Here is the press conference for the release of this official report from the Church of England. Listen carefully to the section beginning at 18:25. Pilling says, "We don’t suggest any change to the church’s teaching, but we do want to make room for suitable pastoral and liturgical responses to request from same sex couples who want to mark their relationship in Christian context." What does he think "pastoral and liturgical responses" are? Did the Pilling Committee just completely ignore what happened to the Episcopal Church? Are they watching even now? We can't have a "liturgical response" without changing the doctrine. And "pastoral response" means blessing same sex marriages. That is the pastoral response. That is what the Episcopal Church is doing right now - that is what the phrase means! I don't know if the gentleman is willfully ignorant, blissfully naive, or someone whispered imperio in his vicinity, but what a whopper of a statement. Pray for the bishops of the Church of England.
Excellent commentary by Andrew Symes from here:
|Sir Joseph Pilling|
The last time I wrote about the Pilling Report I speculated that it was in a locked vault waiting for the Bishops to discuss it before it was released. But suddenly, we were told that its publication was “imminent”, and then there it was, out in the open for us all to discuss. We can speculate about the timing of the release, but its best to look at the document in front of us and ask: what does it say? What does it mean? And what should we do, especially those of us who disagree profoundly with the report’s conclusions?
The Pilling Report, or to give its proper title the Report of the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality, runs to over 200 pages. It begins with a brief foreword from the Chair of the working group Sir Joseph Pilling (a retired civil servant of distinction) which explains some of the process and gives a hint of the conclusions. Then there is an essay by one of the panel, Jessica Martin. “Living with holiness and desire” is a personal theological reflection written – well lets say with a style and a theological method that most evangelicals would not be used to. There is further explanation of the process in the first few paragraphs of the report’s main body. The group’s discussions and study of evidence is seen as part of the wider process of “listening” to which the Anglican Communion committed itself after Lambeth 1998 in resolution 1:10. We get a brief history of this, although it is a sanitized version of the Indaba process controlled by the central Anglican administration, and there is no mention of Gene Robinson, Jeffrey John or GAFCON. In fact while John and GAFCON do get a brief reference later in the document, it is extraordinary that Gene Robinson and the “tearing of the fabric of Communion” which resulted globally from the Episcopal Church’s unilateral decision to consecrate him, remains unmentioned – one of many “elephants in the room” in this report.
The Church’s teaching and the cultural context
A major part of the committee’s work was to read and listen to submissions from various individuals and bodies with different views on sexuality and Christian faith, as well as interviewing a number of people identifying themselves as lesbian, gay or same sex attracted, some Christian, some not; some in relationships, others celibate. For the majority of these people the Church of England’s current teaching and practice on same sex relationships is “deeply off-putting” especially to young people; it encourages dishonesty among gay clergy, it contributes to low self esteem among gay people. But for a minority, the church’s teaching helps people with same sex attraction (ssa) to resist what they believe is temptation to sin. There the report as a whole seems to assume that the church’s teaching about homosexuality only affects those who consider themselves to be gay or ssa. It is only Keith Sinclair’s dissenting statement which points out that permitting same gender sexual relationships as compatible with Christian discipleship would lead to the unraveling of doctrinal coherence in a number of areas, such as our understanding of Scripture and even God (eg para 468).
The debates leading up to the overwhelming support for same sex marriage in Parliament shows how far and fast the culture has moved in its views on sexuality. This is considered in the section “a rapidly changing context”. The writers of the report are aware that secularism accuses any argument related to religion as inherently opposed to reason, and interested only on imposing dogma on others. But the report as a whole errs towards trying to appease this secular worldview by saying in effect we should ditch any biblical and supernatural certainties: to “occupy the middle ground of uncertainty and seeking after truth” (para 51), rather than humbly but clearly articulating a worldview which is accessible to reason but also posits a spiritual reality, something which Bishop Keith advocates.
Conservative evangelicals will be frustrated at the theme of tentative uncertainty which runs through the document. However there is a recognition in the report that the church cannot simply follow the culture in its view of sex. In a reference to recent abuse scandals, it is noted that sexual liberation can have a “dark and oppressive side” (53, also 66), so a church which is cautious and reflective might be a form of witness to a culture which wants to rush headlong into an unrestrained “anything goes” sexual ethic. In this respect there will be many liberal Christians who will be frustrated with the report for not going far enough. But of course taking the “middle path”, so often held up as classically Anglican, will not lead to a genuine resolution as the commission hopes.
Listening and balance
One of the recommendations of the report is an intentional, facilitated “listening process” through mediated conversations. A number of paragraphs are devoted to explaining the thinking behind this. The process is important according to the report, as we “recognize Christ in one another” even as we engage with those with whom we disagree. Questions around the meaning and authority of Scripture are identified as a major cause of division among the members of the commission and also in the church as a whole. The report seems to be saying that because this disagreement exists about what the Bible says and how to read it, and because Anglicans do not have a “magisterium” declaring dogma which must be obeyed, we cannot do anything except engage in conversation respectfully with one another and the world. More will be said on this later.
