Thinking Anglicans

another round-up of comment on the Pilling report

Andrew Symes of Anglican Mainstream has written for the American Anglican Council: Pilling: What are the Bishops thinking? (scroll down to read item).

In this he quotes at length anonymously, and not approvingly, from letters written by two diocesan bishops about the Pilling report. Of one letter he comments:

…All attitudes to Scripture and methods of interpretation are provisional; all are valid. No-one is a heretic. The church is inclusive of all beliefs. And the model we have used for pushing through the women Bishops legislation without ensuring that opponents are happy with adequate safeguards – could that be the same one about to be used for pushing through the acceptance of same sex relationships in church?

And of the other letter, Symes says:

…But it is alarming that a Bishop can so overtly support the blessing of gay relationships without any concern that this may be violating the Church’s historic understanding and teaching, and without any sensitivity towards his conservative clergy correspondent…

Do read the whole thing, to see what the bishops in question actually wrote.

My own article introducing the Pilling report to readers of The Tablet was published back on 5 December (subscribers only). The full text is reproduced below the fold. The following week a very interesting letter to the editor was published, and this is also reproduced below, with the agreement of its author and of the Tablet editor.

Crisis in the meaning of sexuality 12 December 2013

While Simon Sarmiento (“Let’s talk about sex”, 7 December) attempts a positive appraisal of the Pilling Report on human sexuality, what is disappointing for many is the inability to see a way through the divisive split between heterosexuality and homo­sexuality. For me the flawed nature of the document goes much deeper. While the ­document clarifies several contemporary influences – both psychological and sociological – creating serious sexual deviations in our time, there is total lack of any historical contextualisation. Throughout the modern world, including the monotheistic religions, we assume unquestioningly Aristotle’s psycho­sexual legacy. This is at the root of many contemporary sexually related problems.

For Aristotle, human sexuality was a biological propensity, primarily a male endowment, with the woman serving as a mere biological organism for fertilisation by the male seed. This led to the view that the primary purpose of sex was human ­procreation. As many Catholics will know, this became the sole purpose of Christian marriage at the Council of Trent (in the sixteenth century) and remained so until 1962.

That foundational biological reductionism still haunts the understanding of human sexuality today. Until that foundational deviation is addressed, and a fresh articulation of human sexuality outlined – with an accompanying new sexual ethic – we cannot hope to address in a coherent way the several other specific issues that loom large in our time. The central crisis is not about same- sex marriage or homosexuality. It is about the very meaning of human sexuality itself.

(Fr) Diarmuid O’Murchu, St Albans, Hertfordshire

And finally, as they say, there is this apocalyptic view of the matter: Lament from London: a dying church in England
The Church of England may be doomed, British commentator “Pageantmaster” writes, as it begins debate over the Pilling Report. Hampered by several generations of poor leadership, with bishops chosen for their ability to go along and get along, the Church of England may well surrender the fight in the battle with post-modern culture.

My article from The Tablet of 5 October (I didn’t choose the headline, see also note at bottom)

Let’s talk about sex
05 December 2013 by Simon Sarmiento

The Pilling Report on human sexuality, which was published last week, may not radically alter the Anglican position on homosexuality. But the way it has gone about studying the subject marks a willingness to engage with an issue now more divisive than that of women bishops

According to a covering note from Archbishops Justin Welby and John Sentamu, there is one thing that the Pilling Report on human sexuality is not, and that is “a new policy statement from the Church of England”.

So what is it, apart from a 200-page report, with a 26-page dissenting appendix attached? Well it is certainly thorough, a lengthy response to the need for the Church of England to reflect on human relationships in all their messy complexity.

It was in July 2011 that the House of Bishops announced that it intended “to draw together and reflect upon biblical, historical and ecumenical explorations on human sexuality” and to “offer proposals on how the continuing discussion within the Church of England … might best be shaped”. Specifically, the Working Group on Human Sexuality, consisting of four bishops (Keith Sinclair of Birkenhead, Michael Perham of Gloucester, John Stroyan of Warwick and Jonathan Baker of Ebbsfleet, but soon translated to Fulham) under the chairmanship of retired civil servant Sir Joseph Pilling, was set up to reflect the wide range of opinion within the Church of England on homosexuality.

After criticism of its heterosexual male make-up, three advisers, including two women, were co-opted. Evidence was taken from a very large number of people, including many who are lesbian or gay, and also some who are transgendered (although the problems of the latter get scant attention in the report).

The first of the report’s 18 separate findings and recommendations is regarded by the authors as the most important: “We warmly welcome and affirm the presence and ministry within the Church of gay and lesbian people, both lay and ordained.” But the rest – which taken together focus on next steps, on the teaching of the Church, and the Church’s pastoral response – propose surprisingly few changes. Nevertheless they are an important step forward in methodology.

Media coverage has focused heavily on the recommendation that clergy should be “free to mark the formation of a permanent same-sex relationship in a public service”. But the statement does not use the word “blessing” and is immediately qualified by the declaration that “some of us do not believe this can be extended to same-sex marriage”. “Some” here presumably means more group members than the conservative, evangelical Sinclair, author of the dissenting appendix.

