The Pilling Report Reviewed – No 13: The Dissenter

The final section of Part 3 of the Pilling Report, ‘Reflecting on the Evidence’ – though not of the Report – is

A Dissenting Statement by the Bishop of Birkenhead

The Pilling Report was intended to address the situation of a sexual minority within the Church of England and society. The voices of this minority were listened to by the working party but are only heard at one remove, and sometimes in highly edited form, within the Report. It would have been appropriate to devote space to these voices. Instead a vast number of pages are given to the one member of the working party who was unable to sign up to its fairly modest recommendations. It is not even a minority report – for a minority implies more than one person – it is an individual dissenting statement. Reading between the lines of the Report it seems that this dissident voice, though respectfully listened to, was problematic for the group due to its uncompromising character, though this dissenting statement begins with gracious words. There is something very skewed, indeed, however, that this particular voice should be privileged here and as author of one of the two appendix articles on Scripture.

That said, the statement contains some important information or reflections that are not in the main Report. For example, at paragraph 419, the remarks about female sexuality and the shift from ‘homosexuality’ to LGBT, Q, P, & A (interestingly Intersex is not mentioned) people. Here too we learn (paragraph 460) – what is hardly surprising when one considers the text of the Report, but a very serious omission – that the working party did not ‘engage with the discipline of “queer theology”’.

The Bishop’s first major point is about the cost of discipleship: ‘Radical inclusion is followed by the call to radical holiness (paragraph 423).’ At paragraph 427 the Bishop personalises the argument with the story of Greg and Margaret and their two children. As an adolescent Greg had been attracted to another young man, but then found ‘women were included in his attraction’. Greg interpreted the transition of his desires for his male friend first to women as well, and then finally to Margaret, with whom he had children, by reference to John 12.24, the grain of wheat that falls into the ground and dies. According to the Bishop ‘The question is ‘Can Jesus rightly ask us to let our sexual attractions and interests be part of the wheat that dies?’ The answer has to be ‘yes’, but the story offers the approved narrative: the death of homosexuality and the birth of heterosexuality, though that Christians are called to this radical obedience whatever their sexual orientation, or its final trajectory, will be acknowledged later at paragraph 430.

The Bishop is troubled by the Report’s lack of clarity.

A question that has haunted me is whether Greg would have been helped by the Report to know what following Jesus meant, and my conclusion is that he would not. He would not have been encouraged to ‘die’ and consequently there would have been no new life, no marriage to Margaret and no birth of their children. If we do not sound a clear call there will be negative personal and pastoral consequences in people’s lives.’ (Paragraph 432)

Greg could well have had a very different life if he had forged a relationship – let’s assume it was lifelong – with his unnamed first love, but he would still have been able to follow Jesus, otherwise we are implying that following Jesus is only for heterosexual people, which is, in effect, what the Bishop seems to believe.

At item (I) paragraph 431 he summarises the Church’s official teaching: ‘that everyone should remain single and abstinent unless and until they find themselves able to marry someone of the opposite sex.’ But that is not the official teaching of the Church of England. Issues in human sexuality states that lay people may conscientiously enter into a sexually intimate same sex relationship, which means that the Bishop’s concern for same sex attracted people who have abided by the Church’s teaching (paragraph 435) is misplaced. The Report introduces nothing new. According to Issues (instead the Bishop references the 1987 General Synod motion at paragraph 444) they were already free to enter into a same sex relationship if they felt conscientiously that was God’s call for them; if they are clergy it would have to be a celibate relationship.

As I have noted several times, the Report fails to address the issue of gender. This too is a concern for the Bishop, though his reasons differ from mine.

Rather than upholding the Church’s teaching by rooting sexuality in God’s loving creation of human beings as male and female and in the God-given institution of marriage, the Report … undermines that teaching by commending a sexual ethic based solely and simply on the values of permanence and fidelity. (Paragraph 448)

But permanence and fidelity are also biblical, rooted in the abiding faithfulness of God, and far more universal, and therefore in keeping with the gospel, than the gendered paradigm of marriage, which, can be highly ambiguous in Scripture, e.g. the bride of Christ is both male and female as queer theology is wont to point out. It is a serious weakness of the Report that it did not explore the interface between gender and sexuality.

Like me, though again for different reasons, the Bishop is unhappy that the Report finds the arguments from Scripture, theology, science or social trends to be inconclusive either for or against the Church’s current teaching. I have heard that one of the Report’s authors did admit, privately, that the Report was being designed to be equally unsatisfactory to, for example, Changing Attitude and Anglican Mainstream, and that does seem to be the case. The facilitated conversations ought to cover the breadth of sexuality and gender, but if that is not possible, then, like the Bishop, I would prefer them to focus on listening to LGB – and I would add T&I – people, rather than the interpretation of Scripture (paragraph 451). As the Bishop notes, ‘The argument that the current debate in the Church about sexuality needs to be seen as inconclusive is central to the Report (paragraph 452).’ Indeed it is, and it is a great weakness: the Report has chosen to sit on the fence and this could well be its undoing.

