Friday 29 November 2013

Pilling - Initial Reactions

My first reaction to seeing the Pilling Report was disbelief that in the twenty first century any church could put out a report on human sexuality written by a group that appears to have consisted of 8 men and 2 women and expect it to be taken as a serious contribution to the subject. In the introduction, Sir Joseph Pilling, the chair of the working party states that one of the women, Revd Dr Jessica Martin, appointed as a consultant, 'challenged the group to think about sexuality more widely than most of our experience was leading us to do.' Well, no surprise there! That's what women do to men, they challenge them to understand sexuality from a different perspective (as, of course, men do to women and people of different orientations do to one another.) How any sane community of faith can contemplate commissioning a group to sit down and try to understand the complex nature of sexuality or the theology written about it when that group consists largely of one gender is beyond my comprehension and probably the comprehension of most of the people outside the church who may read the report. Most of the men I know who've read a book like Jo Ind's insightful text on female sexuality, Memories of Bliss; God, Sex and Us here find parts of it quite difficult to take, never mind empathise with. Most of the women I know have similar trouble with books like Anthony Swofford's Jarhead here which is a reflection on intense male bonding and sexuality by a Vietnam veteran. To explore the wonderful phenomenon of sexuality in anything more than a superficial way, we need to be in the same room talking and listening to people of both sexes and both orientations. 
SCM Press 2003
So the report is a bit more superficial than anything I was hoping for. The group have done their best but actually have not got to grips with the range of understandings of sexuality present in research, literature and society today. What they have done is to compile a report that examines a select spectrum of the church's handling of matters to do with social, liturgical and pastoral structures for marking out the territory around gender difference and the relationships that people form. The document is less about human sexuality and more about what kinds of attitudes and behaviours the Anglican church has taken and could adopt in the near future (without being too radical) in relation to matters to do with sexuality and especially some aspects of gender orientation. There is a long section on the effect of all this on the Anglican Communion.

In particular, on the social sciences front, I was really disappointed that the report does not show much evidence of considering the wide spectrum of research available on the nature and incidence of homosexuality - it refers to a very limited range of studies which all seem selected, in advance, to make a particular point. I was also disappointed that, on the theological front, it does nothing very much to help us look behind, around and beyond the contribution of St. Augustine of Hippo and the Introduction to the BCP Marriage Service for the many sources embedded in the Christian tradition that do not regard sex as sinful and marriage as the only acceptable remedy for its connection to original sin. You have only to look in the Hebrew scriptures to find a highly sophisticated and nuanced range of approaches - the stories of Ruth, Naomi and Boaz, Esther, David, Jonathan, Hagar.... The notion that marriage is the only way that sexually active people express themselves is surely just one of many strands in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, aimed at the ability to control knowledge of the paternity of children. Its predominance has come about in cultural settings and for cultural reasons that do not always have a great deal to do with faith or with the teachings of Jesus or interpretation of the whole spectrum of biblical, rabbinic and apocryphal texts. 

The report, then, is interesting for two reasons. It is the first time that such a report by a Church of England working party contains an open acknowledgement that, where there is a massive shift in social perception such that a practice or set of practices that were previously not acceptable have come to be seen not only as acceptable, but as desirable, then this can leave the church with a problem if it does not listen and engage. Rightly, I think, the working party point out that this kind of seismic cultural shift is not  necessarily of itself a justification for re-writing theology or re-configuring traditional beliefs. However where new understandings of what it is to be human and of the deep oppression of groups of people are at stake, the church must, preferably sooner rather than later, engage with what those beyond the church are saying and learn from them. Even if the working party were not influenced by it, the Archbishop of Canterbury and many of the bishops are unlikely to forget the day that the largest attendance in the House of Lords since 1945 produced an overwhelming defeat of the bishops' objections to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act at its second reading. The Archbishop has now, on several occasions, outlined the need for the church to learn from this and the Pilling Report will, I hope, add weight to his plea.

Secondly, the report does pave a gentle way forward for progress. Its recommendation that a conversation process be set up to enable the church to hear the range of views in society can only be positive. At least the report defends the need for the Church of England to stand firm in insisting that this issue must be addressed with other provinces of the Anglican Communion - this is probably not hugely encouraging but at least it begins to set the direction of travel. I think that it's the first time I've been conscious of phrases like 'warm welcome and affirmation of presence and ministry' in respect of lesbian and gay people. I fear this is far too little, far too late and could sound patronising, but I do sense a break through similar to that on women bishops - suddenly here is an official group being moderately positive, not simply a maverick lay person or an odd cleric! Similarly, not much ground is given in terms of liturgical provision for same sex couples but at least it is acknowledged that there is a need for provision and there is an acceptance of blessings for gay partnerships. No points for condemning homophobia, I'm afraid, how could they not? And no points for doing anything to clear up the double standards on requirements around chastity for clergy and laity. 

I very much fear that the approach taken in the whole report repeats the old mistakes made with regard to admitting women to the threefold order of deacon, priest and bishop. It jumps very quickly to a pragmatic approach to mission without first dealing in any depth with the nature of what it is discussing, namely theological critique of the difference between the sexes and orientations and the ways in which they relate. The premise appears to be - here is something (same sex relationships) the tradition apparently has been held to forbid; this does not tally with modern thinking about humanity-in-the-image-of-God, or about compassion, justice and oppression. Therefore we must find a way to keep old teachings and insight while adopting the new thinking that social changes demand of us. So, instead of addressing the deep theological, physiological and sociological issues and mining into the Christian tradition for the whole range of voices that have always been present, we are encouraged to retain the old, oppressive insights fairly unexamined but at the same time jump straight into pragmatic (but dare I say not very logical or practical) responses. Women clergy have been required to practise psychological contortion for two decades because of this kind of ill-thought-out strategy and we've seen how that has nearly torn the governance of the church apart. Let's not repeat the mistake. Really.  However, the need to listen and explore is entirely right and I applaud that.   


