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Divisions Deepen in Pilling

The Church of England House of Bishops’ Working Group on Human Sexuality, chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling, published its report (“the Pilling Report”) on November 28, in advance of discussion by the House of Bishops in December and the whole College of Bishops in January (see this TLC report by John Martin). It is, as Lambeth Palace tweeted, a report to not of the Church of England but it will set the agenda for future discussions and so its content, rationale, and significance are important. They can be summed up by exploring nine areas (building on the analysis I offered earlier this year here).

First, the report is very conscious of the church’s context and the demand it find a fresh way to address the issue of sexuality, particularly same-sex relationships (although it touches also on heterosexual non-marital cohabitation at paras 138, 148). This demand arises pastorally with gay and lesbian couples who are Anglicans and with Anglican clergy being approached for spiritual support by gay and lesbian parishioners. There are also the missional demands, particularly in the public square in the light of the legislation introducing same-sex marriage. It is noteworthy that the practical recommendations end by stressing that they are “the pastoral response which the majority of our group believe the Church of England should make as a result of the missiological challenges we identified earlier” (para 414, italics added).

These demands are pressing, second, because of the clear distance that has opened up between the church’s teaching and the wider culture, particularly among young people and the political and media elites. This can lead to a strong sense of cultural dissonance. The report, after explaining its origins and task, begins here (paras 39-54) and frequently highlights this as a major new challenge the church must address (e.g., paras 123-173, Recommendations 8-12). This is particularly pressing in a national, established church, as demonstrated for example in Sweden. During my evidence to the group, when pressed on whether we did not therefore need to change I replied that the point may come when we have to decide whether we are primarily the Church of England or the church of Jesus Christ.

Third, the demands and dissonance are strong because of the recognition of homophobia, which the report stresses “is still as serious a matter as it was” (Recommendation 5) for which the church needs to repent, although it is clear that “no one should be accused of homophobia solely for articulating traditional Christian teaching on same sex relationships” (Recommendation 6). To counter this problem, its first recommendation, presented as the foundation of the report, is that “we warmly welcome and affirm the presence and ministry within the Church of gay and lesbian people, both lay and ordained” (Recommendation 1).

In this context the fourth reality is that of significant and increasing diversity and disagreement within the Church of England about how the church should respond. In relation to the church’s teaching and practice the range can be categorised in terms of different mixes of reassertion, reassessment and revision. The group (a lay Chair, four bishops and three advisors) embodied a wide spectrum of views (although its weight, given known personal views, would appear to be between reassessment and revision) and was left in no doubt about the extent and strength of views in the evidence it received. The report encourages greater openness about this diversity, particularly among the bishops who have tended to seek to hold a common line, recommending that “all, including those with teaching authority in the church, should be able to participate openly and honestly” in debate and discernment (Recommendation 12).

This diversity and disagreement relates, fifth, to church teaching or doctrine. Here the report sets out, with extensive quotations, what the church has taught (paras 101-122) but offers little substantive explanation, let alone defence, of “the current teaching” in the face of the four challenges noted above. Although subtle, and under the guise of presenting something which all agree upon, the moral doctrine of the report itself — from the otherwise brilliant opening Prologue by Jessica Martin onwards — works with a paradigm focussed on virtue and the qualities of sexual relationship (“permanent,” “faithful,” “stable”) as the key determinant in a Christian sexual ethic (e.g., paras 123-148). Little or no attention is given to divine commands or natural law or the created order or the witness of Scripture as providing a normative structure for sexual relationships. Indeed, on the key question of Scripture, one of its central arguments is that “we do not all believe that the evidence of Scripture points to only one set of ethical conclusions” and “Christians who share an equal commitment to Scripture do not agree on the implications of Scripture for same sex relationships” (para 235). Two alternative views are set out in the appendix with no evaluation by the group, although one suspects most are closer to the revisionist position of David Runcorn than the reassertion of a traditional reading offered by fellow group member Keith Sinclair.

