The Pilling Report: divisive and damaging?

Joseph PillingThe group working with Joseph Pilling reporting to the House of Bishops on the issue of same-sex relations were always going to struggle to keep anyone happy. How is it possible to say something on this issue without upsetting or offending one group or another? And if not, how on earth could anyone find a new paradigm which would keep people talking—no, which would provoke people into a discussion which (according to Oliver O’Donovan) has never really started? Perhaps a measure of success of the report is that (from what I can glean from the blogosphere) people on both sides are equally offended. Some see it as ‘right veering‘ and others as ‘liberalising‘.

From a (not in fact very ‘conservative’) evangelical perspective:

Although the Report mentions a few key Scriptural texts, and claims to ‘desire to place Scripture at the heart of ethics and discipleship’, it does so in the context of saying ‘we do not all believe that the evidence of Scripture points to only one set of ethical conclusions.’ (§235)

Thus, the Report raises a famous question, ‘Did God really say?’ and then finds itself without an answer.  To be fair, there are two appendices, one by the Bishop Keith Sinclair (Appendix 3), offering a brief, but rich and insightful overview of the biblical material from a traditional perspective, and one by the Revd David Runcorn, offering a rather less persuasive interpretation from an ‘inclusive evangelical’ perspective (Appendix 4). But rather than taking the time to tease out the possible interpretative options, and to at least establish the loci of disagreement, the report skates over the Scriptural material, and does not succeed in giving it the weight it surely ought to have.

From the other end of the debate, the comment by Colin Coward on behalf of Changing Attitude:

The inadequacies of the report result from the theology held as orthodox and traditional by many Christians, belief in the Bible as the literal, inerrant Word of God, and belief in God as a supernatural being, remote from the world, who is primarily a law-giver and rule-maker, judging our lives and behaviour.

The report lacks empathy and compassion for LGB&T people. It lacks the courage needed to free the church from gender and sexuality-based prejudice and hypocrisy. It lacks the vision needed to over systemic homophobia in the church.

These are good representatives of the diversity of views existing across the C of E (and elsewhere) which are being expressed again in response to Pilling. On one side, there is the desire for a more serious engagement with Scripture and biblical theology, which many felt was in fact present in Some Issues in Human Sexuality in 2003—how little we have travelled in 10 years! On the other, there is a desire for either the experience of the ‘LGBT’ community, or at the very least sociological and psychological understandings of sexuality, to shape the discussion. The Church of England (at least in recent years) has characteristically wanted to occupy the middle ground—but in this discussion, there simply is no ground in the middle to occupy! I suspect this is why, from both ‘sides’ of the debate, it feels like ‘Make your mind up’ time.

Dissent and damage

20225211A striking thing about the report itself is the presence of a long dissenting statement from Keith Sinclair, Bishop of Birkenhead, along with his statement expressing the ‘traditional’ argument from biblical theology. (In fact, his statement is not that traditional in that is does interact well with recent study.) This is not unusual, in that it is normal practice in Anglican reports to include dissenting statements together with the main report in one document. But in this case it highlights the unique difficulty of the situation; the word I remember most from this section was the word ‘damaging’, which could hardly be a stronger expression of dissent.

I hope to comment in due course on the question of biblical engagement, both within the report itself and as represented by the cases outlined by Keith Sinclair and David Runcorn as two ‘evangelical’ perspectives.

But the most striking thing about the proposals in the report is the tension between two key issues:

  • On the one hand, the statements that ‘It is not a new policy statement from the Church of England’ and that ‘The recommendations do not propose any change in the church’s teaching on sexual conduct’ (both from the press release);
  • On the other hand, the proposal for the allowance of service to ‘mark’ same-sex civil partnerships, not using formally and nationally approved liturgy (since that would imply a change of doctrine) but locally developed (i.e. at a diocesan level) possibly following guidelines issued by the (national) House of Bishops.

Peter Ould anticipated such a development prior to the report’s publication, and was roundly sneered at by the blogerati—but what has been proposed is not far from what he predicted (not surprisingly).

It is this tension that I think is divisive—but not in the way illustrated by the opening quotations.

1. It divides the local from the national

The idea that churches or dioceses can innovate in such an important area, and that somehow this can be separated from the notion of a change of doctrine, does seem extraordinary. As Keith Sinclair points out, it was precisely this sort of separation of the ‘local’ from the ‘global’ which is at the root of the tensions with the global Anglican Communion. The Pilling report suggests, in effect, moving this sharp sense of division from outside the Church of England and making it an internal feature of the Church nationally. (This is, in effect, a move to the C of E being congregational; the implications of this would be an end to central diocesan and national funding, and would have implications for many aspects of Establishment too.) What on earth would happen when a diocese loses a bishop who agrees with such services, and appoints one who does not—or vice versa?

2. It divides public perception from official position

One of the key problems the Church has faced over the last ten years has been its inability to communicate theological and spiritual realities in terms that are easily comprehensible. The appointment of Justin Welby as Archbishop has been heralded as initiating a refreshing corrective to this, but the report undoes all this. Any service would be to ‘mark’ but not to ‘bless’ civil partnerships—yet ‘blessing’ has been the universal language of reporting in the media. In fact, Joseph Pilling himself undid this careful distinctive almost immediately by saying ‘he would not write a letter of complaint if the press used such language’.

