If you were to read the Pilling Report knowing nothing about Church of England politics you would probably think that the elephant has gone into a long and difficult labour, with heavy contractions, and finally given birth to a mouse. The most significant recommendation is that clergy should be permitted to perform gay blessings, but only if they want to and only if the Church Council approves. How much progress is this? Plenty of clergy are doing it anyway, regardless of the rules.
In general Pilling is a step in the right direction, though a very small one. There is however one significant change. It is a change in the way the questions are approached. The uninitiated might have overlooked it if it had not been for the dissenting statement by Keith Sinclair, the Bishop of Birkenhead, who saw exactly what was at stake. It is not dramatic change; the Report is still top-down, still insisting that until the Church changes its official teaching it remains authoritative; but it allows that recent changes of public attitudes may have something from God to teach the Church, and that over time official teaching may have to change. Hence the recommendations for ‘facilitated conversations’ where the end result is not predetermined.
A small step in this direction is the kind of thing many of us anticipated. After more than a decade of threats of schism by conservative evangelicals determined to establish their views as the only legitimate views in the Church, there has been a change of mood over the past year. The reactionary document Men and Women in Marriage, published at the beginning of 2013, would not have been published now. The changes proposed by Pilling, though small steps, are defended by an overall approach to Anglican teaching which paves the way to bigger steps.
Much of it does what all such reports do. After a brief foreword by Joe Pilling and a longer Prologue by Jessica Martin, the Report itself explains the background and terms of reference and summarises the obligations to the Anglican Communion, relevant Church of England documents, cultural issues, social trends, scientific research into gay and lesbian orientation, the debates about the Bible and Anglican ethics. Rather than proposing a theological approach to the issue it describes two contrasting approaches, those of Oliver O’Donovan and Timothy Radcliffe. Paragraph §30 summarises the beliefs expressed by those the commission met and is worth reading for its own sake. A substantial Dissenting Statement by Keith Sinclair, the Bishop of Birkenhead, is integrated into the Report before the final list of recommendations. Among the appendices are two contrasting documents discussing the relevant biblical texts, by Keith Sinclair and David Runcorn respectively.
I begin my responses with what I consider the most important element, the way the Report handles differences of opinion. §37 describes the overall approach:
The group felt that the challenge for the Church of England is how to maintain openness to personal encounter and creative engagement with difference while not simply saying ‘anything goes’ in the area of sexuality (a position that none of the group would want to adopt), but instead giving clear corporate teaching about the disciplines of the Christian life, rooted in Scripture and the Christian tradition and addressing the real issues that people are facing, and setting out and upholding a clear and consistent pattern of practice for clergy and laity based on this teaching.
This statement describes the problem better than the response. ‘Personal encounter’ seems to mean it will not do to have a list of rules and impose them on everybody regardless of circumstance: good ethics starts by paying attention to where people actually are, not with a set of rules. ‘Creative engagement with difference’ suggests that ethics at its best does not expect everyone to behave in the same way. One thing may be right for one person, another for another. Immediately this gets qualified, as it needs to be, by denying that ‘anything goes’. However, if I have understood these terms rightly they seem to be undermined by the expectation of ‘clear corporate teaching about the disciplines of the Christian life… and… clear and consistent pattern of practice for clergy and laity’. It appears that they are still thinking in terms of a set of rules to be imposed on all concerned; they just want the rules to allow for a bit more diversity than they do at present.
No premature closure
The discussion of Anglican teaching follows the usual pattern of relating scripture, reason and tradition, though it puts tradition before reason. The account of reason could have been more constructive, but this does not affect the overall thrust of the chapter:
The Anglican approach to social ethics is profoundly Christian in its refusal – in theory if not always in practice – to countenance premature foreclosure on matters where discerning the mind of the Church and the mind of Christ is elusive (§308).
It then notes the contrasting view that scripture is ‘both the first and final source of authority to which both tradition and reason must be subordinated’ (§317) but replies that
the majority of our group is not persuaded either that the meaning and implications of Scripture are so clear and certain or that the Scriptures can be read quite so independently of the Church’s traditions and of human reason. To make one reading of Scripture definitive in that way would, in effect, make one wing of the Anglican family the sole arbiter of Anglican ethics and bring an end to the conciliar approach which has for so long characterized Anglicanism (§318).
It would indeed, and this is exactly what, only a few years ago, the Windsor Report and the proposed Anglican Covenant intended to do. For example in 2004 the Windsor Report argued (§69) that such questions can only remain open when the Church has not already made up its mind. Pilling rightly proposes otherwise.
