Probing at the Pilling Report – No 3: Listening, conflict & consensus

We’ve now reached the third section of the Introduction to the Pilling Report:

Listening to each other and continuing to do so

The House of Bishops Working Group was tasked to review the listening process on human sexuality, but this section of the report is somewhat self-referential. There’s nothing wrong with that per se. The group have had to learn to listen to one another, and that has frequently been challenging (paragraph 55). At paragraph 56 we are told

The episcopal members of the Working Group were chosen deliberately to reflect the range of views held within the Church of England on a topic which has proved deeply resistant to any form of compromise … In many respects, our disagreements as a group are as deep as ever they were, and this is true of the wider Church also.’

It’s worth noting that there were only four Episcopal members and, whatever the differences between them, three signed up to the main recommendations; only one dissented. That means there was 75% agreement – an extremely respectable majority: more than the two-thirds needed in the three Houses of General Synod for the Women Bishops’ legislation to pass.

The four bishops are said to reflect a range of views (on sexuality/homosexuality?) in the Church of England, but if they represent the balance of those views in the House and College of Bishops, and in the Church of England at large, then with such substantial consensus, the measure of disagreement may not be especially significant.

Paragraph 57 is a crucial admission:

It is worth, at this stage, setting out the nub of the disagreement – the sticking point, as we understand it, which has prevented us from coming closer as a result of our deliberations. It turns, as has the Church’s ongoing disagreement on questions of sexuality, on the meaning and authority of Scripture.’

Whether homosexuality is a discrete issue, or merely a ‘presenting problem’, related to the wider question of biblical interpretation, has been debated for some time. Here the Pilling Report seems to suggest that it is the latter: in which case the logical response would be to try to resolve the underlying matter of Biblical authority. Indeed, if that is the fundamental issue, it is unfair to lesbian and gay people to attempt to ask them to bear the pain of this unresolved tension at the heart of the Church’s life.

That this is what is going on is confirmed at paragraph 59:

To endorse the idea that the Church’s understanding of the meaning of Scripture might change, seems, to some in the Church and on our Working Group, to be tantamount to denying that Scripture is authoritative to the Church and to open the door to relativistic readings of all scriptures.’

Yet the Church’s understanding of the meaning of Scripture has changed – again and again: on cosmology, on the nature of faith, the person and work of Christ, slavery, the place of women. Such changes have been commonplace throughout the long history of the Christian Church. They may well have undermined certain literalistic readings of Scripture, but have usually served to reinforce the Bible’s authority, and it is unfair to suggest that they have led inevitably to relativism.

According to paragraph 62:

A belief that the Spirit is calling the Church to change is not, in itself, a reason to change if the mind of the Church is divided.’

But the Church is frequently divided. It rarely demonstrates unanimity on any issue. Change often happens though, whether we are ready for it or not, if the Spirit is leading.

The Report states that Christian leaders, especially bishops, have the duty of teaching and resolving disputed interpretations of Scripture, but then shies away from that lest it ‘divide the Church irrevocably.’ (Paragraph 63) This is very troubling: as if truth were to be avoided lest we all fall out. It is at this point that the Report becomes self-referential:

As a group, we continue to seek the presence of Christ in one another. In the end, we are not prepared to say that our deeply held views render any of us un-Christian or put any of us outwith the Church of Christ. We commend to the wider Church a version of the process which we have found ourselves undergoing – attentive listening to brothers and sisters in Christ whose understanding of God’s demands and our responses is very different from our own.’ (Paragraph 65)

This process was evidently very meaningful for the working party, but it was mainly about hearing and understanding divergent ideas and interpretations, and that is said to be true more generally:

wherever we have turned – whether to Scripture, theology, science, or social trends – we have encountered divided views, sincerely and prayerfully held. … At many points, we have found that divisions are becoming more entrenched.’ (Paragraphs 68 & 69)

This impression of equal and highly polarised positions may be just that: an impression rather than the reality. Achieving consensus may be easier than the Report suggests: at paragraph 70 it seems to confuse consensus with unanimity.

Acknowledging that gay and lesbian people have felt marginalised (paragraph 73) and unheard by the Church, and the fact of the Church’s power, paragraph 72 states the Church must continue to listen to the theology and experience of lesbian and gay people. The group were also unanimous in their welcome to the presence and ministry within the Church of lesbian and gay people, lay and ordained (paragraph 73). Paragraph 76 is helpful too as a corrective to the dismissal of LGB&T identities in Christian contexts:

Theologically, we recognize that, for Christians, their most fundamental identity is in Christ. But that does not mean that all the other identities which people bring to Christ are marginal or unimportant.

Paragraph 77, on the other hand, seems to project the group’s experience of trying to harmonise theological divisions on to the Church’s listening process about sexuality:

We believe that, notwithstanding the continued ‘outsider’ status felt by many gay and lesbian people in the Church, some (perhaps many) are confident enough in their theology and relationships, and in their new-found position of affirmation in society, for us to propose that they too might listen carefully and prayerfully to those who hold firmly to the Church’s traditional teaching.

No, what is needed is for everyone to begin to speak honestly about themselves, and the grace of God in sexuality and relationships, rather than the trading of familiar theological arguments. Paragraph 78 is honest in admitting that the polarised, two-fold typology it has presented so far is simplistic, but the second recommendation at paragraph 83 still goes on to talk about ‘deeply entrenched views [about sexuality] on both sides’ (my emphasis).

We are told at paragraph 76 that ‘care with words should, we believe, continue as part of the basis for the proposed process of continued listening.’ What then are we to make of a passage like this?

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 a case for change which all of us can accept.

Malleable is an unusual word to use in this context, as if the Church of England’s teaching about homosexuality was somehow inflexible – which is how many perceive it. Surely, the rigorous testing of that teaching against Scripture and experience is primarily the responsibility of lesbian and gay people, given that it impacts directly on them? The notion of ‘demonstrating’ a case for change is also worth unpacking: what might a convincing demonstration actually look like?

There is a perception that for too long the legitimate needs of LGB&T people in the Church have been ‘sacrificed’ for the sake of holding the Anglican Communion together. The facilitated conversations appear to reinforce this by their focus on resolving internal church politics, rather than addressing the effects of current teaching on lesbian and gay people. For example, paragraph 82 notes that ‘the impact of this issue on the unity of the Church suggests that it is far from being a marginal matter.’ The conversations also look like a delaying tactic. The Report denies this:

Any implication that a process of facilitated conversation is the equivalent of kicking the issues into the long grass and therefore need not be pursued with a sense of urgency, is to be resisted.

Perhaps; but kicking things into the long grass is certainly what it feels like.

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