I have now reached Part 3 of the Pilling Report, which is entitled ‘Reflecting on the Evidence, although the first section
Christian ethics – the Anglican tradition
is mainly an account of classic Anglican theological method, which accords primacy to Scripture while recognising that it is also complementary and dialogic with the insights of reason and tradition (paragraphs 282-308). This primacy means that
‘when thinking how to respond to the changes in sexual ethics and practice that have taken place in our society, the Church of England must give highest regard to the teaching of the Scriptures. It further means that it would not be legitimate for the Church of England to require anything in terms of its belief and practice that was obviously contrary to the Scriptures.’ (Paragraph 289)
For those Christians who believe that Scripture is unambiguous in its condemnation of homosexuality that, presumably, is the end of the discussion. The Report, however, expects the three strands to be held together, and after distinguishing between scriptural primacy, and the view, to which it has respectfully listened, that tradition and reason should be subordinated to a single reading of the Bible, it concludes:
‘To make one reading of Scripture definitive in that way would, in effect, make one wing of the Anglican family the sole arbiter of Anglican ethics and bring an end to the conciliar approach which has for so long characterized Anglicanism.’ (Paragraph 318)
It is acknowledged that despite, or maybe because of this conciliar ideal, Anglican debate (paragraph 303) particularly around sexuality (paragraph 304) has been ‘fractious’ in character, but it is not apparent from the Report that the working party has reckoned with how unsafe LGB&T people can feel in church settings, and that much work will be needed to reassure them on this point if they are to participate in the facilitated conversations as proposed. There is recognition, at paragraph 305, that ‘when the different ethical stances represent people and traditions and not just theories, disagreement can call into question the very identity and belonging of the protagonists’, but there is no practical advice on how to manage that.
As a pupil of Dr Kathleen Bliss, who worked closely with J.H. Oldham, I was pleased to see his contribution to Anglican social ethics acknowledged (paragraph 306). Oldham is famous for promoting ‘the Moot’ which brought together intellectuals from ‘various disciplines and expertise’, to consider education, social reconstruction and culture. One can understand the attractiveness of this model for the working party, as it begins to articulate the facilitated conversations, but the working party itself might have benefitted from a more Moot-like diversity by including more scientists, social scientists, historians, theologians and biblical scholars in its membership: it was a very small group.
More seriously, there is a complete failure to appreciate the history of current Church of England and Anglican teaching about homosexuality.
‘Most of all, Anglican social ethics is characterized by listening to each other within the church. If one emphasis in theological ethics is allowed to dominate all others, the whole nature of Anglicanism, as a conciliar Church which holds together distinctive traditions, is lost.’ (Paragraph 308).
The reality is that the Church of England’s teaching on homosexuality is based on a General Synod Private Members Motion debated in 1987 at the height of the AIDS crisis in the UK, following the sidelining of a report published in 1979, the work of 12 scholars under the chairmanship of the then Bishop of Gloucester, John Yates. To quote from the Independent’s obituary: ‘Yates’s report was learned in its discussion of the references in scripture as well as the developments in psychology and legal reflection. … Lambeth conference resolutions and discussions appear naïve when compared with the nuanced and learned conclusions of the “Gloucester report”.’ It is also notorious that Lambeth Conference Resolution 1.10 of 1998, which has become the touchstone of Anglican teaching on this matter, did not reflect the careful work of its subsection report on human sexuality, which again was sidelined by the Conference; while the report of a later Church of England working party, chaired by June Osborne, which completed its work in 1989, was only published two years ago, in 2012.
The Church of England and the Anglican Communion do not have a good track record for handling diversity. As these examples show, the pattern has actually been ‘for one emphasis in theological ethics … to dominate all others’, and some of us will need a lot of convincing that it will not be repeated this time around. It is also naïve to claim that
‘The Anglican approach to social ethics is profoundly Christian in its refusal – in theory if not always in practice – to countenance premature foreclosure on matters where discerning the mind of the Church and the mind of Christ is elusive.’
Maintaining current teaching, as the Report claims to do, is itself an act of foreclosure.
Scripture and theology
This section advocates prayer as well as the commitment to listening to those with whom one disagrees (paragraphs 309, 310), but the reluctance to foreclose, or more accurately, to close the argument continues:
‘In the face of conflicting scholarship, as well as conflicting beliefs, we believe that the Church should be cautious about attempting to pronounce definitively on the implications of Scripture for homosexual people.’ (Paragraph 311)
That does not make the problem go away, and it will be LGB&T people who must continue to live with the consequences. There is a small concession, but note that it is negatively expressed:
‘We do agree that, as all Christians are called to faithfulness, exclusivity and life-long commitment in their sexual relationships, same sex relationships which do not seek to embody those aspects of vocation cannot be right.’ (Paragraph 311)
The conversations with Fr Radcliffe and Professor O’Donovan are recalled to justify the Report’s caution, while opting for a pastoral accommodation to address a ‘morally ambiguous’ situation which includes the unresolved significance of procreation in human relationships (paragraphs 313-315). The emphasis is to be on process rather than propositions (paragraph 316), though there will, in fact, be plenty of the latter when the further recommendations are listed. The section ends by declaring ‘that our most important conclusion is that the conciliar processes of Anglican ethics should be enabled to continue in a more structured and focused manner’, meaning, presumably the facilitated conversations.
So homosexuality is, for the Report, ‘a moot point’, in that it is to be determined by an assembly of the people, even though this is not how the Church of England, synodically governed and episcopally led, normally deals with these matters. But ‘a moot point’, can also be one which is potentially debatable but no longer practically applicable, and this sense too seems appropriate: for while the Church of England plans for conciliar conversations about homosexuality, for all practical purposes, elderly peers in Parliament, like the majority of young people, are agreed that this is simply not an issue any more.