Here lies the contrast between two opposing epistemologies that have set Christians against each other since the Reformation. Are reason and tradition merely servants of scripture, tools to elucidate what scripture tells us, or do they have a wider remit, enabling us to discover things that are not supported by scripture at all? The Report’s position is in effect a recovery of traditional Anglican openness after a decade of attempts, accompanied by countless threats of schism, to impose a more dogmatic epistemology onto the Church.
Given the differences of opinion the Report responds that we need to listen to each other (§57ff). More precisely,
We therefore propose an initial time-frame of around two years for implementing our key proposal for facilitated conversations, recognizing that the process itself may not lead within that time to the kind of definitive position for the Church for which many, in their different ways, hope… The subject of sexuality, with its history of deeply entrenched views on both sides, would best be addressed by facilitated conversations or a similar process to which the Church of England needs to commit itself at national and diocesan level (§83).
The term ‘facilitated conversations’ is later emphasised (§§352ff); it is important that
all, including those with teaching authority in the Church, should be able to participate openly and honestly in that process (§351).
I do not believe this requires the Church to say, as the Report does, that this listening is the means by which we may be able to learn what we currently do not know, namely whether or not what the Bible teaches and the Church has held for two thousand years is true. Rather, I believe such listening needs to be part of continuing discussion and discernment concerning how the biblical teaching about sexuality should be applied pastorally in relation to the full range of people’s life situations and a constructive engagement with the arguments and concerns of those, both inside and outside the Church, who are not yet convinced of the truth of this teaching (§451).
To Sinclair, then, the truth is given. The listening and debating is only to be directed to two functions: applying it in different circumstances, and converting those who do not accept it. This is the position of those who threatened schism over the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop.
Elsewhere the Report recognises the unfortunate reputation religious traditions have for dogmatism:
In Parliament, in the media, and in many other forums, finding common ground has been elusive… The arguments about same sex marriage revealed the way in which religious participants in the debate were often assumed to be arguing from principles which are inaccessible to reason. Increasingly, ‘religion’ seems to be treated as if it is an individual peculiarity to be accommodated or tolerated, and to have nothing to say to public concerns. This is not the place to discuss the advance of this kind of secularism, but it needs to be noted that contributions to public debate from the Churches, whatever the subject, are contested on such grounds (§§43-44).
It does not go on to ask why this should be the case, but we all know. This dogmatic, anti-rational view of religion is not a secular invention. It is the brainchild of religious movements which treat divine revelation as superior to all human reason and therefore have no way to communicate with people who do not share their theory. Sinclair’s dissenting statement illustrates it well: if his view had prevailed the Report would indeed have been ‘arguing from principles which are inaccessible to reason’.
Public opinion as a source of insight
There is no hiding the fact that it was public opinion, not scriptural exegesis or church tradition, which defeated the attempt to isolate the USA from the rest of the Anglican Communion over its acceptance of an openly gay bishop. Opponents of change argue that the Church is selling out to the spirit of the secular age. Pilling meets the argument head on:
We believe that God’s grace is mediated, not solely through the institutional church, but by God’s presence before us in the world and his continuing activity in the Holy Spirit which is not confined to working through Christians. Part of our calling as disciples is to seek out this prevenient grace of God and celebrate his works (§340).
Exactly so. If only this statement had been included in the Windsor Report we might have been saved almost a decade of conflict.
Official teaching remains until changed
However, as is the way with Pilling, it is accompanied by a cautionary note.
The teaching of the Church, like a thesis in scientific enquiry, stands until the evidence contradicting it is sufficient to change it (§334)…
Time may demonstrate a congruence between God’s will and cultural trends, but we submit that, given the rate of change in public opinion… it is too soon to enshrine such a judgement in the Church’s doctrinal teaching, and we cannot be sure what the outcome will be when it is possible to make a confident judgement (§343).
Nevertheless the Report fully accepts that if there is to be a period of public debate there must be freedom for all to contribute openly:
We uphold the church’s official teaching whilst recognizing that it is important for alternative views to be explored openly as part of an ongoing process of discernment. As leaders in discerning the gospel message for our culture, it is right that those with teaching authority should be able to participate openly and honestly in that debate (§350).
