James Blott has kindly contributed a piece on his reading on the Pilling report. In this first part he stresses the importance of understanding how good intentions on the part of Christians can sometimes have negative effects on others. In other words Christians sometimes cause harm to others by their beliefs, even though these beliefs are sincerely held. This is itself a theme that we would hope to explore in future posts and discussions. Part 2 of this wise analysis will follow on Tuesday. Editor
A few days ago, I mentioned to my ministry team colleagues that I was reading the Pilling Report on ‘Human Sexuality’, and I was challenged to summarise its findings in a couple of sentences. I said this: “We don’t like homophobia, so we’re going to suggest that for the next two years we go through a process of ‘facilitated listening’ between people of intractably opposing views. At the end of this period, we’ll decide that we can’t change anything because of the risk of splitting the Anglican Communion.”
Actually this is an unfair characterisation of a 200 page report which is not one report, but two. Although the members of the Working Group chaired by Sir John Pilling numbered only five, the report itself is littered with the phrase ‘some of us’. It is hard, having read to the end, not to conclude that the Bishop of Birkenhead, The Rt Revd Keith Sinclair, disagreed with almost every conclusion that the group reached. And this is the first extremely difficult question: If you have a group tasked with investigating an important issue and reporting back with recommendations, when one member of the group ‘dissents’ from almost everything, why would you accord that individual the right to put his own highly unbalanced views across in one fifth of the space taken up by the entire report?
Why should such a report matter to a blog that concerns itself with abuse within the Church? Isn’t this just a bit of dirty washing by the Church of England, demonstrating how out of touch they are? If it were, we needn’t concern ourselves with it, but the sad fact is that abuse of gays within the Church, as well as in wider society, has a long and shameful history. And the fact that Pilling stresses how important it is for such ‘homophobia’ to be rooted out, points towards the reason why it has been welcomed by many, even though it represents no real change in Church policy in relation to homosexuality. In fact the main conclusion of the report is that current policies must remain, unless and until a process of listening and discernment results in a consensus to change them. This implies that unanimity is possible, but is there really any ground for believing that positions will change? The report itself states on a different page: ‘We are not certain that consensus, in terms of agreement on all key points in belief and practice, is possible…’ and the ‘dissenting’ views included in the report sadly do not imply a willingness even to engage in discussion, let alone be open to change.
In view of this, I found myself wondering as I read the report, what the prospects were for a coming-together of views in two years’ time, after the end of the recommended period of facilitated listening and reflection. The one advantage of having the Bishop of Birkenhead’s views represented so starkly and stridently, is that these bring into sharp focus the colossal mountain that must be climbed.
The critical areas covered, which I’ve tried to summarise below, would seem to be: The Challenge of Homophobia, The Science of Homosexuality, The Interpretation of Scripture and The Issue of Church Leaders. They’re all relevant to our blog and its look at abuse in the Church, and most of them have been addressed in posts before. To me, some of the arguments have a ghastly familiarity, as they’re so close to the bankrupt ones used by those who have opposed the appointment of women as bishops.
The Challenge of Homophobia. The Pilling Report rejects homophobia uncompromisingly, but also manages to give a glimpse at why it will be so difficult to eradicate. For example, gays are loved by God and are full members of the Body of Christ, but the current policy is that the Church won’t bless homosexual relationships, because they are ‘errant’. Intriguingly the Church finds no such difficulty in blessing nuclear submarines. And the Church won’t accept for ordination those in gay relationships, unless they make a commitment to remain celibate (which others have pointed out is a recipe for encouraging ordinands to be economical with the truth, as it can hardly be policed). The report stresses that these policies are not homophobic. This may be true on one level, but the policies are certainly offensive; it’s hard to reach any other conclusion if you speak to gay people. What the gays I speak to say is that the Church, at an official, national level, fundamentally rejects the human person he or she is. The dissenting Bishop of Birkenhead, in his own parallel report, says that homosexuality is an indication of what happens when people “stop worshipping the Creator God: their humanness, even perhaps their image-bearingness, deconstructs.” Can someone claim that homosexuals have ceased to worship God, and lost their humanness and their creation in the image of God, and at the same time reject being labelled a homophobe? These are surely some of the most hateful and hurtful things you could ever say to a fellow Christian. The Bishop relies on his good intentions. But does the intention matter? During the debate over Women Bishops, the Revd Canon Jane Charman said this to a Bishop who claimed exemption from being labelled a ‘misogynist’: “It may be a comfort to you that your intentions were benign, but it will be meaningless to me if the impact it has on me is just the same as if your intentions were malicious….Surely we have to take responsibility not just for the intention behind our actions, but for the actual effect on others?” And we know that rejection of gays does real harm to real people. The Bishop of Birkenhead also says this: “It cannot be pastoral to affirm a form of relationship which is contrary to God’s will.” We have before in this blog pointed out how invidious it is to claim that one’s own views are a reflection of God’s will. It maximises the danger of developing a Napoleon-complex and also maximises the hurt that gay Christians feel, when others lay claim to the right to wield God’s own authority against them.
In conclusion, the main Report states that the Church needs to repent of past sins of homophobia, but it does not say how, or when. Neither does it address what the Church needs to do to make amends for the appalling abuse of gays in the past. Recently, the Primate of Nigeria said this: “Any society or nation that approves same sex union as an acceptable life style is in an advanced stage of corruption/moral decay….(We) seek to shield Nigeria from the complete annihilation that will follow the wrath of God should this practice be accepted as normal in this land.” The repentance the report calls for has certainly not started with the report itself, despite its protestations to the contrary. Maybe this is partly because the Group has accorded such space and prominence to the Bishop of Birkenhead’s views? Reading his submission reminded me of something said by the late much-loved leading evangelical, The Revd John Stott, when writing on this subject. He insisted on using the term ‘pervert’, claiming he was using it only as the converse of ‘invert’, but completely ignoring how loaded and abusive this word is to gay people. It seems that despite assurances that homophobia is out, much that is offensive and hurtful is still being written and said.
The Pilling Working Group was commissioned before it was decided by the government to legalise gay marriage. This change has resulted in the Church having got itself into a real bind. The Church rejected civil partnerships and now that gay marriage is legal, they reject this too. If the Church has, as it claims in the report, a view that lifelong, stable, faithful relationships are what God wants, then why reject both attempts to increase the commitment that gay people might make to each other?
Part 2 to follow