3. It divides the theory from the reality

As the report notes, a key problem in this whole discussion is the long-standing existence of completely diverse views within the Church. And as no less a figure than Jeffrey John highlights, this arose from the practice by ‘liberals’ since the 1960s of permitting and even encouraging relationships ‘on the ground’ that were completely contrary to the Church’s actual teaching.

It is important to grasp that it is precisely that culture of double-think and turning the blind eye which has created the mess we are in today.

To authorise local services ‘marking’ civil partnerships whilst at the same time not amending the ‘doctrine of the Church’ will simply cement this unsquareable circle and make it harder to resolve.

4. It divides ‘liturgical’ from ‘non-liturgical’ churches

There is, of course, no such thing as a ‘non-liturgical’ church, since to be human is to be liturgical, in the sense of having patterns of life, behaviour and worship, and all churches have a liturgy (an acceptable form of words in worship) even if it is not written down. But not all churches (clergy, congregations) appreciate the principle of ‘lex orandi, lex credendi‘ which is of especial importance in the Church of England. Because we do not have an explicit ‘confession’, our doctrine is enshrined in our agreed liturgical forms. (That is why the most heated discussions in Synod are always about liturgical revision.) You yourself might not put much store by formal words of liturgy, but be aware that the next door parish might be amending Anglican doctrine by the words they are using.

This is particularly important in relation to public perception. Few people outside the church read or experience Anglican reports, press releases or statements. What people experience is whatever service they have attended; if they have attended a same-sex ‘wedding blessing’, that is what they know of the Church’s belief.

5. It divides the C of E from other denominations

Whatever the ‘official’ teaching of the C of E, if the Church is perceived to be authorising the blessing of same-sex relations, then (as Keith Sinclair points out) in one fell swoop it will alienate the Roman Catholic church, the Vineyard, black-led churches, independent evangelicals, a good number of Baptists, and no doubt others as well. This would be an impressive achievement!

There is, though, one area where the Pilling report does not cause a division, but where it should. It collapses the distinction between present and future. Discipline within the Church is now so inconsistent that the mere mention of the possibility of services of ‘blessing’ assumes the status of permission for some clergy. I am already aware of bishops and archdeacons who have been approached (since the report was published) by clergy asking about services marking same-sex unions. The subject line in the emails of course reads ‘wedding blessing.’

In a perceptive and detailed piece last July at Fulcrum, Andrew Goddard highlighted the problems in separating pastoral discipline from doctrine, in either direction. In relation to changing pastoral discipline, he observes:

4. A change in discipline cannot simply appeal to the existence of a diversity of opinion as the basis for greater diversity in authorised discipline. It must also offer reasons why (a) officially acknowledging and sanctioning that greater diversity in discipline remains consistent with the stated doctrine and (b) the new discipline is now the best way of responding to longstanding diversity.

5. It is unreasonable to change the discipline while claiming to uphold the doctrine unless it can be convincingly shown that the new discipline remains consistent with the doctrine.

6. If a change (including authorising greater diversity) in discipline cannot be shown to be consistent with the doctrine then the only reasonable conclusion is that the doctrine has been effectively abandoned. It has been replaced in practice either by (a) no doctrine and the purely pragmatic authorization of an expression of a “diversity of opinion” or by (b) a new but unstated doctrine.

It looks very much as though the Pilling report’s recommendations, if accepted, places us firmly in the arena set out under point 6. Goddard goes on to put this in context:

7. Faced with the diversity of views, a reasoned argument needs to be offered in response to Archbishop Rowan’s argument at the ACC in 2005 that a change in either doctrine or discipline also requires “an exceptionally strong critical mass to justify it” (and he meant in the Communion and ecumenically not just within one province). This reasoning would need to show (a) that within the longstanding diversity there now exists such “an exceptionally strong critical mass” or (b) describe what would constitute it and so justify the change or (c) show why this criterion should no longer be applied.

Do please note whom he is citing here! It does not seem like much progress when the Pilling report is attempting to go back and undo so much history. No wonder Keith Sinclair repeatedly describes the report’s recommendations, if followed, as ‘damaging’ at every level.

But the House of Bishops can rescue this situation relatively easily. Pilling is not proposing 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.

In a wonderful moment in the political comedy Yes, Minister, a horrified Hacker says to Humphrey: ‘Do you mean to say, that when the chips are down, we are responsible?’ Humphrey replies smoothly, with no hesitation, ‘Minister, our job is make sure the chips stay up.’ For the Church of England, the chips cannot stay ‘up’ much longer.

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58 thoughts on “The Pilling Report: divisive and damaging?”

  1. Fine. No local change to liturgical practice. We’ll keep on praying for God’s blessing on all couples who ask for it….note the difference between that and blessing couples…I continue to be enriched by Evangelical nuances!

  2. Why don’t you lot just pack up and seek communion with some African prelate? Those of us in the 21st century who embrace science and reason without the need to rely on pre-modern texts for revealed truth are chaffing to break free of your reactionary homophobia. Your heart lies with the colonial remnants in Africa, where gay people are subject to imprisonment, death and overt discrimination, all with the blessing of the Church! I’m sure you could even find some work for those pseudo-therapists who were made redundant in the UK when the BMA banned reparative therapy. [text here deleted]

  3. Simon I don’t think I understand the point you are making here.

    Are you suggesting that evangelicals are playing fast and loose with liturgical forms? Or, as I think you might be saying, that people are ‘misusing’ liturgy anyway and at least Pilling is recognising this?

