The Pilling Report Reviewed No 9: Trying to fill the theological gap

I’ve reached the final section of ‘Summarizing the Evidence’, Part 2 of the Pilling Report which is entitled

Perspectives from two theologians

We are told that the presentations to the working party by Father Timothy Radcliffe OP and Professor Oliver O’Donovan made a deep impression and the papers they wrote are quoted in this section. They are best described as opinion pieces, and unusually for this Report, the two contributions are not presented as irreconcilably opposed to each other; in fact there is a certain measure of agreement between them.

They are included here because the authors of the Report know that it lacks a theological framework, and they explain their reluctance to attempt one at paragraph 255:

Given the lack of theological common ground in the existing literature, among our many respondents, and in our own group, the first approach [a synthesis of what has appeared earlier in the Report] is likely to be banal and the second [articulating our own view] to (mis)use theology to attempt foreclosure on the wider arguments.’

Actually, as the authors acknowledge, a theological synthesis to underpin their recommendations is exactly what the Report needs at this point. Their reasons for not providing it do not hold up. Yes, there is much evidence of argument and disagreement in what they have reported so far, but that does mean that consensus is completely lacking or impossible, albeit a minority might oppose it. This is, after all, the current position with regard to women bishops in the Church of England. Nor would it have ‘foreclosed’ arguments had the working party decided to develop a theological understanding of its own on the basis of its research: it would have demonstrated commitment and, perhaps, provided a way forward. Having decided not to do this, Father Radcliffe and Professor O’Donovan were chosen to fill the gap.

Timothy Radcliffe

There is something hugely refreshing about Father Radcliffe’s belief, ‘that for most of the Church’s history, sexual conduct has neither been a major concern nor understood primarily in terms of rules. … my suspicion is that both this obsession with sex and a stress on rules (are) both relatively late and alien to traditional Christianity’ (paragraph 257). This tends to confirm my own conviction that although the Church of England’s teaching on sexuality is often referred to as being ‘traditional’, it is actually relatively modern.

Also refreshing is Father Radcliffe’s emphasis on embodiment and vulnerability in his Eucharistic sexual ethic (paragraphs 258-260), and likewise, to some extent, his insight into macho culture:

‘“Wounded male pride cannot bear to show vulnerability.… Until recently, homosexuality was seen as effeminacy and so buried and hidden. This sometimes led to concealment and dishonesty.”’ (Paragraph 261)

It would be interesting to know what was said in the missing text. The middle sentence highlights an interface between sexuality and gender, though the impression is of homosexuality as a peculiarly male ‘problem’; or, perhaps, that problematizing homosexuality is itself an aspect of masculinity.

His way of framing the issue is also welcome:

How does all this bear on the question of gay sexuality? We cannot begin with the question of whether it is permitted or forbidden!

Instead, the measure is to be his Eucharistic sexual ethic:

We must ask what it means, and how far it is Eucharistic. Certainly it can be generous, vulnerable, tender, mutual and non-violent. So in many ways I think it can be expressive of Christ’s self-gift.’

However, this hopeful perspective is suddenly narrowed by the concepts of fecundity and fertility. Father Radcliffe appreciates that fertility can be understood metaphorically, and platonically, ‘Biological fertility is inseparable from the fertility of our mutual tenderness and compassion. And so that might seem to remove one objection to gay marriage (paragraph 267)’, but then he continues:

‘I am not entirely convinced, since it seems to me that our tradition is incarnational, the word becoming bodily flesh. And some heterosexual relationships may be accidentally infertile in this sense, but homosexual ones are intrinsically so.’

As presented here then, ‘the marriage equals procreation’ paradigm trumps the theological exploration that has preceded it, though it is unclear whether the comments about the ‘proposed legislation for “gay marriage”’ at paragraph 268 are those of Father Radcliffe or the authors, but the impression is one of opposition to the current proposals. Given that the second theologian is Professor O’Donovan, whose views on homosexuality and transsexualism are known to be conservative, one must question the authors’ statement that

we have sought to engage with theologians who have interesting new things to say and who are not readily co-opted to support any one position within the church’s current disputes.’ (Paragraph 256)

Oliver O’Donovan

This subsection opens (paragraph 270) by noting that ‘Professor O’Donovan began by reminding us of the Socratic wisdom of ‘knowing how much we do not know.’ The irony here is that, unlike the working party, attraction between people of the same sex was a subject that Socrates knew extremely well, from his own, albeit well-managed, experience. The paragraph continues that Professor O’Donovan

recognized that “certainties about the sexual phenomena of our time are few” but he believed that some of the phenomena are new: “The human race has often seen homosexual behaviour before, in a variety of contexts; but it has not seen anything like this construction of it, with these sensibilities and aspirations.”’

So in this ‘this is not that’ debate, discussed in the previous section (paragraph 244), O’Donovan does not regard modern homosexuality as the same phenomenon as same sex attraction and behaviours in the ancient world. There is consensus about this. Many scholars believe that the rise of a modern sexual identity did not begin until the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century. In the ancient world, certainly, and well beyond – Shakespeare for example – same-sex attraction and behaviour was a possibility for men, many of whom, like Socrates, were also married, and did not entail the stigma that it does today. Indeed, in the Socratic/Platonic tradition it is, when restrained by appropriate asceticism, the gateway to eternal beauty and love.

However, I think O’Donovan is mistaken in his claim that the modern construction of homosexuality is totally new: the work of James Boswell, and more recently, Alan Bray, demonstrates otherwise. Indeed, Bray’s The Friend, shows that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries middle class English men and women entered into marriage-like relationships that were publicly acknowledged.

In any case, many gay and lesbian couples in our generation and preceding ones have lived for decades as if married, so there is no need to worry about whether marriage is a ‘plausible analogy’ (paragraph 271): the new legislation will simply allow them to regularise the reality of their situation, as civil partnerships have already done to some degree. Nor will ‘several generations’ be needed for observation, as if this were some strange novelty; one need only get to know some of these faithful couples.

Next we are introduced – or, for those who are familiar with the document Men and women in marriage published last year – reacquainted, with the notion of ‘pastoral accommodation’: ‘a response to some urgent presenting needs, without ultimate dogmatic implications’, which will enable the Report to sanction blessings for same sex couples by those clergy and parishes that wish to do so. The professor’s analogy here (paragraph 276) is an unfortunate, and potentially offensive one: a prayer following abortion turned down by General Synod lest it appear to invoke God’s blessing on abortion, even though the prayer itself acknowledged the sorrow that a life was taken. The reality is that some clergy and chaplains in that situation have to turn to other resources (Human Rites for example), as they do in order to celebrate the love of a lesbian or gay couple in the absence of anything from the Church of England. The Report is not proposing the issuing of authorised texts for the latter in order to avoid potential doctrinal consequences, and thus sunders the pastoral and the doctrinal in what seems a most un-Anglican manner.

O’Donovan’s ‘reservations about the concept of identity’ (paragraph 276) apply to everyone of course, and his ‘conclusion’, which advocates a provisional, pragmatic approach prepares us for the remaining recommendations which emerge later in Part 3, ‘Reflecting on the Evidence’ and which I will start to look at soon.

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