Picking over the Pilling Report – No 4: Continuing conversations and current teaching

I hoped to be briefer in reviewing the last two sections of the Introduction to the Pilling Report, but there has been plenty to pick over here.

The obligations of belonging to the Anglican Communion

Having been encouraged, in the previous section, to listen to one another, and to engage in a facilitated conversation about human sexuality, this section implies that the outcomes of that process are likely to be constrained by the role of the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury within the Anglican Communion.

It illustrates this, at paragraph 90, by quoting Archbishop Robert Runcie’s Presidential Address at the 1980 Lambeth Conference, when it notes, without irony, that there were ‘tensions in the Communion over the ordination of women to the episcopate’. As we are only too well aware, those tensions remain unresolved in the Church of England, while many other Provinces of the Communion have had women bishops for some time.

Moreover, in this Address, Archbishop Runcie argued that ‘the real issue facing the Communion was not conflict over the ordination of women as such, but the bigger issue of the relation of independent provinces to each other.’ This reinforces the point that sexuality is just the latest of several presenting issues indicative of an underlying problem. As this section indicates, the longed for interdependence of Provinces within the Anglican Communion has remained elusive. That being the case, it is unjust to make the conversation about human sexuality in the Church of England the test case for resolving the much larger, and long-standing, issue of the relationship between ‘local’ church autonomy and the identity and integrity of the wider Communion.

‘Continuing conversations with the churches of the Communion’ and ‘ecumenical partners’ are worthy goals, and even as I wrote this post, the Anglican Church of Canada announced a Commission which is to consult about changing the Church’s marriage canon to allow same-sex marriage; and it’s Roman Catholic partners are, as one might expect, keen to comment.



Nevertheless, the principle of consultation is often inconsistently applied and, as the example of women bishops shows, it is only when Provinces have acted decisively, in the teeth of objections from other Provinces, that the opportunity has been created to learn from their experience as innovations have been tried and tested. Inhibiting change in the interests of unity, if strictly enforced, means there can be no experiment, and with no experience to draw on, no possibility of discerning the value or appropriateness of change.


The current teaching of the Church of England

What is striking about this teaching is just how recent it is. First to be mentioned is the 1987 General Synod motion on ‘personal morality’, which was an amended version of a Private Members Motion (PPM) tabled by the Revd Tony Higton. Many people signed that PPM so that the Synod could have two separate debates, one on its ministry to people with AIDS, the other on human sexuality. This was helpful in ensuring a compassionate discussion of the crisis posed by the HIV virus, but its unintended effect was an ill-prepared debate about homosexuality, and at a time when most gay members of Synod were too frightened to support the Revd Malcolm’s sane, humane, and Christian alternative motion. Not only that, as the Report concedes:

It is difficult to see how a resolution that is now 26 years old, on a subject that continues to be controversial, can still be said with any certainty to represent the mind of Synod.

Issues in human sexuality (1991), which is mentioned next, is only four years younger, but even though it admitted that it was ‘not the last word on the subject’, that is what it has become, and the Report fails to mention the troubling fact that it is now imposed as a religious ‘test’ to which candidates for ordination (including Episcopal consecration) must submit, even though its claims are contentious, to say the least:

‘“Heterosexuality and homosexuality are not equally congruous with the observed order of creation or with the insights of revelation as the Church engages with these in the light of her pastoral ministry.”’ (Quoted in paragraph 104)

The Report does include the important point, which is often overlooked, that although Issues inhibited clergy from ‘entering into sexually active homophile relationships’, laity for whom this is a conscientious decision ‘must be respected, and … the Church must not “reject those who sincerely believe this is God’s call to them.”’ (Paragraph 105)

Next the Report summarises the Lambeth Conference Resolution 1.10 of 1998, then the Church of England’s teaching on marriage, including the Book of Common Prayer Marriage Service and Canon B30, followed by Marriage: a Teaching Document of 1999, by way of background to the House of Bishops 2005 Pastoral Statement on Civil Partnerships, and the more recent Church of England submission to the government Consultation on same-sex marriage.

All these statements and teaching documents confirm that in recent years the Church of England – and in Lambeth 1.10, the Anglican Communion – has consistently maintained heterosexual marriage as its ‘gold standard’, but their tone varies depending on whether they were the product of considered reflection or a response to a crisis. Marriage: A Teaching Document (1999) is much the best, because its focus is on relationships, whereas the others are reactive and polemical: Lambeth 1.10 being especially notorious in this respect.

The Report’s review of the Church of England’s teaching reveals that it has been less consistent in its treatment of same-sex couples who believe that God has called them to live in union with one another. It is hard to see the genuine respect for their decision and relationship, envisaged in 1991 by Issues in human sexuality, in the statements of 2005 on Civil Partnerships and in 2012 during the government consultation on Same Sex Marriage.

The 2005 statement, itself quoting (at paragraph 115) the 1999 paper, Marriage: A Teaching Document, noted that, ‘the Church of England teaches that “sexual intercourse, as an expression of faithful intimacy, properly belongs within marriage exclusively”’. Intriguingly this statement is gender neutral and would perfectly ‘accommodate’ (to adapt an expression used in the Report) same sex marriage once it begins to happen in the UK, but of course equal marriage was not being contemplated at that date and is not what was envisaged.

Once it started to become a possibility other arguments have had to be found to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples. Gender complementarity is one of these, so in the Church of England’s 2012 response to the government consultation on same sex marriage it says (quoted at paragraph 117) that ‘the uniqueness of marriage – and a further aspect of its virtuous nature – is that it embodies the underlying, objective, distinctiveness of men and women.’ Hence too, the title of the Faith & Order Commission report of 2013, Men and Women in Marriage, which is quoted next (paragraph 118). This simplistic account of gender has been widely critiqued and confirms that gender issues and transgender perspectives should be part of the conversations that flow from the report.

At this point the Report seems to run out of steam, and over the course of four paragraphs simply reiterates the 2005 Statement on Civil Partnerships ending, that it ‘acknowledged that clergy “are fully entitled to argue” for a change in the Church of England’s teaching about human sexuality. However, “they are not entitled to claim the liberty to set it aside simply because of the passage of the Civil Partnerships Act’”.

To continue to argue for change in an institution that seems so resistant to it, certainly calls for stamina! As for freedom of conscience, in the late 1970’s I worked for a vicar – ‘a good vicar’ – who married divorcees when he thought this was appropriate, using a Superintendent’s Licence in lieu of Banns. A liturgical traditionalist devoted to the Book of Common Prayer, he was part of a grassroots parish based movement for change of marital discipline and it was some years later before the Church of England leadership formalised what was happening on the ground. The quadruple locks will prevent clergy from adopting similar independent action in relation to same sex marriage, but there will be much that parishes can do to make couples feel welcome: let blessings abound!




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