Resources for the Shared Conversations

Dr Chris Cook, Professor of Spirituality, Theology and Health at Durham University, has written an article about the Pilling report and scientific evidence, published in the Church Times last Friday. Chris is a practical theologian and a scientist. He is critical of the report for not evaluating the scientific evidence with sufficient rigour and asks that more critical attention be given to the scientific evidence when the church engages in the Shared Conversations.

Chris says the report raises questions not only about how we interpret scripture but also about how we interpret our knowledge of sexuality.

He commends the report for recognising the importance of the scientific evidence, devoting a whole chapter to it, even though the group didn’t have a scientific adviser.

From the evidence presented in the chapter, Chris notes that science, as a strand of reason, seems to contribute little or nothing to the conclusions reached in the report.

He commends the working group for identifying the importance of the “Is this really that?” question and asks whether this (homosexuality) is the same as the that to which the biblical text refers.

Careful biblical exegesis needs to be accompanied by an equally careful analysis and interpretation of the scientific evidence.

He focuses on Keith Sinclair, Bishop of Birkenhead (who was allowed to publish a dissenting statement and an appendix in the report). Keith Sinclair expresses concern that there has been a revisionist re-reading of scripture.

Chris says this is unhelpful because there is no traditional reading of scripture on the modern concept of homosexuality to be revised.

Our scientific concept of homosexuality is a modern one. It acknowledges a diversity of sexual orientation unknown to the early church.

The modern scientific concept of homosexuality does not consider it to be pathological.

Many Christians experience significant unease at the way in which traditional readings of the Bible on homosexual behaviour are associated with prejudice towards LGBTI people.

Chris says we are confused as to whether we are talking primarily about the interpretation of scripture, or the interpretation of human experience, two hermeneutic processes that are inextricably linked.

He does not find the critical rigour in evaluating scientific evidence which he expects to find in the report. He cites as an example the questioning of the Royal College of Psychiatrists submission and it’s counterbalancing with a Core Issues Trust booklet. The booklet simply marshals scientific evidence in support of a position previously determined by scripture.

The chapter Arguments about Science, p59 paras 193-219, asks and answers six questions. The choice of questions is significant in the outcome of the answers reached by the report. None deal with why homosexuality is no longer classified as a psychiatric disorder, for example. The all important question “What is natural?” wasn’t asked. Had different questions been asked and the scientific evidence evaluated critically, the theological implications might have been different, or at least more helpful.

Failure to ask appropriate, difficult questions makes it difficult to develop a coherent Christian view of sexuality which has both scientific and theological integrity. The report fails to distinguish carefully between sexual orientation, sexual identity, sexual attraction, and sexual behaviour.

Chris Cook concludes with a reminder that scripture presents us with important theological and prophetic questions about patterns of stigma and prejudice, which science has identified as underlying (and consequential upon) much mental health.

Chris has raised important questions about the resources being prepared for the critically important Shared Conversations. Will scientific evidence be included in the resources and will it be properly evaluated?

Changing Attitude understands that the resources have already been written. The authors were selected by staff at Church House despite a commitment that the LGBTI Anglican Coalition would be involved in the process. The College of Bishops has presumably seen the resources. We have not.

Chris Cook’s article raises questions that the trustees of Changing Attitude were already asking. I know that the staff at Church House and David Porter’s group overseeing the Conversations work under extreme pressure with very limited resources.

But if the Coalition is not going to raise critical questions about the quality and breadth and scientific and theological rigour of the resource materials prepared for the Shared Conversations, we need to see the resources now and be given the opportunity to comment on and offer suggestions for ways in which gaps might be filled and content improved if necessary.


  1. Kate says

    You do have to ask yourself why, on a subject that’s a crisis flashpoint for the whole church and for its relationship to the Communion – and for mission, David Porter is working ‘under extreme pressure with very limited resources’. It’s hard not to suspect that the Church is still strenuously avoiding asking the questions that it doesn’t want to know the answer to.

    This is why Linda Woodhead’s recent rounds of research have been so invaluable: because she asked the things that they were too scared to ask: and it was obvious she made herself unpopular by wanting to find these things out, and then not bury them. I’m sure David Porter is acting with integrity: I am far less certain that the Church is in the way it sets these things up.

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