The Pilling Report Reviewed – No 12: Process & Practice

The next section of Part 3 of the Pilling Report is called

A process for listening to each other

and outlines what the working party believes (paragraph 352) is ‘the way forward for the Church’: ‘an intentional process of attentive listening between Christians whose understandings of Scripture and God’s calling for the Church and the world differed widely.’ This is obviously a worthwhile objective in itself, but I have reservations about whether it can generate the kind of journey (though it’s unclear what is meant by that) that the working party anticipates, not least because the Church’s official teaching already enshrines a single interpretation that puts most LGB&T people at a huge disadvantage from the start.

Unlike the earlier listening process in the Anglican Communion, which the Report concedes was ‘patchy’, and which involved ‘listening to the views and experiences of gay and lesbian people’, the working party

propose a structured process so that members of the Church who hold radically different understandings of the implications of Scripture and Christian ethics for gay and lesbian Christians might listen to one another, whatever their own sexual orientation. With so much rancour and pain surrounding these differences over so many years, a first objective is to find ways to recognize that apparent antagonists are nevertheless sincere and prayerful Christians striving to live faithfully.’ (Paragraph 354)

I have already participated in a conversation like this – in fact the Report mentions earlier meetings in its account of the listening process (paragraph 21). It was awkward to begin with as there were suspicions and preconceptions on both sides (and in that instance it resembled the meeting of two opposing factions), but these began to break down as we related to one another as human beings and people of faith. Yet as the Report has already admitted, views have tended to harden despite this kind of process. My own explanation for this is that the teaching as it stands is becoming unsustainable and we are witnessing a final battle to defend or replace it. If I am right, the facilitated conversations proposed here look like avoidance of the inevitable, and as a process without anticipated outcome, a high risky strategy; but risks can sometimes pay off, and perhaps the Holy Spirit will make use of this one and surprise everyone.

The envisaged conversations will be similar to the ‘Indaba’ process at the 2008 Lambeth Conference and a summary is given outlining its character. This section seems the most important and I’ve highlighted some of the key features:

In Indaba, we must be aware of these challenges (issues) without immediately trying to resolve them one way or the other. We meet and converse, ensuring that everybody has a voice, and contributes (in our case, praying that it might be under the guidance of the Holy Spirit) and that the issues at hand are fully defined and understood by all. The purpose of the discussion is to find out the deeper convergences that might hold people together in difference and come to a deeper understanding of the topic or issue discussed. This will be achieved by seeking to understand exactly the thinking behind position other than my own.’ (Paragraph 356 – emphasis mine)

This will be challenging for everyone, not least those responsible for its facilitation. Its purpose, we are assured, is ‘relational, not institutional’ (paragraph 357), but many of the problems LGB&T people encounter in church settings are institutional, or arise because of the message given by the institution. In most parallel situations it is usual to address the structural issues first so that relationships can flourish – that is how equality legislation has transformed other institutions, but this is not what is recommended by the Report. Transformation is anticipated through conversation, animated by prayer: ‘Prayer must be the context in which the process is designed, facilitated and engaged with, by those responsible for implementing the idea and by all who participate in it (paragraph 361).’

The facilitated conversations will take place in the dioceses and the bishops are expected to lead on this. As is well-known now, the timescale is two years (paragraphs 362-65). It is also suggested that some groups might visit other parts of the Communion, ‘where for example gay people’s rights are not protected and where homophobic violence is more prevalent. Such visits would create opportunities for participants to hear firsthand accounts from those countries and also to explore how decisions made in other parts of the Communion can rebound on Anglicans elsewhere.’ This proposal and aim ring particularly hollow at the moment following the introduction of anti-homosexual legislation in Nigeria, with support from the Nigerian Anglican Church’s leadership, but with no protest so far from the Church of England or the rest of the Communion.

The Church’s Practice

From paragraph 369 it would seem that most members of the working party were open to a change in the church’s teaching, but that some were not yet convinced by ‘the evidence received.’ As I have noted earlier, it is difficult to know from the Report exactly what evidence has been surveyed and what the missing evidence might look like. The next paragraph, 370, notes ‘We recognize that there is widespread experience of homosexual people not being accepted and welcomed into church unconditionally’, without considering, of course, that it might be the Church’s teaching itself which makes them feel unwelcome.

The Report moves swiftly on to ‘the pastoral care of faithful Christians who seek ecclesial recognition for their same sex relationship’ and the discernment process for ordained ministry.

Celebrating permanent and faithful partnerships

The first subject for consideration is the discrepancy in the Church’s practice – and in its teaching, given that it is stated in Issues in human sexuality – in that lay people may, in good conscience, enter into a physically intimate (these are my words and closer to the term ‘physical expression’ of Issues 5.6 rather than the Report’s ‘sexually active’ which follows Issues 5.11) relationships, but clergy may not. The authors note complaints that this differential lacks ‘sufficient or adequate theological rationale’ (paragraph 372) but justify it (paragraph 373) on the ground that ‘it is entirely legitimate for the Church to require higher standards of conduct from its clergy than for the laity (and, indeed, higher standards from its bishops than from the clergy).’ This seems to reveal the authors’ belief that a physically intimate relationship between a couple of the same sex is somehow ‘sub standard’: it is hard to read it any other way and illustrates the pitfalls of avoiding the theological task. Instead, the issue is to be passed on to the facilitated conversations for ‘exploration’, without any thought of how problematic it might be for clergy to be under such scrutiny in the new world created by the Clergy Discipline Measure.