    If so, then I don’t think I agree with the solution. If some people are obeying the letter but defying the spirit of their ordination vows (to use only agreed forms of worship), I am not clear why it is progress to structurally confirm this dishonesty. Even Jeffrey John appears to agree this is a mistake.

    I think you and I both agree that what the Church does and what it says it does ought to line up…

  4. ‘etseq’ the reason why we don’t just ’embrace science and reason’ is that we are followers of Jesus and not Dawkins!

    But thanks for your comment, which on the one hand is a reminder of the serious issue of homophobia (which features significantly in Pilling) but at the same time illustrates really well the degree of commitment of some people in the discussion to respectful listening to those with whom they disagree.

    I have deleted the offensive final comment since it was an attack on a particular individual.

  5. Ian, the liturgical question is not primarily one that I think poses major problems for Evangelicals, in that our theology of blessing does not primarily emerge from the authorisation of the church but from the nature of God. So if I pray “Almighty God, bless you Adam and Steve…” that is not authorised liturgy. If, however, I prayer “Lord, we pray that you would bless Adam and Steve…” I’ve not broken the rules and yet a pastoral response has been offered. And it’s what I’ll continue to do. I was simply responding to your point about ‘no liturgical change’ in a rather impatient way.
    And, on the day when Tom Daley tells us he’s in a relationship with another man, I think Keith Sinclair and others who want to hold to the traditional position – with pastoral sensitivity, I’m confident – need to realise that etseq’s comments, while blunt, are a reminder that just talking about Jesus won’t cut the mustard when most people under 50 think that the context of that talk is one of oppressive intolerance…however theologically it is dressed up…

  6. Thanks for the clarification. I guess I would put the integrity of practice in relation to the Church’s teaching higher up on the scale than the question of ‘not breaking the rules.’ I do think that following the letter of the law in relation to what we say we believe, whilst breaching it quite knowingly in spirit is what has got us into this mess, and continuing to do so will make it harder, not easier to resolve it (if resolution of any kind is in fact possible). I was struck by Keith’s comment that the approach of the report (in this regard) will actually make progress more difficult.

    But I am genuinely puzzled by your second comment. I don’t think I ever signed up as a disciple, let alone an ordained minister, with the aim of ‘cutting the mustard’ with a 19-year-old gay icon! I am fully aware that there is an issue in terms of communication here, but since when did this kind of media event claim authority over us in our expression of the gospel?

    I think the most notable thing about the whole Pilling affair so far is the complete absence of media interest. It really isn’t the mission problem that liberals say it is. Are there no young people attending independent baptist, evangelical and vineyard churches?? It is precisely these churches, conservative on this issue, which are doing a much better job of attracting the Tom Daleys than the confused and compromised Church of England!

    One thing that young people really dislike is hypocrisy…or as Jeffrey John put it, double-think. Pilling suggests we make double-think an explicit part of our practice. I don’t think that’s going to cut any mustard, if mustard-cutting is what matters.

  7. The Pilling Report is every bit as unacceptable to progressive elements in the Church as it is to the reactionaries.

    It recommends no doctrinal developments. The infamous 1991 “Issues In Human Sexuality” statement is in no way amended or reinterpreted. All Pilling does is recommend that any perfect, God-ordained heterosexual who wants to, should be able to put down the can of theological Fabreze he’s been spraying over us poor deformed, stinking gays and make shift with a peg over his nose instead. Not such a big change really. And certainly not one that’s going to make the LGBT community fall on its knees in extravagant expressions of gratitude.

    The thing about oppressed underclasses is that they have a tendency to bite clean off the hand that offers half-measures, or in this case no measure at all. Furtive, hole-in-the-wall “blessings”? On yer bike, Sir Joseph!

  8. Thanks for the commentary and comments, Ian.
    I am not entirely puzzled, but still perplexed, by this need to be relevant and appealing and acceptable to our surrounding culture, when Jesus was not.
    Yes, I want to reach out, the church needs to evangelise. Yet you are surely correct. We do not measure our success in evangelism by how palatable we have made the gospel to those who have already rejected it.

    I hated Jesus, yet here I am. No-one told me that Jesus was into UFOs and the occult to win me over. They just showed me a better way.

  9. Ian,
    The motivation for ‘breaking the rules’ is always mission and pastoral care. Bishop David Gillett’s recent blog ( picks up this well. The quality of same-sex relationships is always qualified by the church, especially ‘conservatives’, when it/they have no reason nor justification for doing so. This is partly what annoys me so much about the situation we are in. There is a complete double-standard about honouring, supporting and praising faithful same-sex relationships. A bad heterosexual marriage always seems morally ‘better’ than an outstanding gay relationship.

    I think you have missed my point about Tom Daley. It simply underlines the gulf between the mission agent (the church) and the mission context (ordinary people, increasingly secularised). I’m not for a minute suggesting the standard for our discipleship is Tom Daley, rather that for most people younger than us he has far more integrity than any representative of the Christian church. I’m not happy with that for one minute, and I don’t think it represents the reality of the Church as I experience it, but it is (as they say) where we are. Every time a conservative spokesperson appears in the media the gulf gets wider.