Quoting Issues in human sexuality (at paragraph 454) the Bishop believes that clear conclusions are possible about sexual ethics, but that Report was published back in 1991, without the kind of research undertaken by the working party, and even the Bishop’s own statement acknowledges that much has changed since then. Though he exaggerates its uncertainty (with the phrase ‘no good reason’) the Bishop highlights a glaring inconsistency in the Report’s argument:

‘Will that not mean, if the Report is adopted, that the Church of England will continue formally to abide by its existing teaching while at the same time having declared that it has no good reason to think that this teaching is true? This is a position I cannot support. It is also a position I doubt will win the respect of those who conscientiously reject the traditional teaching and offer an alternative vision.’

It’s certainly a frustrating one for the reasons I have explored above.

The Bishop then critiques (paragraphs 457-60) the evidence reviewed in the Report in order to question the claim that it is inconclusive. His concerns are mainly, like mine, about the lack of theological reflection, but it is in relation to the teaching of Scripture that he finds the Report most inadequate and here, and again more fully in the appendix, he counters the arguments from translation, culture differences and ‘the creation of human beings’, even quoting Diarmaid MacCulloch in support of Biblical disapproval of homosexuality (paragraph 467). Yet all these are highly contested areas – which is not to say consensus is lacking – as the two appendix essays demonstrate, and as the working party was well aware.

The Bishop’s analogy (paragraphs 470-71) with the Church’s approach to twentieth century attempts to revise fundamental doctrines about God and Christ does not hold in relation to sexual ethics, which is properly the subject of conversation, reflection, and discovery within the remit of pastoral and practical theology.

The Bishop believes that the Church ‘cannot commend and affirm non-marital sexual relationships in its teaching or practice’ (paragraph 472), but the Church of England has already done so in Issues, but instead he refers to Lambeth 1.10 at this point. He then lists six reasons why he thinks the proposed pastoral accommodation is wrong.

First, that the Church of England ‘cannot with integrity offer or formally allow a service for any pattern of sexual relationship other than marriage’ (paragraph 476). If only there were room for ‘accommodation’ about this now that we are on the brink of equal marriage, but this is impossible for the Bishop, who believes that same sex relations – even if the couple were married – are forbidden by Scripture (474).

Secondly, at paragraph 477, he notes that the Report is ambiguous about whether the proposed service would be open to the sexually intimate as well as celibate couples, but this would not, as the Bishop believes, undermine the Church’s teaching because sexual intimacy is already permitted for lay couples by Issues.

Thirdly, at paragraph 478, he claims that the public celebration of the fact that two people had entered into a same sex partnership would conflict with the Church of England’s doctrine that marriage can only take place between a man and a woman, but this insistence on the gender of the couple is one of the matters at issue, and has only gained prominence in the very recent document Men and women in marriage and the Church of England’s submission to the government consultation on same sex marriage.

Fourthly, at paragraph 479, he argues that the freedom conferred on parish priests, in consultation with their PCC, to offer public celebrations will undermine the bishop’s authority and create liturgical anarchy, but there is a parallel here with the discretion exercised by clergy during the long years when the Church of England was deciding whether or not to permit the marriage of those who had been divorced, and the service of Prayer and Dedication after Civil Marriage will no doubt provide a template for many of these services.

Fifthly, at paragraph 480, the Bishop describes these public celebrations as an example of the cultural captivity of the Church which will undermine its proclamation of a biblical sexual ethic, but it is the very nature of that ethic that is in dispute or under discussion.

Sixthly, at paragraph 481, the Bishop emphasises that these services, even if not called blessings, will be exactly that, and that he is unable to countenance the blessing of a same sex couple on biblical grounds and for theological reasons, but his quotation from Canadian theologian, Edith Humphrey, is extremely shocking and should never have been included in a Report of this kind.

The Bishop also has concerns about the negative impact of the facilitated conversations on the Anglican Communion (paragraph 483), and its relationships with other churches (paragraph 485).

The ‘better way’ proposed by the Bishop is summed up in ten propositions (paragraph 488) published by the Evangelical Alliance, but the Evangelical Alliance’s documents on homosexuality and transsexuality, while often quoted, are not noted for their attention to scientific evidence or for their engagement with LGB&T people.

The Bishop’s final paragraph (489) is a call ‘not to be conformed to the prevailing culture’, but begs the question why ‘our society increasingly … sees any opposition to homosexual practise (sic) as morally reprehensible’.

The ‘final’ part of the Report – there are important Appendices which I will not be discussing here, or not at the moment – is called

Findings and Recommendations

This is another example of the Report’s eccentricities as most academic papers, especially in science or the social sciences, present the findings first and then reflect on them, but the bulk of this section is made up of the Recommendations and these I have already discussed in detail at the points where they were first outlined.

 

 

 

 

 

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