The desire for balance means that the report is not simply an endorsement of a liberal or politically correct opinion. We are asked to listen to the genuine feelings of exclusion felt by lesbian and gay people in relation to the church. But as the context has changed in society, newly confident LGBT people now in the mainstream of cultural thinking must also “listen carefully to those who hold firmly to the church’s traditional teaching” (77). It is said more than once that it cannot be considered “homophobic” simply to articulate this traditional view (eg 327-328).
At this point the report pauses to set out some initial recommendations. A two year indaba, yes, but this is preceded by a statement which must be seen as controversial:
We warmly welcome and affirm the presence and ministry within the Church of lesbian and gay people, both lay and ordained (p22).
This is not explained or qualified. As a result it suggests that the church does not distinguish between welcoming someone’s presence within the church, endorsement of their lifestyle, an assumption of Christian fellowship, and affirming their ministry. It would surely have been better at this early stage of the report to express welcome unconditionally to all people, including those who identify themselves as lesbian and gay, but then to say that agreement is needed on what homosexuality is and to what extent its active sexual expression is compatible with authentic Christian discipleship, before the Church can fully affirm sexually active gay people in ministry, and offer blessing to same sex couples. The failure to provide this distinction is one of the major weaknesses of the report.
The Church of England cannot change its teaching unilaterally, according to the document, because of the mutuality which exists between the Provinces of the Anglican Communion (explained in paragraphs 85-100). This section, which draws heavily on Rowan Williams’ talks at Lambeth 2008, does not mention that fellowship within the Communion has already been strained to breaking point because of the Gene Robinson consecration and the persistent reneging on agreements by the Episcopal Church after the Windsor report. That history gives good reason for conservatives to be suspicious of a process in which they are being urged to “listen” and be open minded, while the other side simply goes ahead and acts in ways that it believes are prophetic, creating facts on the ground which are offensive to those with a traditional Anglican understanding of sexual ethics, and which redefine the church’s teaching by default.
The next section (p28 f) surveys the recent history of the Church of England attempting to address the issue of homosexuality, and is worth reading to see the subtle evolution away from clear guidelines based on the Bible to more pragmatic accommodation to rapid changes in society, in particular the introduction of civil partnerships. The 1987 General Synod “Higton Motion” which affirms that sex is for marriage (assumed to be heterosexual), and gay sex is sinful, has never been rescinded, but the report says because it “is now 26 years old, on a subject that continues to be controversial”, it cannot any more “represent the mind of Synod”. This is typical of the report. It does not advocate changing the official teaching of the church, because this would require bruising and embarrassing debates in Synod and the difficulty of getting required 2/3 majorities. Rather it claims to hold to existing teaching while questioning and undermining it. This tactic becomes more prevalent later as the report approaches its conclusion.
Sexuality in general and then homosexuality in particular receive extensive treatment in the report, in a fairly balanced way. There are statistics about numbers of gay people and social attitudes to homosexuality. Not only is there much more acceptance, but there is increasing intolerance of “homophobia” which the report defines quite helpfully (para 175 and following). Gay people testify to experiencing ostracism, even violence, which the church has rightly rejected in a number of statements, but in today’s culture people who call themselves “post gay” may be both excluded by the gay community and also treated with suspicion by Christian conservatives.
The summary of the scientific evidence in the report is on the whole fair and endorses many arguments that conservatives have been using. It cannot be shown with any certainty that homosexual orientation is innate and /or fixed. There are many possible causes of same sex attraction. The higher levels of mental illness and tendency to self destructive behaviour among some gay people may or may not be due to social stigma, or internal stress caused by the lifestyle itself. It may be possible for some people with ssa to change their orientation to some extent through counselling; there is no compelling evidence that this might be inherently harmful. It is encouraging that the report takes seriously the submissions by Core Issues Trust and Goddard/Harrison, and uses their evidence to question the ideologically-based conclusions of the Royal College of Psychiatry (206-217). We are left with the conclusion that science has not come to a conclusion. In the next section we are told that the evidence of Scripture is also inconclusive.
What does the Bible say?
All the committee agreed that Scripture is uniformly negative about homosexual practice. The disagreements came over how to interpret this. Standard liberal positions are articulated in para 221: either that we’ve interpreted it wrong, or that the bible is not authoritative, but an optional resource in our ethical decision making. Examples are given of lesbian and “queer” interpretations as well as the more mainstream liberalism of Richard Burridge. The conservative reading of Scripture articulated by Bishop Keith Sinclair is given space (234, in his statement, and in the Appendix), but the report insists that this is only one understanding out of many which are equally valid in the Anglican tradition. In the Appendix, Bishop Keith’s understanding sits alongside a different interpretation of Scripture from an “including evangelical”, Revd David Runcorn. Again, it is really important for evangelicals wanting to hold on to the traditional understanding of Christian sexual ethics to read and engage with Runcorn’s position. His assertions and others made in the report about a biblical basis for acceptance of homosexual practice do not stand up to the scrutiny of the challenge of the orthodox case outlined by Sinclair.
