Friday, 26 September 2014

A scientific critique of the Pilling report

The following article appeared in the Church Times issue dated 19 September 2014. It is reproduced here with the permission of the Church Times.

Unanswered questions on Pilling report

There are problems about its use of science and other evidence, says Chris Cook

At the College of Bishops’ residential meeting this week, the Pilling report was scheduled for further discussion (News, 12 September). The report is the work of the House of Bishops Working Group on sexuality, and was published last November.

In January, the College of Bishops published a statement acknowledging the “strongly held and divergent” views reflected in the report, and accepting its recommendation for “facilitated conversations” to continue the process of listening, reflection, and discussion. There are, however, several important questions that need to be addressed about the report, particularly on its approach to the evidence and use of science.

The report has been criticised from both sides of the debate, but the process of facilitated conversation requires that we all, with the Bishops, give it careful attention. It raises questions not only about how we interpret scripture, but also about how we interpret our knowledge of sexuality. The often unexamined assumptions about the relationship between science and theology which are embedded in these interpretative processes influence both the way in which we go about the debate, and the conclusions that we reach.

The working group that produced the Pilling report was asked to “draw together and reflect upon biblical, historical, and ecumenical explorations on human sexuality”, as well as other material arising from the listening process after the 1998 Lambeth Conference.

This task need not necessarily have involved attention to scientific explorations, and the group does not appear to have had a scientific adviser. It is commendable, therefore, that the group recognised the importance of the scientific evidence, and devoted a whole chapter of its report to it.

Reflecting on the scientific evidence, the group concludes that “neither the medical nor the social sciences have arrived at any firm consensus that would impact decisively on the moral arguments.” It further notes that it is in the nature of science to test hypotheses against evidence, and that the theses that emerge can always be challenged by new evidence.

Similarly, “the teaching of the Church, like a thesis in scientific enquiry, stands until the evidence contradicting it is sufficient to change it.” Such transformative evidence is not solely scientific, but it is clear that the group understood that, in part, it may be scientific. Unfortunately, it found that the evidence was “not unequivocal”, and that scientists “find their scientific knowledge supporting different conclusions”.

The reader may conclude that the scientific evidence did not help much. When it comes to reflecting on the traditional Anglican recourse to scripture, tradition, and reason, science — as a strand of reason — seems to contribute little or nothing to the conclusions reached in the report, other than to reinforce the sense of irreconcilable disagreement.

Perhaps, then, it is time to put aside the science, and return to the more important biblical and theological debate. This, I think, would be a deeply mistaken conclusion, and, clearly, the working group does, too; for it recommends that the Church should continue to pay attention to the “as yet inconclusive scientific work on same-sex attraction”.

“Same-sex attraction” is not a phrase that appears in scripture, and the working group — wisely, in my view — identifies the importance of the “Is this really that?” question as a key determinant of the different ways in which we interpret scripture on matters such as this. So when we discuss this (homosexuality or any other matter), we must ask whether or not it is the same as the that to which the biblical text refers.

If, however, this question is to be followed through faithfully, it requires that careful biblical exegesis be accompanied by an equally careful analysis of the scientific evidence. Both scripture and scientific evidence have to be interpreted, and each plays a part in the interpretation of the other, whatever privilege we may feel that we need to give one or the other.

But the interpretation of science, the “Is this …?” part of the question, is not the same as the interpretation of scripture, the “… really that?” part.

The Bishop of Birkenhead, the Rt Revd Keith Sinclair, a member of the working group, found himself unable to sign the Pilling report. A dissenting statement and an appendix concerning scripture and same-sex relationships, both written by him, are, however, published with the report.

In the latter, he expresses concern that there has been a revisionist re-reading of scripture. Presumably, he is concerned that non-traditional interpretations of scripture have been adopted (by some) without due regard to a weight of biblical scholarship that continues to affirm the “traditional” biblical teaching on homosexuality.

Yet I do not believe that this is the primary problem. There has been a revisionist “reading” of our experience of human sexuality, and this, at least in part, has come about because of the way in which we now read scientifically.

First, our scientific concept of homosexuality is a modern one, acknowledging diversity within the range of normal sexual orientation; and, as such, was completely unknown to the Early Church.