Again this is a step forward. So far, church leaders have been constrained not to argue publicly for a more tolerant view of same-sex partnerships. When it was proposed to appoint Jeffrey John and then Gene Robinson to bishopricks, opponents argued that the immorality of homosexuality has been agreed as official Church teaching so anyone who disagrees should not be in a leadership position. Pilling allows for continuing debate.
Difficulty with the intermediate position
It is an intermediate position. On the one hand current teaching remains until formally changed, and church leaders must uphold it. On the other, church leaders who disagree with it must be free to present their views openly and honestly.
I do not see how this can work in practice. A bishop who disagrees with the Church’s formal teaching is on the one hand expected to uphold it until such time as it is changed, but on the other is at liberty to argue publicly against it. Any bishop who argues in favour of accepting same-sex relationships is likely to be suspected of being gay, and if he is he will no doubt be subjected to intrusive questions about his private life; but even if there are no issues about his personal life it is difficult to see how he can uphold formal teaching while at the same time arguing against it.
I suggest that it would be better for the Church to abandon the practice of holding formal positions on internally disputed matters. There is little to lose. As long as there is a well-established consensus it may be sensible to speak of ‘what the Church believes’. When that consensus disappears it ceases to be sensible. A parallel situation exists regarding the obligation on clergy to use only orders of service authorised by the Church. The obligation is so widely disregarded that it has become meaningless, and the attempt to insist on it makes the authorities look pompous and powerless. Similarly, in the case of same-sex partnerships, there is no point in appealing to formal teaching when in practice those who are expected to consider it authoritative are making up their own minds.
The ‘nub of the disagreement– the sticking point, as we understand it, which has prevented us from coming closer as a result of our deliberations’ is, we are told, the interpretation of scripture (§57). There is much discussion of biblical texts, supplemented at the end of the document by the two analyses of the biblical texts on homosexuality by Sinclair and Runcorn. Although they take contrasting positions on same-sex partnerships both are evangelicals with a strong commitment to deriving ethical norms from the Bible.
This skews the whole document, in three ways.
It puts too much emphasis on debates about biblical texts. Of course many Christians, especially evangelicals, seek to be guided by scripture, but on reading Sinclair’s and Runcorn’s exegeses it is hard to believe that the different conclusions result only from different theories of biblical interpretation. In reality we all have other motives: our feelings, our desires, our anxieties, our good and bad experiences. Some of us, especially evangelicals, learn ways of interpreting difficult biblical texts so that they mean what we want them to mean, and this enables us to claim that we are being true to scripture; but for many people the real sticking-point is that we differ in what we want to believe.
It puts too much emphasis on evangelical discourse. Sinclair, Runcorn and the Report itself all approach the biblical texts from the perspective of the Church’s internal conflicts and seek to interpret scripture in ways which will resolve them. The discussion of relevant biblical texts should have begun with biblical scholars who have less ecclesiastical axe to grind.
It gives too much say to Sinclair. In effect he gets three bites of the cherry. Firstly he took part in the discussions about the content of the Report itself. Secondly he contributed one of the two statements about the biblical texts. Thirdly, his refusal to sign the Report is accompanied by a substantial account of his reasons.
Critiques of society
There are critiques of current social attitudes in both the Prologue and the chapter on ‘Sexuality, culture and Christian ethics’.
In a society where the commercial contract has become the paradigm for all manner of relationships that were once modelled on something more profound than money, it is difficult to communicate the notion that one should do anything which does not gratify immediate wants (§129)…
The Church stands increasingly apart from the dominant trends in culture when it upholds the virtues of permanence and fidelity in human relationships, and it is remarkable that so many, whatever their sexual orientation, seek to embody those virtues and see the Church as the community that can enable virtue to endure (§148, the conclusion to the chapter).
The strong criticisms of modern secular attitudes to sexuality are well made but they are not the whole story and they do not justify the proposed retreat back into the arms of Church teaching, even if reformed. The arguments are somewhat mixed up but I think they can be classified as:
the commercialisation of sexuality;
the declining age at which children are introduced to sexual matters and encouraged to develop their sexuality;
the cult of individual fulfilment at the expense of caring for others; and
the cult of immediate gratification at the expense of considering long-term effects.
These points are put together as an argument that we do need rules for sexual ethics and that therefore the Church still has an important role to play in offering guidance. I do not think the conclusion follows.
(1) The critique of commercialism should be directed at government policy as a stand-alone response by the Church to an important issue in social and economic ethics, but in this Report it only explains one possible cause of changing attitudes. It is a better criticism of the mass media and commercial advertising than it is of the attitudes of young people as they agonise over what to do.