Despite this, the report states “at the level of declared doctrine, we are agreed that there is not sufficient consensus to change the church’s teaching on human sexuality” (para 349) and so “we uphold the church’s official teaching whilst recognising that it is important for alternative views to be explored openly as part of an ongoing process of discernment” (para 350). However, why the teaching of the church should remain unchanged is never explained with reference to Scripture or tradition but left as simply a pragmatic judgment that “there is not sufficient consensus to change.”

The diversity and disagreement relates also, sixth, to discipline, or how the church orders it own life, in particular its public worship and its requirements for clergy conduct. Here the upholding of doctrine leads to no change in one sense: there should be no formally approved liturgy for a service for a same-sex relationship (para 384) and all ministerial candidates should still “order their lives according to the will of the Church on matters of sexual conduct, and they should be asked to give an assurance that they will seek to live by that standard” (para 411). In relation to the latter area the only slight change is to stress that “whether someone is married, single or in a civil partnership should have no bearing on the nature of the assurances sought from them” (Recommendation 18), although it is said that the church needs to consider “the extent to which different disciplines on sexual conduct should be required of bishops, clergy and laity” (para 373). It is left unclear whether “married” here would include clergy legally married to someone of the same sex, an issue the House of Bishops will have to address in the near future.

It is in relation to public worship that the most significant change is made. Here it is argued that whereas in the past “the Church has resisted calls to celebrate civil partnerships in any formal or liturgical way” (para 380), “we believe that parishes and clergy, who conscientiously believe that celebrating faithful same sex relationships would be pastorally and missiologically the right thing to do, should be supported in doing so” (para 391). Although not authorised at a national or diocesan level, “it may be that the House of Bishops should issue guidelines” (para 393). The language of “blessing” is avoided (but the Chair reportedly said he would not write a letter of complaint if the press used such language) and reference made instead to “celebration” (paras 391, 392) and “an act of worship to mark the formation of a same sex relationship” (para 399, Recommendation 16) which it appears the majority thought could extend to same-sex marriages although it is stressed the service must nor resemble a marriage service.

Among the many serious questions this recommendation raises, four areas in particular are worth noting. First, although presented as a form of “pastoral accommodation” its institution of “local option” at a parish level does not fit well with the need for great care to ensure that, in the words of the FAOC report which used this terminology, any service is “bearing witness in special ways to the abiding importance of the norm” and will “proclaim the form of life given by God’s creative goodness and bring those in difficult positions into closer approximation to it.” It represents “local option” at the most local level and is more congregational than Anglican in its ecclesiology. Second, it appears to be more of a political accommodation or compromise within the group — conservatives get to uphold the doctrine but concede a change in discipline (this is almost hinted at in para 391). In practice it will lead to services being constructed by those who do not wish to uphold the doctrine and so are unlikely to do so in practice. Third, explicitly following the Church of Scotland’s approach, it creates a disjunction between the church’s teaching and its practice, risking the establishment on a formal level of precisely the hypocrisy that many have complained has existed informally for decades. It officially puts the practical cart before the doctrinal horse. Fourth, if approved by the bishops, this proposal appears to violate the Communion moratorium given the Joint Standing Committee made clear in 2007 that “the celebration of a public liturgy which includes a blessing on a same-sex union is not within the breadth of private pastoral response envisaged by the Primates in their Pastoral Letter of 2003” and the American bishops’ assurances therefore were only acceptable if they meant that “the use of any such rites or liturgies will not in future have the bishop’s authority.”

Alongside these attempts to navigate the differences over doctrine and discipline the central proposal of the report is, seventh, dialogue. The group argues that this is the next step for the Church of England at a national and diocesan level. It prefers to speak of “facilitated conversation” rather than “indaba,” although this appears to be a very close relative of the latter (paras 352-68). This should take the form of “consultation on this report … with a sense of urgency, perhaps over a period of two years” (Recommendation 3) and be “in close dialogue with the wider Anglican Communion and other Churches” (Recommendation 4). This is explicitly modelled on the group’s own working pattern (paras 55-83) and although it recognises “we are not certain that consensus … is possible” (para 70) it believes that it may enable people “to recognize, first all each other’s humanity, and then, perhaps, our shared belonging to one another in Christ through our common baptism” (para 71). Its purpose should be “relational, not institutional,” listening “so the journey can continue in an atmosphere of respect for difference”(para 357). Although it is said there would need to be “clear plans for evaluation and determining next steps” (para 365) it is unclear how such a process will relate to and shape the necessary formal corporate decision-making. A weakness of the report is that by choosing to set out and argue for its own vision, it largely fails to set out clearly the arguments on key decisive questions and issues that need to be discussed in a way that enables the wider church to understand the range of views that exist. Here the report Some Issues in Human Sexuality, although ten years old, remains a far superior guide to the theological debate than this new report.