    The media uninterest in Pilling is not I think about the lack of mission challenge (pace ‘liberals, who on this are absolutely right I think) but that the wider world is increasingly uninterested in anything the church says about this issue.

    Of course young people are attending independent evangelical churches etc, but many of them are too sophisticated and postmodern to take too much notice when the pastor goes on about sex. And I don’t think its our compromise on sex that fails to attract people to our churches: it’s age, cultural irrelevance, and the sheer boredom and insularity of many of our churches that are more significant factors there.

    But you’re right about hypocrisy – there is double-think working in Pilling – but that is simply because we are profoundly split on this issue and that ain’t going to change. He – and the Bishops – have no choice but to keep that line going – at least until they retire and start being sensible like David G!

  10. The problem I have with Simon’s argument about the nature of blessing (which I’ve heard before) is that the very basis on which ‘Adam and Steve’ might turn up to ask to be blessed contradicts a way of life that seems to be commended in the bible. Even if I believe that it is not me that is blessing them but God, how could I ask for that blessing while I know that their relationship is not even approaching the direction that scripture commends. Simon may argue that his approach get us ‘off the hook’ since in the end God decides what and whom he will bless, but actually the BCP (the nearest we come to the official doctrine of the CofE) states that God ‘hath given power and commandment to his ministers, to declare and pronounce…the absolution and remission of sins’. I wonder if Simon is trying to split hairs here by saying that we can pick and choose what or whom we decide to ‘pronounce’ blessing on and what or whom we will ‘ask’ blessing for.

  11. ‘Are there no young people attending independent baptist, evangelical and vineyard churches?’ I don’t know, I’m told they do, but do you really believe they attend because of these churches’ conservative positions on gay sex? Even then, evangelical churches attract but a minute fraction of Britain’s youth. Have you taught 6th form recently? Try them.

  12. Stephen, thanks for your observations. I think you are quite right, and tried to capture that in my opening paras. I don’t think anyone is interested in a ‘compromise’, and the strength of Colin Coward’s comments confirm this. I think the C of E needs to decide whether it wants to change its position or not, and offering morsels of pastoral services was not going to be enough for one group, and too much for another.

  13. Simon, I have read David G’s blog, and corresponded with him. I think his entry is really sad, in that is appears to collapse ‘offering the love and acceptance of God freely and equally to all’ with approving a person’s ethical stance. I realise this is in some ways just a return to the old ‘sin/sinner’ dichotomy that many find unacceptable–but this is true for us all. Did you read Sean Doherty’s experience on the Living Out website?

    I did ask David about the reasons for his change, and I hope he won’t mind me mentioning this. at first he said it was about ‘trajectory’ but the trajectory from OT to NT is hardly liberalising. Then it was about the ‘inclusion’ principle. From whom do we get this? From Jesus and Paul, who did not appear to think that this principle led to a revision on this issue. Again, this will all be old hat to you–but the fact that there are leaders in the church advocating change without having integrated pastoral experience with theological thinking is truly concerning to me. This lack of integration is writ large across the Pilling report.

  14. Tom Daley’s importance is primarily a feature of our media culture. Why on earth would anyone look to a confused 19 year old for moral guidance? That people do is problematic, so our response needs to be more sophisticated than this.

    Lorenzo, people don’t go to these churches *because* of their teaching on sex. I didn’t say that. They go because they find something distinctive;y Christian there, and an alternative to our unforgiving and relentless contemporary culture. They attract a minute proportion of our country’s youth, but I think are offering the only effective model I have seen.

  15. Paul, I would go further and suggest Simon is playing fast and loose with language. In speech act terms, pronouncing a blessing is a performative utterance which delivers a perlocutionary act (a bit like making a promise or writing a cheque). Slightly doctoring the grammar will not be noticed by anyone there, and I would argue this is really a deception which maintains the division between what we think we are technically doing (with our fingers crossed behind our backs) and what is actually going on.

  16. I have the joy of having two sons one at university and one about to go, neither of them get this discussion nor do they get why primitive beliefs are transferred from the bible to the people of today yet both are Christian.

    I know a number of young people in Charismatic churches who are hurting because of homophobic views and fearful over their salvation because they are in love with someone of the same sex.

    My question however to those of all contentions in the debate is more simple, if sexuality is genetically predetermined, who am I to ask them not to be what they are?

    Regardless of showboating of scientific evidence or biblical reference there seems to be little evidence and an awful lot of bias on the topic of genetic predisposition. Until we have hard evidence am I wrong to assume the love of Christ means not taking the dust out of my fellows eye but rather offering to stand alongside him/her and offer what comfort I can?

    Your friendly Post Evangelical

  17. I get it Ian: someone who is 19 in a relationship with a person of the same sex = confused (evidence?). Someone who is 19 and in a relationship with a person of the opposite sex = ? OK? Sorted? Marriage on the horizon? You are operating a double standard here. I’ve not idea if Daley is confused, but I’m not going to assume that because he’s in a same sex relationship he is by definition so. In fact, there was a lot of integration language in his posting…I found it rather mature.

    Re: blessing language I’m not suggesting that this is matter of doctoring the grammar, Ian; just that I think that there is a difference between what one is authorised to do as an ordained minister and what one can and should do as a fellow-Christian.

