Ploughing through the Pilling Report – No 6: Statistics and the Church’s homophobia

I’m continuing to plough – slowly – through the Pilling Report, and pick up here at the second section of Part 2, ‘Summarizing the Evidence’, which is entitled

Sexuality and social trends

It begins with the incidence of homosexuality in the UK. If I were researching this topic I think I would probably start with the Stonewall website. However, the working party chose 2012 data from an Office of National Statistics survey which suggests that 1.5% of the adult population self-identify as lesbian or gay, (4.5% cannot be categorised from the survey results), though it concedes that it this is inevitably only a snap-shot. The Stonewall website, by contrast, recognises that many studies underestimate the figures of lesbian and gay people, due to the legacy of criminalisation and discrimination, but that government actuaries estimate that 6% of the UK population are lesbian, gay or bisexual, approximately 3.6 million people. The figures are startling different, and because of the way the Report is constructed there is little discussion of the implication of the data – that will come much later in the third part, ‘Reflecting on the Evidence.’

This section moves swiftly on to consider whether ‘attitudes to homosexuality among Christians are wildly out of step with the rest of society’ and whether ‘the official teaching of the Churches is often at odds with the beliefs of their members (paragraph 154).’ Many of the surveys and statistics included here have been widely disseminated, and some of the information is uncomfortable for the Church of England. For example, the YouGov poll of 2012 shows ‘55% of 18–24 year olds believing that language used to argue against same sex marriage encouraged homophobia (paragraph 156)’, and that the number of Anglicans opposed to sexual relations between adults of the same sex almost halved between 1983 and 2010 (paragraph 157).

Troublingly, but not surprisingly, ‘Those who attend services regularly are more likely to oppose same sex marriage and more likely to reject any legal recognition for same sex couples (158)’, while the Crockett & Voas study, which is ten years old, noted ‘a large, and growing, gap between the views of older and younger people, and … between women and men (paragraph 161).’

The section ends with a brief conclusion, but there is no thought as to its implications at this point: ‘we seem to be witnessing, over the last three decades, very rapid changes toward the inclusion and acceptance of homosexuality and homosexual people. The Churches are not immune from this trend (paragraph 173).’

Homophobia

This section opens with a quotation from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Presidential Address to General Synod of July last year, which shows that he understands that there is a strong impression that the Church of England’s position, if not actually homophobic, certainly looks like that to other people. I have ambivalent feelings, however, about this section of the Report. There is some careful work of definition, and the distinction between institutional homophobia, internalised homophobia and social homophobia is useful, but as the document admits:

‘Our group is well aware that the way we are constituted precludes us, in some people’s eyes, from having any part in defining a term like homophobia since it is not a phenomenon which any of us have directly experienced at the receiving end.’

Quite; and the question has to be asked how a working group on homosexuality could be convened that did not include a single homosexual person. As has been said repeatedly since the Report’s publication – this must be the last time this happens: ‘no more talking about us without us!’ It is all very well to claim ‘that this working group, and the Church in its official and episcopal statements, makes a firm distinction between open debate on matters of personal and public ethics and hatred or bullying directed at gay and lesbian people whether by individuals or institutions (paragraph 186).’ By their own admission, group members are in no position to know personally how these statements are received by lesbian and gay people. Changing Attitude, England has evidence that the Church’s teaching is being applied in the most oppressive manner on the ground in some parishes; like the lesbian couple who were told that their child could only be baptised if they separated first.

Again, if I were researching homophobia I think I might have begun by consulting expert witnesses, like Stonewall. I would certainly have included at this point ‘the voices’ mentioned in the Report’s Introduction at paragraph 30, and a brief summary is given at paragraph 184.

There is almost, but not quite, an admission that the Church might have ‘exacerbated the reality and the threat of homophobia in society’, and ‘in so far as’ this is so, a call to repentance. The Report also commends the Communion-wide ‘Don’t Throw Stones’ initiative (paragraphs 189-191), and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s commitment to combat homophobic bullying in schools is noted (paragraph 192), along with the National Society’s initiative to help teachers and governors ‘offer a safe environment for gay and lesbian pupils’, though, rather chillingly, we are told, ‘whilst also recognizing the teaching of the Church on homosexuality and marriage.’ What we need to hear is how safe young LGB&T pupils actually feel when presented with the Church’s current teaching on these subjects.

The main omission from this section of the Report is any consideration that the Church of England could be, or is, as many LGB&T people believe it to be, institutionally homophobic. It would be very easy for the Church of England, with its links to government, to instigate an independent review to establish whether or not this is the case. There is, for instance, no comparison between the implementation of equal opportunities for LGB&T personnel in the armed services or the police in the United Kingdom, and the experience of LGB&T clergy in the Church of England, with is exemptions from UK equality legislation and the continuing requirement of clerical celibacy for clergy in same sex relationships.

What too of transphobia? The Report has nothing to say about that because it has decided not to consider the needs of transgender people, but homophobic and transphobic hate crime are closely linked. Very often it is gender variant behaviour rather than anything overtly sexual that attracts bullying and violence, which is another reason why trans voices also need to be heard in the forthcoming facilitated conversations.

 

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