Eighth, the report clearly represents a proposed development in the Church of England’s stance that may set a new trajectory. This is evident in both some of its substantive proposals developing the Church of England’s position and in the methodological approach to this issue that it embodies and recommends. Although this may appear to be only small, gradual, and evolutionary on the surface, it is arguably revolutionary in both substance and method in that it represents at its heart a departure from received doctrine.

To draw together the various areas above, the report and what it recommends appears to be driven by the need to respond to perceived pastoral and missional demands in a changed culture and to combat any hint of homophobia. Alongside this is put a claim that the existence of diversity and disagreement means that we need facilitated conversations based on acceptance of that diversity, and claimed consequent uncertainty, as the only way forward. In addition, to honour that diversity the church’s discipline must change and develop as soon as possible in order to reflect the diversity and reduce cultural dissonance and apparent homophobia. Throughout this, received doctrine in the form of church teaching and its sources in Scripture and tradition is effectively reduced to a silenced spectator. Although it is said that this is currently left unchanged, doctrine is explicitly detached from discipline (a move the Chair reportedly described as “Anglican in the best sense of the word”) and implicitly detached from Scripture whose teaching it judges unclear. It is noteworthy that the only substantive sections of the report not cited to explain its recommendations are those on Scripture and theology and that the wording in recommendation 2 that the conversations “should continue to involve profound reflection on the interpretation and application of Scripture” appears to be a last minute “fig-leaf” addition (it is missing from p. 22).

Christian doctrine, rooted in Scripture, rather than providing a basis for assessing and critiquing other factors such as context and practice, is now to be reshaped by them. As a result, the quality of life and the life expectancy of “the current teaching of the Church of England” appears to be much reduced by the Pilling Report.

The final feature of the report to note is the present and looming reality that this explosive cocktail will likely result in division or at least differentiation among Anglicans in England as it has in North America. This is evident on the face of the report in that, very unusually, it includes a significant “dissenting statement” from the one evangelical bishop on the group, the Bishop of Birkenhead, the Rt. Rev. Keith Sinclair. The report offers no basis to support the view that further dialogue is likely to prevent this outcome and yet it appears to have nothing to say to the bishops about how best to address this situation other than further dialogue about sexuality. Yet this focus for dialogue is one where it is clear many — across the range of views — believe that diminishing returns set in some time ago. As illustrated by initial responses to the report, there are such strongly held but incompatible theological and missiological worldviews driving people that the dialogue, when it is not simply the dialogue of the deaf, is increasingly more akin to interfaith dialogue than even ecumenical dialogue.

What the Pilling Report and its reception will perhaps show us is that rather than following its recommended departure from doctrine under the guise of “pastoral accommodation” or simply more talking about sex, what we urgently need are facilitated conversations that focus on the reality of our deep-rooted divisions on doctrine and the need to discern what differentiated church structures should be created in response to this reality. If some new structures can be found, that would mean that Anglicans committed to different patterns of doctrine, rather than continuing to struggle to establish their view as that of the Church of England, could be given the security and freedom to respond as they believe right. Shaped by their different doctrines, they could each address the real and challenging pastoral and missional demands, respond to the experience of cultural disconnect and dissonance, combat homophobia as they understand it, and establish their own form of church discipline in terms of clergy conduct and public acts of worship. If we can find a way to put such structured freedom and security in place so that we can all bear witness with integrity to what we believe is true and represents good news for our nation, we may, paradoxically, find it much easier to dialogue and work together across our diversity and disagreements. Then, as each approach seeks to share faithfully in God’s mission as they understand it, we could follow the Gamaliel principle cited by Runcorn and leave God to judge which developments and which trajectory is more faithful.


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