At the start of 2012, the House of Bishops (comprising all the diocesan bishops of the Church of England, together with elected suffragans) commissioned a report on the current debate in the Church on human sexuality, and in particular the status of same-sex relations.
Commissioned by the House of Bishops of the Church of England in January 2012, the working group included the bishops of Gloucester, Birkenhead, Fulham and Warwick. The group invited three advisers to join in the work. They were: Professor Robert Song, The Ven Rachel Treweek and the Revd Dr Jessica Martin.
Chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling, the group reported last November. Although its remit was to report to the House of Bishops, rather than to make public comment, they very wisely made the report publicly available immediately, as a sensible way to avoid speculation. You can read the report here and the press statement here.
Yesterday, the College of bishops met to consider its response to the recommendations of the report, and how to take them forward. (The College of Bishops comprises all the bishops, diocesan and suffragan, in the Church of England, and so includes the whole range of views amongst the episcopate.) The College immediately released a statement, another move I think very helpful, which you can read here. The statement expresses acceptance of many of the key recommendations of the Pilling report:
We are united in welcoming and affirming the presence and ministry within the Church of gay and lesbian people, both lay and ordained…
We are united in seeking to be faithful to the Scriptures and the tradition of the Church and in seeking to make a loving, compassionate and respectful response to gay men and women within Church and society.
We recognise the very significant change in social attitudes to sexuality in the United Kingdom in recent years…
We accept the recommendation of the Pilling Report that the subject of sexuality, with its history of deeply entrenched views, would best be addressed by facilitated conversations…
We acknowledge that one of the challenges we face is to create safe space for all those involved to be honest about their own views and feelings…
Some of the statements appear to me to include some subtle but important emphases. For example, it is noted that the facilitated discussions must include both ecumenical and international Anglican perspectives, which I think will be very important.
However, on one crucial issue it rejected Pilling’s recommendation.
As the Archbishops noted in November, the Pilling report is not a new policy statement from the Church of England and we are clear that the Church of England’s pastoral and liturgical practice remains unchanged during this process of facilitated conversation.
I explore in depth why this is significant on my previous post, written when the Pilling report was published. My conclusion reads:
But the House of Bishops can rescue this situation relatively easily. Pilling is notproposing a change in Church policy or doctrine. They should accept this. Pilling is proposing ‘facilitated discussions’ to deeper our understanding of the issue. Personally, I doubt that these will make any progress at all—but I’m all for increased mutual understanding, even if it is understanding of how much we disagree, so I don’t think the HoB could reject this. But in order to create any credibility at all for these discussions, the bishops need to agree to and implement an absolute moratorium on any liturgical change, however local and however ‘pastorally accommodating.’ The only alternative, as others have pointed out, would be a slow and painful death by a thousand (pastoral, local, liturgical) cuts.
Why do I think College of Bishops have made the right decision? Well, most obviously because their response to Pilling is exactly the one I said in November was needed. The reason for this is more and more evident in public responses, particularly on social media, from all sides of the debate.
On the one hand, many ‘conservatives’ say that there is nothing to be done, and no need any further discussion. I don’t think this takes into account sufficiently the need for the Church of England to develop more credible pastoral response, taking into account what Justin Welby described as the revolution in attitudes within society on this issue.
On the other hand, many ‘revisionists’ agree there is no need for further discussion, but for exactly the opposite reason. It is clear what God is doing in society, and the Church needs to catch up without any further delay. You can see this very clearly in the fulminating responses to yesterday’s announcement on the Thinking Anglicans website (was there ever more irony in a website name?).
But two comments on my Facebook page today illustrate why further discussion is precisely what we need.
Is it just me, or does anyone else out there get really angry at the constant use of the terms ‘homophobic’, ‘Islamophobic’ etc? Just because you may believe that a particular lifestyle is not God’s best will for people, that doesn’t mean you’re scared of those who live that way. A phobia is an irrational fear of something, and the use of this term feels to me as one who holds the traditional biblical view that I am being branded as in some way mentally deficient.
‘When I read scripture it seems quite clear about homosexual activity.’ When I read the Bible it seems quite clear about not wearing mixed fibres. Do you wear a poly/cotton shirt? When I read the Bible it seems pretty clear about selling your possessions and giving to the poor. Have you done that? I know I haven’t…
The first comment indicates the poor understanding that the different positions have of one another; this debate is replete with unhelpful stereotypes on all sides. The second comment illustrates something that runs alongside this – a simplistic engagement with the exegetical and hermeneutical issues, which is remarkably widespread considering how developed the serious literature is on this matter. I am amazed how frequently I’m in conversation with people of a different view who haven’t even read the most accessible and introductory material from the other side. In the light of these two phenomena, facilitated discussions, without changing facts on the ground in the meantime, is precisely what we need.
But then the cry goes up ‘How can the church continue to delay, when it is receiving such bad publicity on this issue?’ There are two answers to this.
Firstly, it is worth noting that last weekend was the 70th anniversary of the ordination of the first woman as priest/presbyter in the Anglican Communion, Florence Li Tim-Oi. In 1975, General Synod passed the motion: ‘That this Synod considers that there are no fundamental objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood’. In 1978 the motion: ‘That this Synod asks the Standing Committee to prepare and bring forward legislation to remove the barriers to the ordination of women to the priesthood and their consecration to the episcopate’ was passed by the House of Bishops and the House of Laity, but was lost in the House of Clergy by 94 votes to 149. It will be at least 2015 before the first woman is ordained as bishop. The issue of same-sex unions is much more contentious than the issue of women’s ministry, so we shouldn’t imagine that this will be settled any time soon.
Secondly, there appears to be on the ‘revisionist’ side of the debate a massive deficit in ecclesiology. In my reading of the New Testament, the people of God (I avoid the word ‘church’ because of its confusion with buildings and institutions) is to be an eschatological, counter-cultural community, marked by mutual partnership and the exercise of gifts and manifesting growth of the fruit of the Spirit. This consistently brings it into conflict with the surrounding culture, whether Jewish or pagan. Charts produced by Changing Attitude, demonstrating the low esteem with which our society holds the Church of England, tell us almost nothing—except, perhaps, for the lies told in the media about the contribution of faith communities in general, and the Church in particular (note how the mythology of missionaries has taken hold of the public consciousness) and also who it is who is fomenting negative views of the Church in the media.
We desperately need more critical reflection on the relation between church and society. Unlike the Church of England, many of the new churches are growing, and many evangelical churches within the Church of England are also experiencing growth. Most often, these are churches which espouse something like the traditional view, but have also been consistently taking the lead in compassionate care.
There are two more banana skins lying in the part of the bishops in the next few months. The first is the need to make a decision about same-sex marriage and the clergy; mistakes have already been made here. The second to decide on the process by which the discussions take place; to follow the Indaba process used by the Anglican Communion would be the least wise thing to do.
Whatever the process, we need greater mutual understanding, and let’s leave the PR to the Communications department…