    Paul Roberts (Coulsdon? Hi!): what is it intrinsically about Adam and Steve’s relationship that is contradictory to scripture? If that is sex, which cannot always be assumed, then can I assume you ask the same questions of your cohabiting couples and regarding the sexual activity of any heterosexual couple (just to make sure it’s not ‘contradictory to scripture?’). I bet you don’t…so you shouldn’t treat same sex couples any different…And if it’s not sex, then what is it? Justin Welby talked about the ‘stunning’ quality of some gay relationships…why not start using such examples as sermon illustrations everyone?!!

    It’s inevitable that we’re back talking about the same old same old because of Pilling, but I would like us all to simply agree to disagree for a while, spend some time talking together and take the risk that we might all be changed as a result.

  18. Simon, thanks for further comments. On Tom Daley, I think this is the nub of the issue. Why would we think any 19 year old is not confused? Come to that, any 50 year old? I do think many on the revisionist side make the kind of comparison you are suggesting, and it is clearly daft to privilege the one over the other.

    But this is not the comparison. The comparison is between Tom Daley and, not a heterosexual 19-year-old, nor even a 50 year old, but 2000 years and more of theological wisdom. It is only by assuming that the current position of the Church is something we just made up that it can look realistic to change so easily.

    I absolutely agree with you about talking, and did this with those on the ‘other side’ regarding women’s ministry over a period of two years. But this cannot happen if at the same time Colin Coward et al are undermining the *current teaching* of the Church (which does in fact exist and we have all publicly signed up to support and teach it!!!) by changing the ‘facts on the ground’ out of a belief that they are clearly right and don’t have time for exploration.

    And do I in fact have the liberty to do what I think is right pastorally when the explicit teaching of the Church, after some debate, is the opposite? And remain ordained?

  19. 2000 years and more of theological wisdom. Give me a break. From Theodosius enacting laws sending sodomites to the stake, Justinian’s Pandects teaching they caused earthquakes, the Fathers generally equating it with pedophilia, Chrysostom’s sermons calling us even worse names than Jews (and by God was he antisemitic), Luther on the matter is beyond vile, and the church has generally applauded our incarceration or torture. Not one of the Fathers has even bothered to write at length on the matter. What wisdom?

  20. and should one even grant you evangelicals that the Bible calls same-sex activity sinful, you still have to explain why it calls it sinful, or do we have to obey blindly?

  21. The pro-gay relationship spokesperson states: “The report lacks empathy and compassion for LGB&T people.” He fails to recognise how true this is – it betrays all the LGB&T people who have sought at great personal expense to live by the traditional standards of the church; it’s telling them their painful choice to live celibate lives out of obedience to the church’s traditional teaching is a waste. It’s telling them that the church doesn’t know what it believes about this. Therefore it’s implying that the church can’t be trusted in its beliefs about ANYTHING.

    A lot of people regard the church as a bad joke; if this report isn’t PUBLICLY rejected then they will have every reason for their contempt, though of course the failure of bishops to restrain their clergy from blessings means that, for the most part, the contempt has already been earned.

  22. Ian, I agree. We are all sexually confused, but I simply don’t agree (and neither does respectable psychology/human development studies) that people in same-sex relationships are confused per se. I’ve also met plenty of well-adjusted 19-year olds and plenty of mixed up 50 year olds…I think, however, that the use of the word ‘confused’ by conservatives is primarily theology trumping psychology which is simply not defensible theologically or psychologically!

    Although I don’t agree with Colin Coward’s basis for his argument for the for change, and think that there is a better biblical, orthodox case for blessing same-sex relationships, I do think that conservatives are changing the current teaching of the church as well (read Anglican Mainstream and CCFON to if you don’t think that’s the case).

    Furthermore, Lorenzo (and I’ve got a pretty good idea who that is!) makes a fine historical point, which is that there has simply been next to no theological wisdom on this subject for most of the 2000 years of church history, merely a restatement of particular culturally-determined interpretations of Paul (focusing on Romans 1 but forgetting Romans 2), which have been subject to careful examination and re-examination by scholars in our time, traditional and progressive (revisionist is I think in danger of becoming a term of abuse). So, while there’s room for debate, an appeal to church history here is somewhat inadequate…

    Do I have the right to do, on the basis of pastoral care, go against the explicit teaching of the church and remain ordained? I’m reminded of the scene in Alan Paton’s “Cry, the Beloved Country” when a white judge washes the feet of a black man on Maundy Thursday and faces the consequence of his action by losing his place in the Dutch Reformed Church. I think it’s therefore up to the Church to act against its clergy when, like the judge in this story, it sees its members acting against its interpretation of Scripture (R. Burridge is great on this by the way). That the church won’t – and in reality that it can’t – for reasons pastoral, political and evangelistic, is of course your complaint. I would argue that you simply have to give up on that hope.

    For some traditionalists (not necessarily you, I add) that means (by their own lights, not because anyone is forcing them to) having to take a decision as to whether they can stay part of a church which won’t take the action they wish. My neighbouring vicar (whom we have discussed before) has been saying this for years but, throughout, has managed to find it in his heart to keep taking a stipend from a diocese he consistently argues is heterodox. I think he’s wrong about the heterodoxy myself, but I still think (as of this moment) his taking of a stipend by his own lights is hypocritical. Another double standard?