From Scripture on to theology, and a summary of papers presented by the respected theologians Timothy Radcliffe and Oliver O’Donovan. Radcliffe is as one would expect: liberal Catholic, with fascinating insights but heterodox conclusions. O’Donovan is disappointing: it is he who first advocates “pastoral accommodation” for same sex couples after opining that all theological discussion on theology is provisional: “more of the experiment than the conclusion” – a glorification of doubt and open-endedness. On specifically Anglican theology, the document affirms Canon A5 “grounded in the Holy Scriptures” and Article 6 “all things necessary to salvation”, but interprets this as saying Anglicans are free to disagree about everything as long as Scripture is the “touchstone” (para 286)! After a discussion on the relationship between Scripture, tradition and reason, the conclusion is that Anglicanism’s inherent way of doing things is to include all opinions, treading “a careful line between unwarranted specificity and vague blandness”. Well the document in the end achieves this: rejecting the specificity of a clear bible based position on sexuality, and avoiding the impression that the church is vague on the issue by eventually advocating the blessing of same sex relationships. There is inconsistency here: the report says that Scripture and theology are apparently unclear on the rightness of homosexual practice, but we should go ahead and bless it anyway, as long as the relationships are “permanent, faithful, stable”. What is not explained is how, if Scripture is not clear, why should the church dogmatically insist on faithful monogamy in relationships?
At this point the report returns to the subject of homophobia. It is ironic that the report was released the day after the Supreme Court’s rejection of the Bulls' bed and breakfast case, and yet the Pilling Report states “Christians in England are not… subject to anything comparable to the treatment which many lesbian and gay people experience or fear in everyday social contexts” (para 324). No evidence is provided for this claim. It will be interesting to observe in future, as homosexuality is normalized and celebrated through gay marriage and taught to children in schools, as politics, the media and the church are increasingly dominated by gay and pro-gay people, and as the retreat of Christianity from the public square is accelerated, how long the gay lobby will continue to play this victim card.
As we can’t know anything for sure, the report says we can only move forward with mutual respect by a listening process. This is explained in page 103f. Specifically not a series of debates, but relationship building, with no predetermined outcome. There is an assumption that this process will be entirely fair, where conservatives and liberals can meet and listen to each other in an unthreatening environment. The report does not seem to recognize the very real danger of bias as the dice are loaded – the culture is providing the weight on one side heavily inclining towards acceptance of homosexuality, and the choice of facilitators will be determined centrally and are much more likely to be liberal.
Blessing of same sex relationships
Now, on to the specific proposals about “blessing”. The legalization of gay marriage has brought an urgency to the question of pastoral care for same sex couples “who seek ecclesial recognition for their…relationship” (371). On one hand, to offer blessing, especially in church using formal liturgies, would be seen to be changing the doctrine of the church and to mimic marriage (384) which the Bishops have stated categorically should be reserved for heterosexual couples. But on the other hand, a failure of the church to celebrate faithful same sex couples continues to discriminate, and confirms the view that the church is not good news for gay people. So the report recommends “less formal approaches”, whereby a “pastoral accommodation” to pray informally with a couple need not entail a final moral judgement. Para 399 appears to go further, implying that such informal prayer may be an “act of worship to mark the formation of a same sex relationship”. The decision to do this should be left to individual clergy who must make the decision in consultation with their PCC.
Another “elephant in the room” comes up in the section about candidates for ordination. Guidelines from “Issues” of 1991 and the response to Civil Partnership legislation in 2005 confirmed that gay clergy could be in CP’s as long as they were celibate. The redefinition of marriage means that the sexual act is now no longer mentioned. CP’s will be converted to marriages. So it is theoretically possible that a gay person offering himself for ordination and his same sex partner could be “married” without being sexually active. While the report takes seriously the need for clergy “to order their lives according to the will of the Church”, it seems to assume that this will always be the case with partnered gay candidates who have verbally assented to the Church’s official teaching. Its not just conservatives who have pointed out that this is at the very least a charter for dishonesty, but much worse it is a deceptive witness to society. To expect people to believe that a gay clergy are not having sex with their partners could be more of a stumbling block for the average pagan than that Jesus died for their sins, rose again and is coming back as judge. To be fair, the report does call for this anomaly to be put on the table in the facilitated discussions, so that the requirement for sexual abstinence for gay clergy can be quietly dropped.
