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.