Second, this scientific concept of homosexuality is no longer considered pathological, and mainstream scientific and clinical thinking concerning its origin and implications has changed out of all recognition; expectations for good professional practice now reflect this.

Third, as outlined in the report Some Issues in Human Sexuality (2003), there have been significant changes of understanding in Church and society more widely relating to various aspects of sexuality, including divorce and contraception, as well as homosexuality. As a result, we now interpret the metaphorical “text” of sexuality very differently from the ways we did 50 or 100 years ago.

Radical changes such as these have led to what Bishop Sinclair refers to as “revisionist” readings of scripture; but it is misleading and unhelpful to refer to re-readings in this way. There is no traditional reading of scripture on homosexuality to be revised, given that the modern scientific concept of homosexuality was unknown until the 19th century.

Notwithstanding the view of the whole working group that the scientific evidence is uncertain, many Christian professionals, as well as gay and lesbian Christians, experience significant unease at the way in which traditional readings of the Bible on homosexual behaviour have become associated with prejudice towards gay, lesbian, and bisexual people. Traditional readings of scripture that now appear to promote such prejudice have therefore given way to new readings that seek to show that scripture is still authoritative and redemptive.

One problem, then, is that we are confused about whether we are talking primarily about the interpretation of scripture, or the interpretation of human experience, and that these two hermeneutic processes are inextricably linked with one another, at least - but not only - for Christians in the Western world.

A second problem that I encounter as a practical theologian, and as a scientist reading this report, is that I do not see the critical rigour in evaluating scientific evidence which I should expect to find here. This is evident in numerous ways, but a single example may suffice to illustrate the nature of the problem.

The submission from the Royal College of Psychiatrists is quoted in support of a now widely accepted clinical and scientific view, based on peer-reviewed publications, that homosexual orientation is compatible with normal mental health. It is the experience of stigma and discrimination in society that contributes to the greater-than-expected mental-health problems experienced by some gay and lesbian people.

The report, however, immediately counterbalances this viewpoint with an opposing one, taken from a booklet published by a Christian organisation committed to a particular theological view in relation to matters of sexuality, Core Issues Trust.

Thus, it is alleged, the view of the Royal College is “neither proven nor ruled out by the evidence”, and an alternative possibility, that homosexual orientation “cuts against a fundamental gender-based given of the human condition, thus causing distress”, is equally neither proved nor ruled out.

Having consulted the peer-reviewed primary-research papers on which the opposing viewpoints are based, I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that the Core Issues Trust has simply marshalled scientific evidence in support of a position that has previously been determined by a particular interpretation of scripture. Thus, the point of view that it promotes is not so much based on scientific evidence as it is an apologetic for a theological tradition.

It is impossible, however, to reach this conclusion (or the alternative possible conclusion that the Royal College of Psychiatrists has misinterpreted the scientific evidence in support of another agenda), without consulting the primary-research publications oneself. Unfortunately, in its report, the working group shows little evidence of having done this.

A third and more fundamental problem is that science and theology are both concerned with asking and answering questions. The six questions chosen for attention in the section of the report which deals with scientific evidence are themselves significant.

The first question, dealing with sexual dimorphism, evokes an answer concerned largely with intersex syndromes and transsexualism, both of which are more or less beside the point so far as homosexuality is concerned. And yet none of the questions deals with the important issue why homosexuality is no longer classified as a psychiatric disorder.

There is a question about the causes of homosexuality, and much is made about what we do not know by way of answer, but there is no question asking whether homosexuality is something that people choose, or whether it is something more essential to personal identity, something that is discovered about oneself rather than chosen.

It is not clear how the scientific questions addressed in the report were identified, but the choice of questions would seem to have been significant in determining the conclusions reached. Some questions that were not asked are inherently both scientific and theological, notably the all-important “What is natural?” Failure to ask these difficult questions has let us all off the hook in relation to the thorny problem of how we engage scientific with theological reasoning in our understanding of sexuality.

This, in turn, has made it difficult to develop a coherent Christian view of sexuality which has both scientific and theological integrity.

A fourth and final problem that has not been addressed is that scientific terminology is precise, and open to examination — even when contested — in a way that ancient Hebrew and Greek terminology (for example, words such as “arsenokoitēs”) is not.

