Sean Doherty on the Pilling Report

Writing for the Kirby Laing Institute of Christian Ethics in Cambridge.

Sean Doherty - Living OutThe Report actually acknowledges its own ‘relative paucity of scriptural discussion’. This, it blames on the fact that whilst ‘there has been much written on the subject,’ there is ‘little which indicates any movement toward agreement or movement between positions’ (p68). It is not stated why ‘movement toward agreement’ should be the criterion for eligibility for discussion. Rather than accepting the seemingly intractable character of the disagreement over biblical interpretation with respect to sexuality as an invitation for theological evaluation, the Report considers it a reason to marginalise it.

The practical ramification of this methodological lacuna is as follows. In the absence of biblical guidance on the matter, the Report has to turn elsewhere for moral principles on which to evaluate same-sex relationships. This it does in a turn to virtue ethics, noting that in its response to the government’s consultation on same-sex marriage, the Church of England supported Civil Partnerships because of the way in which they embody virtues such as permanence, faithfulness and the potential for nurturing children. The Pilling Report therefore points out that ‘if the Church is prepared to view civil partnerships as embodying important virtues, failure to celebrate them publicly is inconsistent’ (p109). This should be done, not ‘formally’ (i.e., not with an authorised liturgy), but nonetheless publicly: ‘a priest … should be free to mark the formation of a permanent same sex relationship in a public service’ (p118).

This puts the cart several miles in front of the proverbial horse, for two reasons. First, the distinction between a formally authorised liturgy, and a public ‘marking’ is an artificial one. It makes little difference whether a particular liturgy used to mark a same sex relationship has been authorised or not when the very fact of marking it has been authorised. Second and more substantively, no rationale is offered as to why the presence of particular virtues entitles the relationship to this given that there are many relationships which embody some virtues, but could never be celebrated in church. An adulterous relationship may be permanent and have the potential for nurturing children – but it is not faithful. An incestuous one may be permanent, faithful and procreative – but it is not natural. Polygamous relationships may be permanent, faithful and procreative, but they are not exclusive. These relationships can embody some of the virtues which the church admires, but it would be absurd to suggest that ‘failure to celebrate them publicly is inconsistent’. Our appreciation of their virtuous aspects does not alter the fact that they are not in keeping with the church’s present teaching concerning sexual relationships. This teaching includes the fact that they should be between a man and a woman, as well as that they should be exclusive, permanent, faithful and open to nurturing children. And, as we have seen, the question of whether the church should change this present teaching was precisely the one which the Working Group deliberately declined to settle.