Pilling – Two Thoughts

Church England LogoTwo thoughts as I digest Pilling (remember folks, it’s just a discussion document) and do bits of media around it.

First, the idea that permitting clergy to pretty well do what they want liturgically doesn’t change our doctrine is a nonsense. In the press conference this morning, Sir Joseph Pilling couldn’t bring himself to say that “blessing” a relationship wouldn’t be permitted under his proposals. This means that priests can now publicly affirm a sexual relationship outside of marriage and the Church will not do anything about it. That my friends is a change in doctrine. As the Bishop of Birkenhead rightly pointed out, the Pilling Report does not have a coherent theology of sex so it lets clergy make one up as they go. What is actually needed is a definitive position from the Church of England as to what sexual activity is sinful and why it is sinful. Once we have that then we can think about pastoral practice.

Second, where does the Pilling Report leave people like myself, who despite not being heterosexual have fashioned their lives to surrender to God’s will for human sexual functioning as outlined in Scripture? By suggesting that sexual relationships between two people of the same-sex can be affirmed, Pilling says to me and many others that we didn’t need to make the sacrifices and difficult choices that we did. It is to all intents and purposes a slap in our face. Once again Bishop Keith presents this issue really well.

432. So what does it mean to follow Jesus today and how does the Report contribute to that call? I hope to show what I believe are intellectual and theological problems within the Report which, however well-intentioned, will make the cost of discipleship more difficult to know. It is important to recognize that this question of faithful discipleship is a distinct question from that of what our society should legislate in a particular area. It has long been recognized that the Church may in some circumstances accept certain changes in the law, and even acknowledge some positives (such as harm reduction) in them, while maintaining a clear and distinct witness in the Church’s teaching and discipline to a higher calling for those who accept Christ as Saviour and Lord. Archbishop Justin has referred to a ‘revolution’ in relation to society’s view of sexuality which is now reflected in the current law on marriage. Does the Report help us in the pastoral and missional challenges we face in explaining to the Church and wider society what it means to follow Jesus? With much regret I believe it does not do so and may even prevent the Church speaking clearly, faithfully and prophetically into the cultural debates about human sexuality. A question that has haunted me is whether Greg would have been helped by the Report to know what following Jesus meant, and my conclusion is that he would not. He would not have been encouraged to ‘die’ and consequently there would have been no new life, no marriage to Margaret and no birth of their children. If we do not sound a clear call there will be negative personal and pastoral consequences in people’s lives.

433. In reading the Report two key questions for me are:

  • What, in the light of this report, would the Church of England say to someone – perhaps a Christian, perhaps someone considering discipleship – who says they identify as gay or lesbian or (increasingly likely) as bisexual, and asks how as a follower of Jesus to respond to their experiences of sexual attraction and whether they can enter a same sex sexual relationship or some other relationship structure?
  • What, in the light of this report, would the Church of England offer to wider society as the call of Christ when it is experiencing rapid rejection of traditional Christian sexual morality and asking major questions about sexual relationships?

434. I have concluded that the Report does not offer a consistent or coherent response to these questions in three key respects which shape the discussion that follows:

  1. The claim to ‘abide by the Church’s official teaching’ could give the impression that the Church still believes, as I do, that everyone should remain single and abstinent unless and until they find themselves able to marry someone of the opposite sex. But readers are not given reasons why they should do this. I do not see in the Report a clear Christian account of what it means to live a life of obedient love, a vision of the shape of holiness, a way of setting our story as sexual creatures in the biblical story of salvation, a message about what the gospel call to die and rise with Christ means (Paragraphs 436–448 below).
  2. Conversely there are statements in the Report that undermine confidence in traditional Christian teaching and give the impression that the Church has little or nothing to say about same sex relationships (Paragraphs 449–471 below).
  3. Examples of these two elements in the Report are its development of a Christian sexual ethic that says nothing about marriage between two people of the opposite sex (Paragraph 442) and its proposal that in public services recognition should be given to permanent same sex relationships. (Paragraphs 472–482 below).

435. As a result of these three features, I believe the Report will cause confusion to many faithful Anglicans, particularly those who experience same sex attraction. As a pastor and friend to such people I believe the Church should support and not undermine them. Two quotations from friends of mine, both of whom experience same sex attraction, will serve to illustrate this point:

‘To Anglicans like me who are same sex attracted, the Church of England’s increasingly ambiguous position on homosexuality is deeply confusing and distressing. It leaves us feeling unsupported in our loyalty to the Church’s previous clear teaching that sex is exclusively for the marriage of a man and a woman – and gives the impression that generations of believers wasted their lives in orientating their lives around this core biblical truth. It unlovingly gives men and women like me unclear signals as to how we should best live our lives in a Christ-like way, and raises the suspicion that the Church is keener on appeasing the world around us – rather than protecting us and preserving what it previously said was in our best interests.’

‘As someone who has experienced same sex attraction since my teens, I was so grateful that my Church showed me unconditional acceptance whilst gently guiding me to live according to the teaching of the Church of England. This pastoral care has enabled me and the many people in the same situation whom I know to flourish. We agree that the church’s failure at times to show unconditional acceptance to same sex attracted people is pastorally disastrous. But a dilution of the Church’s teaching would be equally disastrous, and a slap in the face to those who have quietly sought to live faithful lives.’

The Church needs to decide. If sex outside of the marriage of a man and woman is sinful, then the Church should support, commend and hold up as a clear example of discipleship those who despite being same-sex attracted refuse to let their bodies sin in this way. Alternatively if the Church thinks that some forms of sex outside of the marriage of a man and a woman are not sinful then it should have the courage of its convictions and tell those of us who have made the choices we have that we are wrong and misunderstand God’s call on out life. But the one thing it cannot do is fudge the issue and permit both contradictory positions at once. That is an utter theological nonsense.

My suspicion is that once this report gets to the House of Bishops there will be fireworks.