Homosexuality is a modern term; St Paul never talks about “homosexuality”, but only about homosexual acts and desires (and using language that is different from ours).

Scientific discourse on homosexuality requires that we distinguish carefully between sexual orientation, sexual identity (which has anatomical, genetic, psychological, and social dimensions), sexual attraction, and sexual behaviour. This care is sometimes lacking in the report.

Thus, questions are formed using words that are not quite right for the purpose (for example: “Is sexual attraction fixed and immutable?” when it is actually sexual orientation that appears to be under discussion). Sexual identity is discussed only in the section on homophobia, and none of these terms seems to be adequately defined anywhere in the report.

Had the scientific questions been chosen differently, and had the evidence been evaluated more critically in searching for the answers to them, I believe that the theological implications might have been different, or at least more helpful.

We interpret scripture, scientific evidence, and our experience of our sexuality according to complex and often hidden assumptions, which do not always lead us to sound conclusions. Where we start, whether with scripture or science, is probably less important than having the wisdom to formulate the right questions, the courage to ask them, and a constructively critical, rigorous, but also compassionate spirit with which to pursue the answers.

As we approach the process of facilitated conversation which the Pilling report has recommended, and which the Bishops have endorsed, I hope that more critical attention will be given to the scientific evidence. It has the potential to help us to address new questions to scripture, which, in turn, may help us to find that scripture is authoritative and salvific in ways that we had not previously expected.

In response, scripture presents us with important theological and prophetic questions about patterns of stigma and prejudice, which science has identified as underlying (and consequential upon) much mental ill-health.

Dr Chris Cook is Professor of Spirituality, Theology and Health at Durham University.

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Categorised as: Church of England | equality legislation

This critique of Pilling is welcome and timely.

Posted by: Flora Alexander on Friday, 26 September 2014 at 4:08pm BST

Now many times is the wheel going to have to be reinvented before we all agree that it's round? The scholarly place that the credited voices in the CofE have finally been brought to were speaking loudly and clearly in the American church in the 1970s. (same goes for the issue of women in the priesthood and episcopate. But the CofE goes right on pretending that they're breaking new ground and are coming up with innovative answers and insights for the first time in the history of Christendom. Criminy. I'm sure if you guys will apply to the archivist of the Episcopal Church, he or she can provide you with the materials that were used for our decision-making processes in the 1970s in which we finally determined that the place of gay people in the church was in no way compromised by their being gay; and that no credible theological bar to women in Holy Orders had been articulated. C'mon, CofE, is just ain't that hard.

Posted by: Daniel Berry, NYC on Friday, 26 September 2014 at 7:18pm BST

It was painfully obvious that the report distorted and manipulated the science so that it would be "balanced" to mirror the theological dispute - gays are evil, sick, depraved, failed heterosexuals, curable vs sexual orientation rests on a spectrum, is completely natural, fixed and immutable for most/fluid for some, but not amenable to "therapeutic" interventions to change or alter. It was a view of science akin to intelligent design or climate change denial that many fundamentalist christians use to align modern science with a pre-modern "biblical" worldview. Malcolm Brown admitted as much in his response to Sean Doherty (an "ex-gay" priest) that was covered here at

Posted by: etseq on Friday, 26 September 2014 at 7:36pm BST

Well, I think it's just lovely that the Church of England takes these balanced views about science. We know that some people believe in Newtonian physics and the theory of gravity and all that.

But an equally valid and acceptable way of looking at these things is to look at the Bible for scientific truth. The Bible says that Joshua stopped the moon and the sun stopped in midheaven for about a day. (Josh. 10:13-14) And that's just an equally valid way at looking how the cosmos operates.

You take Newton and gravity. I take the Bible. But of course my view of the Bible prevails over your view of Newtonian physics because the Bible's the Bible and the Word of God and Newton isn't.

Posted by: dr.primrose on Saturday, 27 September 2014 at 6:11am BST

I struggled to welcome the facilitated conversations on on earlier thread, the only sense I have of it is that an wholly institutionally homophobic organisation (only one bishop voted against the advice on marriage) making an attempt to appear willing to face internal division, while at the same time keen to control both process and outcomes.

