Comments: A scientific critique of the Pilling report

This critique of Pilling is welcome and timely.

Posted by Flora Alexander at 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 at 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 at 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 at 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 at 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 at 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 at 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 at Sunday, 28 September 2014 at 9:51pm BST

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

Just askin ...

Posted by Laurie R at 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 at Monday, 29 September 2014 at 9:15am BST

The Bishop of Manchester speaks up.

Posted by Laurie R at Monday, 29 September 2014 at 5:32pm 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 at 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 at 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 at 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 at 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 at 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 at Tuesday, 7 October 2014 at 3:15pm BST
Post a comment

Remember personal info?

Please note that comments are limited to 400 words. Comments that are longer than 400 words will not be approved.

Cookies are used to remember your personal information between visits to the site. This information is stored on your computer and used to refill the text boxes on your next visit. Any cookie is deleted if you select 'No'. By ticking 'Yes' you agree to this use of a cookie by this site. No third-party cookies are used, and cookies are not used for analytical, advertising, or other purposes.