The dissenting statement
Bishop Keith Sinclair’s dissenting statement bravely refutes the report and clearly articulates the biblical vision for human flourishing which includes the proper place for sexual expression. The Bishop affirms the need to repent of homophobia in the way the report has defined it, but goes on to say that in the Gospel Jesus challenges everyone to repent, die to self and embrace a new identity in him. While the report affirms those who experience ssa and are celibate, it sees this as a minority choice which is optional, and so offers only confusion to those who want to know how to follow Christ. The report’s claim that it is not advocating a change in the church’s teaching is undermined by the recommendations to affirm gay relationships. Sinclair accuses the report of “cultural captivity” – trying to appease society, undermining historic Christian doctrine and ethics, and not protecting conservative ssa people who want the Church to help them avoid temptation. Rather, he says, Christians should be different from the world, offering an alternative account of what we are to do with our desires.
Bishop Keith says that a valid listening process should be for pastoral application of what we know clearly from Scripture. Instead, what is being proposed is that facilitated conversations will help us to work out whether we should find new ways of communicating the traditional line, or discover that that line is wrong and should be changed (452); in the meantime clergy and PCC’s can pre-empt the process and ignore the Church’s official teaching as part of local pastoral accommodation. Although Bishop Keith is much too polite to say so, this is dishonest and manipulative. He is however forthright enough to say that it will produce “liturgical anarchy” – although of course the official response will be that it’s not a liturgy, and it’s not a blessing, and we haven’t changed doctrine. There will be pressure on clergy with traditional views to perform blessings for same sex couples, and pressure on liberal clergy who believe in “permanent, faithful, stable” to bless couples who have no intention of living that way. Bishop Keith’s dissenting statement closes with a quote from Canadian theologian Edith Humphrey, that for the Church to invoke God’s blessing on an act for which repentance is required, is to replace God with an idol (481).
What can be done?
This is why we are faced with officially sanctioned apostasy in our own church. It has finally happened. What do we do? The first thing to say is that the report has not yet been endorsed by the house of Bishops. We must pray for them and lobby them as politely but intensively as we can before their meeting to discuss the document. Groups like Church Society, Reform, CEEC must play their part, but perhaps more importantly local DEF’s or other orthodox groupings at Diocesan level, and of course individual parishes. We need to make it clear to the Bishops that we stand by Bishop Keith, and urge them to do the same; that on their response to this report God will be judging their effectiveness as shepherds. As Peter Ould has said, this is the time for the godly among them to stand up and be counted. The bishops can vote to kick this report into touch, reaffirm the church’s traditional teaching without equivocation, and start again, building on +Keith’s vision and suggested course of action. Or they can challenge supporters of the report to put a motion to Synod to change the teaching of the church, and have a real public debate. If this does not happen, and the report is endorsed, then it is difficult to see how to avoid many cases of impaired fellowship between bible believing clergy and congregations, and Bishops who voted for the report. AMiE is now up and running and ready to help in those circumstances.
Secondly, those with orthodox views need to pray and plan together in a much wider coalition than currently exists. Among those who believe that Christian discipleship is incompatible with homosexual practice, there will be disagreement about strategy should the report be endorsed by the Bishops. Should we refuse to engage at all with the facilitated conversations, or send a few people to them as an evangelistic exercise or a fact finding mission in interfaith dialogue? Should we cap parish share, break off relations with the Bishop, etc? Can those who come to different conclusions continue to work together? One urgent task must be to develop materials which help clergy and laity fully understand and articulate the “better vision” for human sexuality which is clear from the Bible and orthodox Christian tradition, and of which Bishop Keith speaks.
Thirdly, there has to be a question mark about the response of the charismatic churches, the New Wine network, HTB, Alpha etc. Will some of them recognize the potential spiritual danger, and join a conservative coalition to oppose this major, albeit back door, change in the church’s ethical teaching and practice? Some will, and we look forward to joining with them. Others may feel, I think wrongly, that reports, and decisions by official commissions and Synods are irrelevant to their work of ministry. Sadly though there are some churches which may be accommodating their theological position to be more in line with the culture.
Fourth, orthodox Anglicans need to work out a clear understanding of prayer and blessing. There is already a common practice of praying for God’s blessing on all sorts of people (for example, in the streets) without suggesting that they are converted or endorsing their lifestyle – is this valid? Should an exception be made for gay couples because of the sin of homosexual practice? If not, what are the differences between praying for a stranger on the street who is distressed, praying with an unmarried couple who have no intention of marrying or of following Christ but who want their child baptized, and praying with a gay couple? The Pilling Report’s conclusions should not make a difference to how we answer these questions, but they force us to be able to articulate a response that is pastorally sensitive and biblically faithful.
Finally, another other elephant in the room. Let’s watch carefully to see what Archbishop Justin says and does.