A Cautious Step Leftward
  • Sunday, December 1, 2013

“We warmly welcome and affirm the presence and ministry within the Church of gay and lesbian people, both lay and ordained,” declares the Pilling Report, a new Church of England document on same-sex relations published November 28.

The report is by the church’s Working Group on Sexuality chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling, a retired civil servant, whose resumé includes leading the challenging Northern Ireland Office. There was every indication that release of the report was accelerated because leaks had begun to appear in the media and on weblogs. One blogger posted a summary of the report’s main conclusions two weeks ago, which turned out to be largely correct.

The Pilling Report takes a stance very similar to a policy recently approved in the Church of Scotland. It does not recommend centrally approved services to celebrate same-sex unions but it paves the way for clergy to arrange services in their parishes. It recommends, further, that in the next two years the Church undertake comprehensive facilitated conversations.

The language of the report is careful and tentative. That is not how the media saw it, however, and immediately the headlines said the Church of England was poised to bless same-sex marriage. The report speaks of the need for “pastoral accommodation.” Nor indeed does it speak of “blessing” gay marriages, even though this is the preferred term by the media.

The church, it says, needed to apologise for homophobic attitudes. It clarifies, however, that saying that the Bible prohibits active gay relations is not of itself homophobic. A statement issued on the same day by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York tried to emphasise the provisional nature of the report, saying it was “not a new policy statement from the Church of England.”

The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement predictably said the report “did not go far enough to ensure that lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or trans (LGB and T) people will feel included, welcomed and above all, safe within the church.”

Colin Coward of Changing Attitude sounded a similar theme: “Our Christian conviction is clear — homosexuality is not harmful. Christian homophobia and prejudice is deeply harmful and results in anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicide, violence and murder, the result of social prejudice based on false Christian teaching.”

The Pilling Report spells a huge challenge for Church of England evangelicals. Rod Thomas of Reform, a conservative network, said the report was “very divisive and distressing.” Others such as Fulcrum have promised detailed analysis soon.

The Rt. Rev. Keith Sinclair, Bishop of Birkenhead, is the lone dissenting member of the working group. “I conclude with great regret that the Report thus does not give an adequate account of biblical teaching,” he wrote. “As a result, if adopted, it will cut the Church adrift from her Scriptural moorings and, by depriving her of a prophetic vision, allow her to be swept along by the currents of contemporary Western culture.”

The day after the Pilling Report went public saw a less-hurried launch of a new website, Living Out. It is aimed at supporting people who own to same-sex attraction but refrain from same-sex relations. One person who features on the site is the Rev. Peter Ould, who expressed regret over the Pilling proposals. He said it was a blow to “people like myself, who despite not being heterosexual have fashioned their lives to surrender to God’s will for human sexual functioning as outlined in Scripture.”

Ould, a priest in the Diocese of Canterbury, is married and the father of four children.

Twice in the last three decades the Church of England commissioned major reports on homosexuality. In 1979 the Rt. Rev. John Yates, Bishop of Gloucester, chaired an enquiry. A decade later June Osborne, now Dean of Salisbury, chaired another.

The Yates Report said there were “circumstances in which individuals may justly choose to enter a homosexual relationship involving a physical expression of sexual love.” These words were pounced on in isolation. There was never a full, open debate and it was effectively shelved. The Osborne Report sketched a framework for how the church should deal with the key pastoral issues relating to homosexuality. Most bishops distanced themselves from it and it was never formally published following loud opposition.

After a long hiatus, in 1991 the House of Bishops issued the document Issues in Human Sexuality, which became official church policy. It spelt out a two-tiered approach: clergy were not free to enter same-sex relations, but it placed no such bar on laypeople doing so. Later the Church of England had to reckon with the 1998 Lambeth Conference’s Resolution 1.10, which rejected same-sex relations as not reflecting the mind of the Anglican Communion.

It was always clear that tension surrounded the subject. Moreover, with same-sex marriage now allowed under U.K. law, the official position of the Church of England was clearly at odds with the culture, with opinion polls consistently showing a majority of Britons approving of same-sex relations.

John Martin, London

Image of wedding bands courtesy of morgueFile

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