  23. I think there’s a fundamental problem behind the mess over Pilling, which doesn’t seem to be being addressed – about whether Scripture has authority to determine ethics at all.

    It seems clear that the Scriptural arguments for homosexual sex being ok in some circumstances are so flimsy that actually they’re being used to bolster a position that has been reached by other means.

  24. So what, Mr Allister, anything not clearly ok-ed by Scripture should be forbidden? I’d say that most of our ethical positions are reached by other means than Scriptural exegesis. I’d even venture to say that without an independent moral sense you could not determine whether Scripture is good or not and decide to trust what it says.

  25. I think Ian’s critical analysis of the report is reflective of the continued divide within the Church. The problem with these arguments is not a case of the Church losing relevance especially to the younger generation but a case of faithfulness to its ethics. Societies change their ethics, so also individuals but why on earth must they force that change on the Church? I would have loved to see the energy, resources and time devoted to such fruitless campaign also applied to changing such institutions as the monarchy. While I am not anti-monarchy, on the contrary, am a fan of it, coming from one myself, yet I thought postmodernism would have swept such things away long before now, but reverse is the case.

    Even if the CoE changes its doctrine on this and other divisive issues in the Church due to pressures from society and its quest for relevance, yet such change cannot change the faithfulness demanded of the Church in its dealings with the world whether pre or postmodern. The hypocrisy and double-thinking in the Church is reflective of the confused state of the Church which cannot be allowed to go on any longer. Society does not determine ethics for the Church. A church that meets the needs of the society will always be relevant irrespective of the tags it wears.

  26. No, Lorenzo, to take the inverse of what John said, and then negate it, is not restating what he said. This again illustrates the need for more careful listening. I agree with John that this discussion really does come down to the place of Scripture in ethical and doctrinal decision-making.

    Yes, Simon, I do believe that theology should trump psychology, in that psychological insights need to be put in the context of theological anthropology rooted in Scripture, and not the other way around. ‘Experience’ and ‘reason’ are important hermeneutical lenses on our reading of Scripture but, to change the metaphor slightly, it is Scripture that has controlling authority.

    We do have moral senses, but they need to be open to correction by Scripture, if we truly are fallen and sinful, rather than our moral sense being used as an independent arbiter over Scripture.

  27. “it will alienate the Roman Catholic church*, the Vineyard, black-led churches, independent evangelicals, a good number of Baptists, and no doubt others as well”

    Conversely, it would bring you closer to the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada: wouldn’t *that* be a novelty!

    * Surely you are aware of polls (in North America, and I would think in the UK as well) that shows that Roman Catholics are actually MORE supportive of same-sex marriage than the average respondent?

  28. Simon, I probably agree with you both about conservative revisions, though not sure about the double-think of taking a stipend.

    I think the Alan Paton parallel is a poor one. The minor point is that the parallel between ethnic identity and sexual preference does not hold; it is often asserted but not supported by the evidence. The major point is that a strategy to those in authority of ‘I am going to defy you; discipline me if you dare’ is a breach both in letter and spirit of oaths of canonical obedience; in our current context we are all well aware that bishops dare not; this is the same strategy as those e.g. Sea of Faith who actually no longer believe; I think it is very corrosive of trust; it is a truly poor way of doing theology; it brings the Church into disrepute as a process; and it undermines any possibility of the listening process.

    Apart from all those reasons, I guess it is fine.

  29. I have to say I am baffled by the comment ‘There has been no wisdom for 2000 years.’ So those teaching ethics courses on sex and marriage are unable to supply reading lists…?? Or if they do, they must start the course by saying ‘All of this is wrong’?

  30. “I don’t think anyone is interested in a ‘compromise’…”

    Not even the Pilling working group can have seriously contemplated the idea of a compromise. If they had, at least a modicum of respect would have been accorded to gays and lesbians. As it is, apparently our relationships are not worthy of being blessed and can only be “marked” on an informal, case-by-case basis. No formal liturgy for us, just whatever ad-hoc witherings pop into the head of individual priests.

    If they thought we’d welcome such monumental arrogance and condescension, they were wrong. Are they really that stupid, or was it a calculated slap in the face designed to persuade us to leave the Church? If gay and lesbian Anglicans departed en masse, their problem would be solved, wouldn’t it?

  31. I did not mean to say that there has been no wisdom on marriage, but on gay relationships. They’ve only ever been envisaged as the wayward acts of straight folks who should have known better and punished abominably.

  32. Lorenzo, I don’t think these can be entirely separated, and if you look back at the conversation, it was wisdom about marriage I was referring to.

    Stephen, I think you put the concern clearly. I really don’t know what the group thought the report would achieve in relation to a compromise. But as I say, there is something more fundamental missing in the whole process. As Jeffrey John points out, the problem has been developing for 50 years, so I suspect it will take another 50 to resolve.

  33. Stephen – you can’t be serious. The CofE has a clear statement of its views, and PILLING IS COMMITTED TO NOT CHANGING THAT. Given that context, to expect more than Pilling has offered – and even that is actually pure obfuscation rather than any sort of moral clarity – is inconceivable.