The main report goes on to recommend quite clearly that the Church should not authorise any formal liturgy, and refers to the “marking” concession as a “pastoral accommodation”, citing evidence taken from Professor Oliver O’Donovan, who commends the latter concept as “a response to some urgent presenting needs, without ultimate dogmatic implications”.

More fundamentally, the report recommends that the Church of England should now commit itself, both at national level and in every diocese, to a process of “facilitated conversations” on the subject of sexuality, over a period of two years. The report criticises the listening process in England to date as “uneven”, dependent on “local enthusiasm”, and sums it up by saying: “There has been no systematic process of listening involving the Church of England as a whole”. This method carries forward the principle of using external facilitators, which has recently borne so much fruit in the synodical discussions about how to legislate for women clergy to become bishops.

Opposition to homosexuality comes primarily from the Evangelical side of the Church, there being many Evangelicals who support making women bishops but who oppose – at present – any change of policy at all on homosexuality.

However, the report demonstrates that other Evangelical views exist by printing two appendices that discuss the biblical evidence, the dissenting one by Sinclair, and another by David Runcorn, which expresses support for same-sex relationships. There is no doubt that this latter view is gaining Evangelical supporters both within and beyond the Church of England, as contributions from Steve Chalke, Rob Bell and Jim Wallis indicate. But differences of biblical interpretation lie at the heart of this dispute.

Another finding, which says that “the way we have lived out our divisions and same-sex relationships creates problems for effective mission and evangelism within our culture”, gently understates the problem. In the report, considerable evidence is presented of the wide and growing gap between official Church of England teachings and the views of its members, not to mention the general population, and not only in the area of sexuality.

The group does not make any detailed recommendations concerning practical issues raised by the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Act. It does suggest that, if the report’s recommendation for a two-year period of reflection is taken up, the statement anticipated next year from the House of Bishops, before the act comes into effect, should be explicitly provisional in nature. Its members also note that the future of civil partnerships is somewhat uncertain, and depends on a further Government consultation.

Reactions to the report from conservative Evangelical groups have been predictably loud and negative. While expressing strong support for the dissenting statement of Sinclair, the Revd Rod Thomas, chairman of Reform, said that he was “deeply ashamed” that the Pilling Report was opening up divisive discussions. The council of Reform declared that the matter was not open to negotiation. The Revd Andrew Symes, executive secretary of Anglican Mainstream, wrote that the report, if endorsed by the House of Bishops, would constitute “officially sanctioned apostasy”.

The moderate group Accepting Evangelicals welcomed the report, as did Inclusive Church. Lesbian gay bisexual and transgender groups have given it only a cautious welcome, while expressing regret that it offers so little. Changing Attitude said: “The door has been opened to allow conversations and representations about homophobia, prejudice, ethics, sexual intimacy, blessing of relationships, and pastoral practice in the Church.”

What actually happens to these recommendations depends in the first instance on the bishops, but it seems likely that there will be a strong majority in favour of moving forward with the proposed discussions. Agreement before the end of the two years on the “marking” of same-sex relationships will be much more difficult. By that time, same-sex marriages will be commonplace.

The following week, this note from me appeared on the Letters page to clarify this article:

Your editing of my article about the Church of England’s Pilling Report introduced a confusion between two distinct sections of the report, both written by Bishop Keith Sinclair of Birkenhead.

His 18-page appendix that analyses the scriptural evidence on homosexuality is quite separate from his main 27-page statement of dissent from many (though not all) of the report’s findings which is included in Part 3 of the 220-page document.

Simon Sarmiento

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Interested Observer
Interested Observer
10 years ago

I’d like to thank Simon for the link to the story he so accurately describes as apocalyptic; this is, presumably a euphemism. As ever, the best thing about such articles is the comments they attract. Indeed, I skimmed the more tedious parts of the article, of which there were several, but was kept reading by anticipation of the upcoming delights. I was not disappointed. The phrase “don’t let the door slam on the way out” seems the only sensible response to this sort of stuff. “Very disturbing. The See must be removed from Canterbury and moved to Africa. As it… Read more »

Robin Ward
Robin Ward
10 years ago

Father O’Murchu’s assertions about the doctrine of marriage are simply wrong. The Council of Trent does not mention procreation at all in its canons on the sacrament of marriage. The Catechism of the Council gives the first end of marriage as ‘the society of the other sex, sought by the instinct of nature’, and the ‘desire for procreation’ as the second. It is the Second Vatican Council in its final Constitution ‘Gaudium et Spes’ of 1965 that declares ‘The institution of marriage and married love are, of their nature, directed to the begetting and upbringing of children and they find… Read more »

Nigel LLoyd
Nigel LLoyd
10 years ago

‘Father O’Murchu’s assertions about the doctrine of marriage are simply wrong’ That may be true – or not. However Fr O’Murchu is surely right to say that the church has not yet come to terms with what human sexuality is. My sexuality has something to do what what it means for me to be a human being at the deepest and most intimate level. If the church is confused over what it means to be human, it can have little to say about salvation. If human sexuality is seen as something to be avoided (apart from for those of us… Read more »

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