(2) The sexualisation of children is a much-discussed matter of concern, but I am not convinced of its relevance to this Report, which focuses on the sexuality of older people.
(3) and (4) are the ethical issues relevant to this Report, but I do not believe they characterise the attitudes of most secular young people today. People who reject the Church’s traditional teaching do not necessarily seek self-interest without regard for others, nor are they only concerned for immediate gratification. For example, people can choose one-night stands because they desire sexual experience while at the same time treating them as part of a longer-term process of finding a suitable long-term partner.
Although the Report rightly argues that people need guidance in sexual ethics, what it does not show is that the guidance should take the form of a set of rules about which sex acts can be performed by whom. If ‘openness to personal encounter and creative engagement with difference’ (§37) are to be taken seriously, a response based on situation ethics, with more emphasis on the quality of relationships, would seem more appropriate.
The Report does not address the fact that changing sexual practices are often the result of other social changes. Sometimes this leaves one feeling that it misses the point:
For those called to marriage and family life who cannot gain the necessary economic independence until well past the peak of sexual maturity and often late in the childbearing years, the Church’s sexual ethic is a hard calling. That some live by it sacrificially is testimony to God’s amazing grace and the depth of some Christians’ faith (§139).
Social and economic pressures do indeed oblige increasing numbers to postpone marriage and childbearing until their thirties. While few would want to return to biblical norms where marriage normally took place at or soon after puberty, the increasing economic pressures on young couples to delay childbirth well beyond the optimum age is something to be challenged, not taken for granted. Instead of praising those who abide by ‘the Church’s sexual ethic’ it would have been more constructive to offer a critique of these economic trends.
The descriptions of scientific research cover the prevalence of homosexuality, homophobia and intersex conditions. It asks how fixed is sexual attraction, what are the causes of homosexual orientation, whether it is harmful, whether same sex relationships are less stable and whether attempts to change orientation are successful. In almost every case it concludes that the evidence is inconclusive. A typical example is the following:
Despite changing attitudes toward same sex relationships over the past few decades, recent studies suggest that same sex cohabitations and same sex unions (in countries where they have been introduced) continue to have higher rates of dissolution than different-sex cohabiting couples and different-sex marital unions.
It is not yet known why there are problems of permanence and fidelity in same sex relationships. It may be due to lack of social support or lack of time for changes in social attitudes to exert their effect; alternatively, it may reflect a reality that human beings are constituted in such a way that intimate relationships between people of the same sex are inherently less stable, the role of children in stabilizing many heterosexual relationships, or some combination of all these factors. In the absence of compelling evidence one way or another, we can only take a neutral stance (§§212-213).
Although I have no expertise in the research findings I am unconvinced by these conclusions since others are arguing that the evidence points heavily to one conclusion or another. As I understand it, for example, there is a strong consensus that orientation on the gay/straight spectrum is pretty well fixed at birth and that attempts to ‘cure’ gays have proved ineffective. Nevertheless it is always possible to present social science research findings as inconclusive. There is always one more possible reason why the results may be biased, always one more research project that can be done, always an exception or two. The fact that the Report sits on the fence on so many issues suggests to me that this is where it is determined to sit. Sinclair also finds this element unconvincing:
Will that not mean, if the Report is adopted, that the Church of England will continue formally to abide by its existing teaching while at the same time having declared that it has no good reason to think that this teaching is true? (§455)
Commission members did not reach agreement on gay blessings in church. On the one hand Issues in Human Sexuality had accepted ‘that gay and lesbian lay Christians might in good conscience decide to enter into sexually faithful monogamous relationships’ and that refusing to offer them ‘penalizes those gay and lesbian Christians who steadfastly seek to live by that teaching in enduring and faithful relationships’ (§382). On the other hand it would be hard to implement it for civil partnerships but not gay marriages (§383). Also, a Synodically approved formal liturgy would have doctrinal implications and should therefore follow rather than precede doctrinal decisions (§384). Nevertheless,
Those of our group who wish to see a change in the Church’s practice… 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 (§391; §392 adds that they must have the local Church Council’s approval).
This is the recommendation which has received most media attention. Once again Pilling offers a small, limited step towards accepting gay and lesbian partnerships. Most clergy who wish to conduct gay blessings are probably doing so already regardless of the rules, but formal permission would help.