    The Church believes that actively sexualised gay relationship are WRONG. That’s the reality you need to cope with. Expecting us to change our mind because it’s painful to you – and thereby spit in the faces of the celibate gays who’ve chosen to live as the church teaches – is just unhealthy in Christian terms, but is of course tempting to a church that has largely lost its way. That the gay community is demanding that the churches change their mind is surely evidence that you are, at some level, aware that they are doing wrong, and rather than repenting, are trying to get the church to agree with them.

  34. Bruce, I’m aware that Pilling is recommending no doctrinal changes. I’m also aware that the Church doctrine falsely holds gay relationships to be wrong. I can cope with that knowledge perfectly well, but only by thinking of it as an unsatisfactory status quo that needs to change.

    It will change, of course. Once the current crop of old, sad, anachronistic churchmen and their equally geriatric lay sidekicks has shuffled off this mortal coil and been replaced by a generation capable of distinguishing between God’s will and human hatred. Reactionaries are always on the losing side of any long-term debate by the very nature of their reaction. Who won the slavery debate? And the divorce and remarriage debate? And the women priests debate? And lately the women bishops debate? Was it the reactionaries? No, I’m afraid it was not.

    I have every confidence that within a generation, this debate will be settled in favour of the LGBT community and everyone will wonder what all the fuss was about. My only hesitation is whether I should watch the changes happen from inside or outside the Church.

    Pilling highlights the arrogance and contempt the gay community has to put up within the Church and makes me think that by far the best view is from the outside looking in. Better to see the vague, pretty outline of a building than to be confronted with the dilapidated, ruinous and highly malodorous interior. Better to stay outside rather than risk having the roof come down on top of one’s head. So I think I’ll let the worm-infested rafters fall and rot down into compost (highly acidic, I should think…) before venturing inside again to see what can be salvaged … or possibly even rebuilt.

  35. Dear Bruce and Ian. I for one am deadly serious. Why are these relationships wrong (no need to capitalise)? I would even grant you that Scripture takes a dim view of a few instances of same-sex love (though I do fail to see how Paul’s depiction of what look like pagan orgiastic rites and definitely not the kind of relationship I live should be universalised). But please explain why you think they are wrong and not just tell me that ‘the Bible says so.’ And no, the fact that the gay community is demanding that the churches change their mind is definitely not evidence that we are, at some level, aware that we are doing wrong. What kind of logic is that? It’s evidence that we think you are wrong! and in the absence of any cogent argument to the contrary your refusal to change also comes across as bigoted, if not to me, to the population at large. So again: why is same-sex activity wrong? why does God say so, if you’re inclined to put the question that way? or why ought it to be restricted to mariage between one man and one woman? Not that it ought to be, or that God said so or that Scripture says so, but why?

  36. Stephen, I’m afraid that in a generation or so people won’t wonder ‘what the fuss was all about,’ they will be able to deride the church as having been, not faithful to her eternal doctrinal norms but the last bastion of intolerance in the country. Either that or we will look as outlandish as hasidic Jews with our rules on sex, gender segregation and gays.

  37. Lorenzo: I’m resisting the temptation to respond to your posts about WHY gay sexual relationships are wrong per se as it would derail THIS thread. If our host wants to provide a place for that debate, I’m sure he’ll be happy to start a separate thread; as far as I’m concerned, it’s a something over which far too many pixels have been generated.

    Stephen: you are, of course, wrong to assert that the ‘reactionaries have been defeated’ on the remarriage of divorcees – at least in theory, in the CofE. In practice of course parish priests do tend to bless almost any marriage that is presented to them, a situation that is deeply sub-Christian: it was after all Jesus, not merely Paul, who said: ‘the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. (1 Cor 7:11). Of course the failure to obey the clear command is reflects a general unwillingness to be faithful to God, and, it has to be said, having agreed to ignore the very clear command of God over remarrying divorcees, holding the line at gay relationships is far harder.

    That Stephen, you are thinking about choosing whether to be in the building of the church or outside shows a seriously defective ecclesiology. If you are a Christian, you are inside the church. Which particular denomination you choose is up to you – but to withdraw from fellowship totally is not consistent with being a Christian: Christianity is a collective exercise, and we are under the authority of our leaders. Once again that we have come to think otherwise is a sad reflection of the failure of the church to teach effectively.

  38. Stephen, I think you are on to something in terms of generational change. But it strikes me that the generation which accepts same-sex relations is also the generation which is most ignorant of the Bible, and one that is most embedded in consumerist culture. I have written in this post of a key theological significance of this. But at the very least we can observe that acceptance of SSM in our generation correlates with a move away from engagement in Christian faith, not with it. So either way I don’t think the future is very rosy.

  39. Lorenzo I don’t agree with your reading of Paul (which is widespread but I don’t think offer good exegesis). Paul’s offers a two-fold argument in Rom 1 both parts of which are related to God’s manifestation of his truth within the created order. He is not locating same-sex relations with cultic idolatry, but instead is categorising rejection of God *as* idolatry. And the two fold basis of this is the rejection of God’s nature seen in the world around and seen in the way people are made. Hence Paul characterises same-sex relations as rejection of God’s intended creation in Gen 1 and 2, and in fact the language in Rom 1 has striking parallels with Gen 1 and 2.

    Some of the best explorations of the theological rationale of this can be found in Hays ‘Moral Vision of the NT”, Schmidt ‘Straight and Narrow’ and of course Robert Gagnon ‘Homosexuality and the Bible’ along with the supporting website. I am not sure how much value there is rehearsing all these arguments here.

