’s submission on same sex marriage is itself an important document among recent church papers relating to sexuality, emphasising that it was discussed in draft by the Archbishops’ Council and the House of Bishops before being signed off by the two Archbishops. Yet it is apparent, from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks, quoted at the head of the section, that the ‘defeat’ of that position in Parliament has led him to believe that ‘there is a revolution in the area of sexuality and we have not fully heard it.’ Likewise, the report itself acknowledges that ‘many people in the Church … now want to think again.’ Similarly, given that their arguments did not convince the majority of Peers, it is not at all obvious why ‘the speeches of bishops in the Lords [on the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill] constitute part of the evidence before us’.
One can’t help feeling that an attempt is being made to justify the status quo in the Church of England. For example, this observation arising from the fact that the working group was meeting at the same time as the parliamentary progress of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill:
‘It has demonstrated, if proof were needed, that difficulty in holding a reasoned debate about questions of sexuality is not confined to the Churches.’ (paragraph 43)
Well, most of the people I know who watched the Parliamentary debate on television were immensely impressed with its quality. There is also the really significant point that Parliament has debated the matter, but the Church of England has not, and the sentence that follows may reveal why:
‘In Parliament, in the media, and in many other forums, finding common ground has been elusive. It has often felt like a collision between incompatible world views, even without factoring in any religious dimension.’ (paragraph 43)
‘Finding common ground’ is a desirable goal, but in Parliament the primary aim was to thoroughly debate the issue, and establish a practical way forward based on the decision of the majority – which is how the General Synod tends to operate, albeit that reaching consensus is often given a higher priority than in party politics. The fear of ‘a collision between incompatible world views’ is a real one in the Church of England, and the report itself, with its Dissenting Statement by the Bishop of Birkenhead, demonstrates that. It is no surprise that GAFCON & FOCA are mentioned in this section as having contributed to a changed dynamic.
The report is honest in saying that there is an impression that ‘the Church itself often looks as if it wants to restrict debate’ (paragraph 45). That’s hardly surprising. There has been no Synod debate on the possibility of civil partnerships in church, even though some parishes have been keen to proceed. Indeed, that discussion was delayed so long that it has been overtaken by events, and equal marriage is now on the statute book.
It also notes (paragraph 45) that religious interventions are suspected of imposing revealed knowledge and authoritative teaching on others; which is also unsurprising given that the Church of England has achieved such extensive ‘protection’ within the equal marriage legislation that even those clergy who wish to officiate at the marriage of same-sex couples on church premises will be unable to do so.
Twice in this section we are told what amounts to the same thing:
‘many others [in the Church] who would locate their views at the liberal end of the spectrum on same sex issues found themselves opposed to the proposals for same sex marriage, mainly on the grounds that they represented a confused understanding of equality and could be prejudicial to the meaning of marriage in society in general.’ (paragraph 41)
‘The debate on same sex marriage saw many liberally-minded Christians expressing reservations and opposition to the Government’s proposals and to the public position of many prominent LGBT activists (in the Church and beyond).’ (paragraph 49).
No examples or statistics are provided to support this claim. Is it meant to suggest that the Church of England is likely to be more divided on the issue of same sex marriage than Parliament was? Surveys do not seem to bear that out, but there is no mention of them.
Given its remit, the working party decided to focus on the ‘wider theological and ethical questions’ rather than the specifics of same-sex marriage. The notion that theology and ethics can be ‘detached’ from concrete situations in this manner is a doubtful one, and particularly inappropriate in relation to human sexuality where experience forms an important basis for theological reflection.
In reviewing recent Church of England tradition, the report acknowledges the leading role played by Archbishop Michael Ramsey in homosexual law reform, and how the Church’s outlook appears to have narrowed in the past few years in comparison. On the other hand, it recognises that some Evangelicals have been moving in a more affirming direction – and here it could have mentioned the change of direction by Courage and recent statements from Steve Chalk. There is the briefest mention of the significance of the advance of human rights for homosexual people, almost the only one in the report. The right to marry and to family life has become an increasingly important one for LGB&T people, but the report has chosen not engage with it.
At this point, the difficulties are piled up:
‘although positions remain entrenched, there is movement …. [but] Despite these signs of movement, the depth of disagreement within the Churches has made it impossible for the issue to be resolved. There remains much pain on all sides.’ (paragraphs 50 & 51)
This ignores the fact that the matter has been, or is being, resolved in other Provinces of the Communion, notably in North America. This too is a revealing sentence:
‘It has become harder to occupy the middle ground of uncertainty and tentatively seeking after truth.’ (paragraph 51)
Perhaps that’s because we have reached the crisis moment when decisions need to be made, and the next paragraph hints at that, noting it was ‘the unresolved nature of the issue’ that led to the formation of GAFCON and FOCA.
The section ends by questioning the idea that ‘the prevailing culture has “got it right”’ (paragraph 53) about sexuality and homosexuality, noting that ‘attitudes which, a few decades ago, seemed liberating have sometimes been revealed as having a dark and oppressive side which has shocked many.’ It’s hard to engage with a statement like that without more specific information about what is being described. As it stands, it sounds like the fear – which emerged previously in relation to civil partnerships, and that proved unfounded in that case – that equal marriage will have dire social consequences.
Paragraph 53 has some special pleading for the value of the ‘honesty’ of the Church’s internal arguments about sexuality, and the following statement applies just as much to those who are intimidated by the apparent consensus of the Church of England’s official position on human sexuality, as it does to those who are unconvinced by the rapidly changing social context – perhaps this was intended:
‘Sometimes, apparent social consensuses can themselves be excluding, making it hard for people publicly to express doubts, hesitations and disagreements.’