The Report continues by noting the changed context, following the introduction of civil partnerships and with the prospect of same sex marriage (paragraph 374). Again there is special pleading in the claim that ‘when the legislation concerning civil partnerships was debated in the House of Lords, the majority of the bishops who voted on the issue took a positive line’. True, there was a majority in favour at the final vote, but some bishops were very active in promoting the amendments that could easily have wrecked the Bill, and in making speeches that caused great pain to LGBT people. We are then told (paragraph 375) that in its response to the government consultation on same sex marriage ‘the House of Bishops and the Archbishops’ Council welcomed civil partnerships for their emphasis on fidelity and commitment and for their role in giving important legal rights to committed same sex couples,’ but this welcome came eight years too late, and was not reflected in the pastoral statement issued by the House in 2005.

Shockingly, the ‘sub standard’ argument is resumed, without explanation or justification (paragraph 376): ‘Opposition to same sex marriage has largely focused on the detriment to the social understanding of marriage which may follow from conflating heterosexual and same sex relationships within a single legal and social institution.’ The Report, however, is pragmatic. With same sex marriage imminent, civil partnerships may now seem a preferable alternative (in the authors’ opinion), but their time is limited and the Church must reckon with the reality of married same sex couples. Confident that the facilitated conversations will break new ground, the Report suggests that were the House of Bishops to issue a pastoral statement on same sex marriage it should have a provisional status (paragraph 377-78).

Here we reach the nub of this section: ‘what clergy should do when approached by parishioners or members of their congregations who are about to enter into a civil partnership or same sex marriage and would like some public recognition of, and prayer for, their new situation’ (paragraph 379). Again, the Report’s recommendation has been well-publicised. The arguments for and against the introduction of an official liturgy are reviewed (paragraphs 380-81), including the anxiety this might create for those who have faithfully abided by the Church’s teaching, but the crucial point is that such a rite would be in keeping with an often overlooked part of that teaching:

And, in any event, the House of Bishops acknowledged, as long ago as 1991 in Issues in Human Sexuality, that gay and lesbian lay Christians might in good conscience decide to enter into sexually faithful monogamous relationships.’

In addition, it is also justified as a response to the evidence the working party received of the Church’s poor record of hospitality, (for which read blatant discrimination):

Moreover, some form of celebration of civil partnerships in a church context is widely seen as a practice that would give a clear signal that gay and lesbian people are welcome in church.’

An authorised rite is ruled out (paragraph 384), however, because the moral and doctrinal issues have not been settled – might that not be a reason to get on and do that? But given that ‘the pastoral and missiological pressure to find ways of communicating good news to people in same sex relationships is becoming acute’ (paragraph 386), ‘some of us believe there is scope to consider less formal approaches to recognizing and praying for same sex couples after they have registered a civil partnership or entered into a same sex marriage.’

It’s all rather tentative, but this ‘pastoral accommodation’ (paragraph 388) is supported by the reference to the need for a pastoral and sensitive response in the House of Bishops’ 2005 Pastoral Statement on Civil Partnerships (paragraph 387), and by analogy with the Church of Scotland’s decision of May 2013, (in relation to clergy in same sex partnerships), to uphold the traditional teaching but allow those with conscientious objections to it to appoint ministers in civil partnerships (paragraph 389).

This welcome development is a matter of conscience: clergy will not be forced to do this, and must consult with their PCC if they wish to do so (paragraph 392).

The subsection ends with a reminder that the General Synod has not yet discussed the principle of registering Church of England premises for Civil Partnerships (paragraph 395) – surely a little late in the day now – and would be the body that would amend existing legislation which prevents Church of England clergy from solemnizing same sex marriages in its buildings were the Church to change its mind on this subject.

Questions to candidates to ministry

The report takes four pages to say, what ought to be obvious, ‘that all candidates for ministry should be treated in the same way regarding their sexual conduct’ (paragraph 411) and ‘that care should be taken to ensure that questions do not require a homosexual candidate to go into more intimate detail about their life than would be required of a heterosexual candidate’ (paragraph 413). That intrusive questions have been asked of gay and lesbian candidates (acknowledged at paragraph 400), and additional hurdles put in their way, is a scandal, and entirely attributable to the emphasis on Issues in the section of the DDO’s handbook that deals with ‘Sexual orientation, civil partnerships’ alongside ‘marriage breakdown and divorce’ (quoted at paragraph 406) – an unfortunate pairing that creates the impression of a problem where one need not exist.

It is in these kinds of settings that the Church’s institutional homophobia, if it exists, is likely to manifest itself, and perhaps this is why the call for the Church to repent – long overdue in terms of the Report’s structure – is in the set of recommendations that appear at this point:

‘The whole Church is called to real repentance for the lack of welcome and acceptance extended to homosexual people in the past, and to demonstrate the unconditional acceptance and love of God in Christ for all people.’ (Recommendation 14)

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