    Peter Ould also lists research correlating same-sex attractive with environmental factors here For me this is never ‘explanation’ but offers some reasonable support.

    Again, I am reluctant to open this up for discussion, not least because the real danger is that such conversations tends to make people with same-sex attraction seem like objects of scrutiny. But I just wanted to point out that there has been plenty of discussion about the ‘why’, so no, I don’t think I would say ‘Just because the Bible says, so there.’

  40. Bruce, who said I intended to remain a Christian? If Christianity is institutionally homophobic, which it certainly is in its Anglican form, then it cannot be the ultimate expression of universal truth. In leaving the Church, I therefore leave Christianity.

    What you don’t seem to understand is that belief in the Church has nothing to do with belief in Christ. I can believe that Christ lived, died to redeem the world, was resurrected and rose into Heaven without placing any faith in the institution of the Church. I can believe in the basic narrative of Scripture without believing that every last word of it is the literal truth. And I can certainly believe that the vicious band of prudish homophobes and misogynists that has historically controlled the Church will one day die off leaving a more balanced generation not governed by prejudice and hatred in control. It may not happen in my lifetime, but it will happen at some point. In the meantime, I’ll just go on believing what I believe outside the Church.

  41. JCF: you propose we should follow the example of the Episcopal church in the US. Why should we choose that steadily declining church over the rapidly growing Anglican churches of the two thirds world. Or are you assuming that the latter ‘aren’t real Christians’?

    And the story is told that at one Lambeth conference the African bishops’ contribution was rejected because of the relatively low level of their academic achievements. So after that the Africans started to send their high-flyers to Western academic institutions, with the result that at the last two conferences, the Africans have higher average qualification than the westerners. For some reason people still listen the Americans…

  42. Paul Seymour meant to comment earlier that I think it is fair to say there is no evidence whatever that ‘sexual orientation is genetically predetermined.’ Even those who believe that there is significant genetic or congenital component agree that environmental factors are important too.

  43. Well, I utterly disagree with your reading of Paul. It seemed cobbled together (especially Gagnon) specifically to condemn gay relationships. I’m with Dr Brownson on the matter (read him?). Isn’t it also intriguing that the passage traditionally bandied about by Tradition, even the Reformers, on the matter, is the Story of Sodom, and not these passing remarks of St Paul, though they will of course use them as additional ammo. But then again, even if same-sex attraction, to use your jargon, were caused by environmental factors entirely (so is my speaking French) it would not follow that it is changeable at all, nor that it is in any way wrong. Even if St Paul were indeed condemning any manner of same-sex activity for all time, you would still have to show clearly why. The only cogent reason I have ever been given (if to me idiotic) is that sex should strictly be a baby-making enterprise. But I’m open to being proved wrong.

  44. and it amazes me to see evangelicals desperately searching the Scriptures to find a divine ordinance or institution for marriage when the Reformers themselves sought to reject this Catholic dogma and were glad to confess that marriage, alongside confession, confirmation and ordination lacked a clear institution in Scripture and “have no like nature of sacrament … for that they have no visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.’ Trying to restrict sexual activity to marriage because it is the only ‘biblically faithful view’ seems very strange to me.

  45. Thanks Lorenzo, but I have to say you don’t sound very open! No-one is suggesting that marriage is a (Catholic) sacrament. I have nowhere suggested the orientation is ’caused by environmental factors entirely’. ‘same-sex attraction’ is not my jargon, but the language of Pilling. And the authors I have mentioned do a lot of work on the question of moral reasoning…for those who are open to hearing it.

    I guess Pilling was right on one thing: there needs to be better listening.

  46. Lorenzo; your comments about the Reformers and marriage are missing the concept of a ‘creation ordinance’, which is a something that God gives as creator and ruler of the universe, rather than a church sacrament, which is given as head of the church (over simplification there – but I hope you can see what I mean). Jesus invokes the creation reference of ‘a man leaving his father and mother and being joined to his wife’ in his discussion of divorce. He is thus endorsing the ordinance of marriage, which he commands should be indissoluble in God’s plan, and by implication consisting of a ‘man’ and ‘his wife’.

    Rome adds an additional level of complexity, arguing that only marriages celebrated by the church are subject to the command of being indissoluble, allowing Catholics to annul marriages that occur with the presence of clergy. It’s this understanding of a separate church sacrament that the Reformers reject.

  47. Sorry to sound close minded. As it happens I do agree with most of these authors that the Bible takes a dim view of same sex relationships but think most of them (I have not read them all) are only parsing Scripture and offer next to no reason as to why Scripture might be saying what they think it says. I’m only aware of two on that front, the recent complementarian readings of Paul which, even if you take a non-hierarchical view of it as you do, are definitely not traditional. I struggle to find any expression of it among the Fathers who clearly assume female inferiority. And I cannot understand how or in what sense a single person would therefore be incomplete. The other reason I’ve come across was the traditional Roman Catholic one, based on natural law, that sex should only be a baby-making entreprise. If I do come across as ‘not very open,’ it is probably because the debate affects us in very different ways. Should people want to argue that my relationship is sinful and I should send my partner packing, I’d want them to have arguments that are serious and clear. So far, it’s a complete fail.


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