Sadly I had some close experience of the last time this was done when Phil Groves commissioned a report on the science of sexuality from one of the last two academic psychiatrists in the country who supported a conservative view on the matter.
When he was challenged on this Groves said that the other side would not listen unless this material was handled by someone they trusted and secondly he assured us that the chosen man had no truck with reparative therapy.
So, as we see from this excellent analysis from Dr Cook in Durham, when the CofE embarks on these report and enquiries the whole process is skewed to give an an unearned equivalence to opinions that do not merit it.
The material produced by Groves for the last Lambeth was so skewed and in the end the assurances of no support for reparative therapy by their chosen academic also proved false.
It's demeaning to be involved in these processes and to see this constant deceit and self deception guide the hand and mind of those who pretend to engage with you.
For those on the gay and liberal side who are being sucked into these "conversations" to give some credibility to a broken system and process, I urge caution. You are not dealing with honest men.

Posted by: Martin Reynolds on Saturday, 27 September 2014 at 10:15am BST

"There is no traditional reading of scripture on homosexuality to be revised, given that the modern scientific concept of homosexuality was unknown until the 19th century."

^This! This! Exactly this! Unless and until anti-LGBT Anglicans acknowledge that their antipathy does NOT actually arise from Scripture---because Scripture is silent---our conversation inevitably can go Nowhere.

Posted by: JCF on Saturday, 27 September 2014 at 11:32pm BST

Martin, even if none of them was honest, what is the alternative to this process?

Posted by: Erika Baker on Sunday, 28 September 2014 at 8:49am BST

A good question, Erica, but hard for me to answer as I am so retired from the "front line" as it were.
But let me think out loud a little.
Last time we were feeding ideas into the process and assuming they would be acted upon, for example we suggested to Groves that the Royal Colleges should be contacted for their scientific views and while that idea was well received we subsequently discovered that no action was planned. LGCM then contacted the Royal Colleges and began discussions on their producing statements about homosexuality. This led to the Royal College of Psychiatrists producing a position paper.
Further discussion with the Physicians, Surgeons and General Practitioners were initially struggling but some processes appeared to be opening up when I left the job. Perhaps eight years further on things might be different if those currently leading our cause were to approach the Academy for a view or views.
So, I think we must be proactive and realise that the Church is unlikely to seek for academic or scientific opinion that would cast doubt upon its position.
And now would, once again, be a good time for the Theological Academy to follow this excellent brief paper from Durham University. With one or two notable exceptions the silence has been deafening and has thusly supported the homophobic status quo of the Church. Liberal leaders need to provoke those occupying comfortable seats of learning and urge them to speak out rather than complain waspishly over their sherry.
On a larger scale, liberals should not just allow the Church to control this agenda. There could and should be further and parallel discussions going on both within the Church and along side it.
One of these might be a symposium of those Porvoo church leaders and theologians who accept and celebrate equal marriage, perhaps in Durham (as it is speaking out). This offers a great opportunity for the argument to be influenced by our sister Churches who are so close and yet so unnoticed.
Perhaps another international conference of bishops, teachers and theologians from around the world alongside LGBTI representatives to feed into the conversations material that is both current and relevant to the discussion.
Stonewall must be pulled into this debate and the Cutting Edge Consortium might become the source of an alternative or supplementary dialogue with invited bishops on a public platform. We might bring light to theses discussions, if they are to be gracious then they must not be taking place in dark corners.
I have lots of further suggestions, Erica, but I am sure you probably don't need my tutoring on how to open up these discussions and widen the information available and the number of people involved.
There might be a spiritual vigil or fasting or time of constant prayer lasting two years organised by .......
We must do more than write open letters ...
We have to.

Posted by: Martin Reynolds on Sunday, 28 September 2014 at 9:51pm BST

Will Wales lead the way on marriage equality anglican style ? !

Just askin ...

Posted by: Laurie R on Sunday, 28 September 2014 at 11:26pm BST

Thanks, Martin, I agree that we must be pro-active on so many fronts. I like your ideas!

Posted by: Erika Baker on Monday, 29 September 2014 at 9:15am BST

That's generous Erica!