Questions to candidates for ministry
One thorny ecclesiastical issue has been the questions bishops ask of candidates for the ordained ministry. As the Report puts it,
There have been reports that some candidates with homosexual orientation are subjected to intrusive questioning, that such candidates are unfairly treated since heterosexual candidates seem less likely to be asked about their attitudes towards the Church’s teaching on sexual relationships, and that candidates may feel under pressure to give misleading or prevaricating answers (§400).
Diocesan directors of ordinands may have been under pressure
to question such candidates in ways which breach a reasonable boundary between proper concern and intrusiveness (§402).
The Report recommends
that all candidates for ministry should be treated in the same way regarding their sexual conduct: that is, they should be reminded that they are called to chastity and fidelity in their relationships and to 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 (§411).
Again, a small but limited step forward. It still presumes a formal Church teaching which forbids gay sexual activity among clergy and expects them to obey it, but it limits the right of bishops to ask intrusive questions. In effect it allows candidates in gay partnerships to apply with greater confidence that they will not be put under pressure to lie.
Paradoxically this is a point on which the Report can certainly be accused of selling out to the spirit of the secular age. Asking detailed questions about other people’s sex lives is considered socially unacceptable and bishops who have felt obliged to do so have often found it embarrassing. It was not always so. The Bible contains many statements of the type ‘Adam knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain’ (Genesis 4:1). Today it is socially unacceptable to make announcements of the type ‘Nine months ago John had sex with Janet and today she has given birth to a girl’. The medieval penitentials had no hesitation in advising confessors to ask penitents who put which organ where in their sexual activities. Our dislike of intrusive personal questions is modern and secular, but none the worse for that.
Limits to the remit
Reading the chapters which summarise previous Anglican and Church of England documents, I realised why I will never be invited onto any such commission. It was assumed that all these previous texts stand as authoritative unless they are authoritatively overturned. There is one exception: the 1987 General Synod ‘Higton motion’ condemning homosexuality was passed, but
Nevertheless, it is difficult to see how a resolution that is now 26 years old, on a subject that continues to be controversial, can still be said with any certainty to represent the mind of Synod (§102).
Otherwise the Report proceeds on the basis that the terms set by these previous documents constrain what Pilling may recommend. To pass judgement on them was beyond its remit, so what else could it do? On the other hand we cannot carry on like this. If every new report is constrained by all its predecessors the constraints will get tighter and tighter and future reports will have less and less room for manoevre. Public opinion, even within the Church, is demanding bigger changes. Reports that fail to respond to the real agenda will get ignored.
To summarise, Pilling has recommended a series of small, heavily qualified steps towards greater acceptance of same-sex partnerships. They are too heavily qualified to please the pro-gay lobby. The fact that they are steps in that direction at all will infuriate the anti-gay lobby, but they are too small to justify another high-profile campaign of opposition.
Here, I suspect, lies Pilling’s real genius. It is a carefully crafted expression of the changing political situation in the Church of England’s leadership. The times they are a-changin’. It is the end of an era. We might date that era from the 1997 Kuala Lumpur Conference, which set out to forbid toleration of same-sex partnerships, or perhaps as far back as the 1987 Higton resolution passed by General Synod with similar intent. Threats of schism have been front page news time and time again. If any one date marked the end of that era it was 24th March 2012, when the English dioceses voting against the Anglican Covenant reached a majority. A few months later an unconvincing attempt to oppose same-sex marriages backfired. Church leaders determined to resist change began to feel the draught; they were indeed increasingly lonely. From then on the direction of travel would have to be towards a more tolerant Church, more willing to accept differences of belief and practice. The campaign to impose uniformity of belief had failed.
The old forces are dying, but they are still there. Now is no time for a revolution. Pilling proposes a definite change of direction but very little movement. The Recommendations will not stand the test of time. They are, rather, cairns on a mountain path marking the point that Church of England politics has reached today. The two-year period of ‘facilitated conversations’ points the direction to the next cairn.
This is its real value. It opens the door for more movement. The most important element is the overt reaffirmation of an open, enquiring, developmental approach to Anglican belief and practice. From the Kuala Lumpur Conference onwards there has been a stream of Anglican documents rejecting it. Most notable were the Windsor Report and the text of the proposed Anglican Covenant, but there were countless others, from scholarly books reinterpreting Richard Hooker’s account of reason to the many formal statements by the Primates and the Archbishop of Canterbury. That was an era of suppressing Anglican openness. The Report is to be congratulated on reviving it.