55 Pilling Report – English Fudge? part 1

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


About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

10 thoughts on “55 Pilling Report – English Fudge? part 1

  1. Point of information, sir. Our Justin has said we will not oppose same sex marriage now it is a reality. We don’t refuse to accept it. I agree totally with your points on loaded language. As for the years of listening, General Synod found that discussing and listening made things much easier when it came to a vote. By the way, how did the government make it so hard for those who are in civil partnerships to upgrade to marriage? You have to annull your partnership, and this involves living apart for a few months. There is a case on the radio about a couple who are living with the terminal illness of one of them. They don’t have time to “divorce” and remarry.

  2. Hi, English Athena. I didn’t see or hear the item you’ve referred to by our Archbish of Cant. However, I think he must mean that we won’t argue against the civil law that is now a reality. I don’t think he can mean the Church, as you probably know, with effect from yesterday, for the first time in history, it is now illegal for a gay marriage to occur in church (it didn’t of course happen before, but it was not actually illegal). My understanding is that this can only be changed by a further Act of Parliament, although I may be wrong on that. Either way, the Church has argued itself a quite improper exemption from a perfectly reasonable law, and has consigned Christian gays to getting a secular-only marriage. I think this is deeply sad and underlines that gays are still not accepted as equals in the C of E.
    I had not heard that it was necessary to renounce a civil parnership first – this had passed under may radar, and I would much like to hear the government’s case for it. Do you know of anywhere on the net where it’s written up?
    By the way, I’m not a sir!

  3. OK madam! I rather think it would always have been against Canon Law, but the CofE didn’t exactly argue for the current situation. You are right that the law would need to be changed, so basically, the government decided to go ahead immediately, rather than waiting for the law to be changed in re the CofE. Some people did argue against gay marriage, some wanted it to be open for Bishops/clergy to choose according to their consciences. But either way it would have taken too long.

  4. Anthem for doomed youth.
    Stephen has raised certain issues on this blog that he considers related to the cause of abuse. One of these is how hierarchies can burden people with the weight of demonstrative obedience. As we have seen in previous blogs one outcome of this is teaching people the ‘right way to think’.
    My concern, after a lifetime of programming by the worst kind of evangelical hierarchy is this, I believe that we must seek a level playing field for all points of view.

    When we come to the concerns that James has about the Pilling report, I note these points:

    Our blog up to this present time has not attracted those with conservative evangelical views or fundamental Catholic.

    I also note, that the disempowered underclass of an underclass have no lobby group to campaign of their behalf like the ‘Gay’ lobby.

    In that underclass we have a new form of slavery developing that is literally a gaping wound of agony. NOW, why is it when I say that, I immediately feel that people are saying; ‘Come on now that surely is an exaggeration Chris?’
    I can’t help but feel, that issues that are worldwide are easier to deal with than those on your own back door step.

    Further to this how can people see what is clearly outside their experience, or field of vision?

    To me this crisis is like a war, the amount of suicides that are workplace related, together with people pushed beyond their ability to endure the hours they have to work, I liken to: “What passing bells for those who die as cattle?” (Wilfred Owen).

    Chris Pitts.

  5. My above comment was rushed. I’m trying to say that we must beware of a misplaced emphasis on the needs of suffering people throughout the world.The cost of ignoring a humanitarian crisis here in this country is very worrying to me. Please see http://outsider-project.org

    Chris Pitts

  6. Hi Chris. It’s true that this blog has not attracted those of an evangelical frame of mind. Isn’t it also true that this blog has not attracted the underclass that you’re referring to, who would have neither time nor computer nor knowledge and probably no interest in this kind of electronic debating forum either? If we are to address only the ‘underclass of the underclass’ via this blog, how do we go about it? What do we do? How do we reach those people and how do we help them?
    In the meantime, it’s not only those suffering financially or are modern ‘slaves’ who are abused. Many gays are under so much pressure that they also commit suicide. Routinely. I’m not sure that the gays I speak to would acknowledge that they have a ‘lobby group to campaign on their behalf’, even in this country, let alone in parts of Africa.
    The LGBT cause is, I realise, not a popular one for most people, any more than is the fate of those for whom you speak. But maybe the events of this last few days proves that society can be persuaded by argument to change its mind about gays, albeit very slowly and over many decades. How do we do the same for the ‘underclass’ group? What they would seem to need, not necessarily in order, is visibility, money, education and many changes in taxes, benfits and other laws. How do we in our tiny group work towards this? Maybe you have some ideas?

  7. Thanks James, I certainly don’t want to ‘only’ concentrate on the underclass. You come across to me as an extremely sensitive man and I am happy that to some degree at least, I appear to have communicated with you. I feel that I must emphasize however that to people from a ‘normal?’ educational back ground I will always come across as ‘In your face’ and raw. As I have stated elsewhere I see myself as a ‘Butterfly that escaped the wheel’ it is the merest fluke that I came into literacy late in life. I am however a conduit to invisible people, because I was one!

    So no lobby group, no voice, how you rightfully ask do we get them into our blog ? REAL advocacy is a possibility however, show me someone who really cares enough to do it? I have placed myself at the disposal of hundreds of church’s and organizations and not one has taken me up on the offer. I seem to be like some kind of threat to them. It is obviously a controlled power system and therefore paranoid. How much of a product of our (Your mine everyone) environment are we? Do we really want to be deprogrammed? All this and more needs to be considered. I close: I know what I know. Here I stand. N.B. Ex Cathedra statements are apologized for. Sincerely, Chris Pitts.

  8. Chris, I don’t think I find you ‘in my face’ or ‘raw’ but I do find it frustrating that there doesn’t seem to be much that I can personally and indiviudually do about it. Should I give up this blog and instead look for one that for example campaigns for an increase in the minimum wage? I’m sure I’m very much a product of my environment. Having spent my life in industry, I now want to use my energies to campaign for justice, but I’m still uncertain what I can actually do in this case.

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