We must, first and foremost, model how discussion WITH us should look and sound like and that includes the whole range of people who identify as gay or post gay or married gay like Peter O.
We need to honour them and hear them as much as the Church needs to engage appropriately with us.
If we can do this well we will overshadow these conversations and relegate them to the obscurity they deserve.

Posted by: Martin Reynolds on Tuesday, 30 September 2014 at 1:11pm BST

No doubt Chris is correct in his critique, but I wonder whether there is another reason for the way that scientific questions were asked and the evidence considered. I suspect part of the reason is a sense that science may not actually be decisive. Thus, when Pilling wrote that ‘neither the medical nor the social sciences have arrived at any firm consensus that would impact decisively on the moral arguments,’ I suspect they could have gone further and said that they didn’t believe that the sciences would/could impact decisively.
Ethicists are rightly allergic to the naturalistic fallacy (thinking that one can derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’) and to reductionism (in this case, thinking that complex phenomena can be understood by reference to less complex phenomena). The debates on the fallacy are extensive and intriguing, and the key challenge is to try to figure out ‘how understanding the way things are’ relates to ‘understanding the way things should be’. It seems obvious that there must be a relationship between the two (and I do think the two are linked), but they are not linked logically: there is no implicative route between one and the other. For instance, there is some relatively new data on epigenetic causes of homosexuality. The new studies are not only intriguing, but they also solve some related questions and conundrums. As fascinating as the studies are, though, it is not clear that understanding the aetiology of homosexuality really changes the moral question – not unless one practices particular (and some would say ‘potentially reductionistic’) forms of natural law reasoning, though saying so is admittedly to beg the question, and the question is still worth asking. In fact, if it is difficult to imagine how scientific data can cut to the ethical heart of the matter, then it’s important to understand why that is so; and thus engaging with Chris’s challenge is very worthwhile.
For what it’s worth, I think a more promising line of enquiry is to consider sexuality as akin to a language (André Guindon is the key writer in this regard), with sexual expression governed by its own grammar. Some of the ethical questions about how we ‘speak’ to each other sexually can be approached in much the same way as we approach speech-acts in general (using such categories as truth-telling). The theological question is then whether there are ways of communicating sexually that build or don’t build up the kingdom.
To push the speech parallel: if we don’t think an analysis of the larynx helps us to understand French poetry, why would we expect that the biology or the aetiology of sex or sexual preference would help us understand the theological ethics of sexual expression? This is not to say that the ‘scientific’ is limited to biology (it would include psychology/psychiatry and many other fields), but it may help us to identify a few of the assumptions and expectations we bring when we frame our questions.

Posted by: Joe Cassidy on Tuesday, 30 September 2014 at 3:09pm BST

Joe, I think the chief problem with this observation is that while it is correct that arguing from "is" to "ought to be" is perilous, this has actually been the undercurrent in many of the even current "arguments from nature" concerning sexuality. Those who for centuries have essentially argued that same-sexuality is wrong _because_ it is "unnatural" or "contrary to nature" have a major plank of their argument removed. It has also not escaped notice that some of those whose platform is in danger of collapse have also started to say things like, "We've never needed such a platform."

Posted by: Tobias Haller on Tuesday, 30 September 2014 at 9:21pm BST

Tobias: I think you're right. The odd thing is that natural law arguments would never have been countenanced in evangelical ethics (nature has fallen, rationality has fallen), and yet there has been a strange reliance on just those sorts of 'foreign' arguments. The realisation, as you said, that they've never needed such a platform, may actually help us to focus on where the disagreements actually lie. I don't think the disagreements are all about scripture. My sense is that they stem from profoundly different theological worldviews, including different takes on both creation and the fall. I do think these are massive differences,with huge ramifications for a range of other ethical and ecclesiological issues. The discussions that have been commended would arguably be more useful if they focused on these underlying differences....

Posted by: Joe on Wednesday, 1 October 2014 at 12:52am BST

I agree, Joe. This is the approach I have always taken in my own work on the subject.

Posted by: Tobias Haller on Wednesday, 1 October 2014 at 3:16pm BST

Remembering this book from 1960 and it author Revd Wood, who is now 93 !

Posted by: Laurie Roberts on Tuesday, 7 October 2014 at 3:15pm BST
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