Unpacking the Pilling Report – No 5: Evidence & experience

I have now reached Part 2 of the Pilling Report, entitled, Summarizing the Evidence, which I believe rests on a misunderstanding of what constitutes evidence in relation to sexuality, and the conversation about homosexuality in particular. This is not to say that its sections do not include interesting material, but the effect is one of detachment from people’s actual experience, including experience of life in the Church of England. The impression of objectivity and impartiality is often achieved by contrasting views that are rarely interrogated with any rigour, and I will provide examples of this as I analyse these sections of the text in detail.

Sexuality, culture and Christian ethics

This first section repeats and develops some of the themes from Jessica Martin’s prologue to the Report: the commercial and cultural sexualisation of children; sex and power, including sexual abuse; the nature of desire; the commodification of sex. One senses here, and elsewhere in the Report, (though not in Jessica’s prologue) the hint of a suggestion that because the culture is flawed about sex generally, then perhaps it may be flawed in its affirmation of same sex relationships. It is only a hint, but I believe it to be there. For example, after noting that the darker side of 1960s sexual liberation only became evident later on – which ‘the culture’ itself is well aware of:

www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/6615552/Martin-Amis-the-sexual-revolution-killed-my-sister-Sally.html

– it is said (paragraph 128):

To paint the trajectory of social trends concerning human sexuality as an inexorable progression to greater enlightenment is simply misleading. Insisting that the Church should catch up with modern mores and be ‘relevant’ begs many questions.’

The Report’s anxiety, expressed earlier at paragraphs 53 and 63, that the Church might approve a social development that turns out to be misguided is never actually specified, but presumably relates to the legalising of same sex marriage. Yet the Church upholds marriage as the ideal and believes, on the basis of evidence, that it is the best way of supporting couples and family life. Surely, one would expect social benefit rather than social ill by extending it to gay couples? We are told too that ‘the idea of covenantal relationships … is increasingly counter-cultural’ (paragraph 130), in which case it should be no surprise that lesbian and gay people who desire to live in such a relationship would look to the Church for support.

That the Church ‘needs to catch up with the rest of society’ has certainly been part of Changing Attitude, England’s rhetoric, and I know I have used that phrase myself, but that is because we believe that we can see God at work in the culture as well as in the Church; and in the case of human equality, that God may be challenging the Church to live out a truth of the gospel by learning from the respect for difference and diversity that is evident in our culture’s institutions. Here the Report’s failure to engage with the theological implications of the human rights tradition is evident. Moreover, as H Richard Niebuhr’s study Christ and Culture (1951) explained, the relationship between the church and the world can take other forms than the ‘Christ against culture’ motif that seems to haunt this section of the Report.

That the contrast between a respectful, affirming society and an apparently hard-line Church is of growing concern to the leadership of the Church of England is apparent from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s remarks quoted at paragraph 146:

We have seen changes in the idea about sexuality, sexual behaviour, which quite simply [mean that] we have to face the fact that the vast majority of people under 35 think not only that what we are saying is incomprehensible but also think that we are plain wrong and wicked and equate it to racism and other forms of gross and atrocious injustice.’

Were the Church’s current teaching on homosexuality to turn out to have been a necessary counter to an overly permissive culture that would settle the matter in the Church’s favour, but as the Report concedes (paragraph 147): ‘Christians cannot agree whether the current social trends are, broadly, to be affirmed and deepened, or contradicted with a sharply counter-cultural ethic – and, if the latter, which aspects of which culture are to be countered’.

Here again though, the Report would have us floundering in a sea of generality and vagueness when it ought to be specific and focused. At the beginning of this section it is stated, at paragraph 124, that ‘most of our report is, as our remit required, about homosexuality’, yet there is a tendency to talk about everything else but: singleness and celibacy, the role of children in the history of marriage, permanence and fidelity, mission and social change – the list goes on. These topics tend to handled briefly, in a descriptive and episodic manner that is usually inconclusive. For example, much is said about marriage, but little about its history: ours is certainly not the first society to commodify sex by making ‘the commercial contract … the paradigm’ (paragraph 129) for relationships.

In any case, as paragraph 148 acknowledges, most of its observations on these topics ‘are as applicable to heterosexual as to homosexual relationships.’ Why not then a single Christian ethic for both? The final paragraph hesitates to sanction that, on the basis of the uncertainty of reading God’s plan in history, but then says it anyway:

‘The Church stands increasingly apart from the dominant trends in culture when it upholds the virtues of permanence and fidelity in human relationships, and it is remarkable that so many, whatever their sexual orientation, seek to embody those virtues and see the Church as the community that can enable virtue to endure.’

 It is ‘Christ against culture’ again, but this is probably the most hopeful statement I have come across so far in the Report in that it recognises the ‘equality’ between gay and straight couples with regard to permanence and fidelity (as there is in relation to impermanence and infidelity). A later section will undermine that equality, but more of that another day.

 

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