  1. Thanks, Janet, especially fro the reference to Jo Ind's book, which was an eye-opener for me when I read it at the time it came out (I had heard Jo speak at a BSR event, and was very imposed by her honesty about a subject many others are tongue-tied and hypocritical about).
    I entirely applaud the desire to talk (but with a health warning that many people are weirded out that we should be discussing it at all — for them it sounds like a heated discussion about whether left-handed people should be allowed to drive or similar) and there are resources to help here (some a bit out of date — Professor Linda Woodhead's Westminster Faith Forum 2013 YouGov data (on the WFD website) is a better index of grass roots feeling than any given here.

    That said, I was a bit baffled by the assertion that one was not entitled to regard conventional teaching as homophobic. It is, in that it does not acknowledge the existence of gay people as who most of them think they are, or as people who share a protected characteristic under the equalities act. So there really isn't a "hang onto conventional wisdom but ditch it simultaneously" option, nice as it might be to think there should be.
    It is also shaky on the facts of life; which is not promising. Although scientists will disagree about details of [particular pieces of research it is as certain as the existence of climate change that the Janet and John view in which I was brought up (e.g. everyone is really straight but some people are led by concupiscence into sexual adventures with the same sex) is simply wrong.
    Must try harder; but maybe it will provoke helpful progress...

  2. Yes, I agree with you you about being uneasy about the depth of their engagement with scientific evidence. I think (am I wrong?) I see a profound parallel with the women bishops thing going on here - we're being encouraged to 'value' or 'honour' the Augustinian/neo platonic roots of our tradition on concupiscence, chastity, the sinful nature of sex etc while at the same time being urged to adopt behaviour which actually demands us to say , maybe this was misguided or in some way showed limited or plain incorrect understanding. Many of us have moved to a profound questioning of certain aspects of the tradition anyway...but as an official position this seems doomed to lead to the same kind of mess as good old Act of Synod type thinking!

  3. Thank you for your thoughts. First comment from me is that, as a gay priest, I am fed up with being talked about and not talked with. Lambeth 1.10 asked that conversations and listening with gay people be taken seriously. Here we are ?15 years later, being asked to do the same. Why were no gay people, (men or women) on the original Pilling group? It is quite the same as with the Women Bishops issue…. it is only since the debacle earlier in the year at Synod, that women have even been included in the Bishop's discussion. Do they learn nothing? Why no Gay People on Pilling?
    Second, I fear the Church thinks that it owns God. That the Church alone is where God will reveal how things are going. Perhaps God has despaired and decided that the best place for current revelation is within non-church society. Surely when that most conservative of places, the House of Lords, passes the Gay Marriage Bill so handsomely, the Church really does need to examine whether its being glued to ancient scriptures is really so much use in its mission and ministry to the society of 2013 or whether God is saying, time to move on - after all nothing has been written for almost 2 millennia that counts as revealed truth? (Such nonsense, honestly.)
    Lots more, but finally, this stuff about celibacy for the clergy. OK so Pilling is moving towards some form of marking same sex marriage. Marriage, that is or partnership. But though the Church will bless my relationship, it will not bless the sexual part of it. How can anyone ever think that this is an OK thing to be saying? It is a nonsense. Thank goodness that my husband is a Dane - and as the Bishop of Copenhagen commented after that Church began to celebrate gay marriage…. "Well, the sky didn't fall down."
    And don't get me started on how much space the Bishop of Birkenhead managed to get for his very one sided and homophobic personal views.

  4. Thank you. Yes, I couldn't comment on the representation (or not) of gay people on the group as I didn't know - but it certainly worried me and if it's the case gay people of both genders were not represented that's a serious flaw. I haven't seen the Bp of Birkenhead's section - it wasn't in the version I down loaded. I will have a look.

  5. Stephen makes two of the most valid points that I've seen anywhere.

    Why were both men and women LGBT represented on the commission? In particularly Rachel Mann would have a unique contribution to make, and there are many others Clergy and Lay whose evidence would have informed the committee not only of the oppression that endures for them, but also on the current science, medical and social research into LGBT than the rather narrow choices that they made or were more likely foisted onto them by Church House.

    The inclusion of the Bishop of Birkenheads rant was both damaging to the credibility of the group. They describe it as a dissenting opinion, but it came across as a homophobic, rant, more fitted to the Extreme Right Wing Evangelicals of the United States, who've exported their poison to GAFCON countries in Africa and further afield.

    His rant should have been balanced by an equally direct view from someone representative of the LGBT group, such as Colin Coward, or even Rachel Mann who has penned an excellent response on her blog.

  6. What a wonderful post, and thanks UKViewer for pointing me to it!.
    I have often wondered about the reluctance of the church to engage with the reality of people's attitude and experience of sex. But I do wonder whether this isn't partly because the whole thing is a process, a ladder, and if you try to jump one of the rungs you end up falling and losing all of it.

    There are so many people who support same sex relationships but on the same basis as the declared official position on straight relationships, that progress on lgbt matters can only be made by including those people in. Try to have a general discussion about sex and you alienate those supporters and you end up having to deal with cries of "we told you so, liberals are just wanting to water down our standards". They thin end of the wedge will loom very very large.

    In public debates we tend to have to be single focussed, narrow and rigid in order to move one topic forward.

    Once that is done and everyone has accepted that the sky hasn't fallen in we can move on to the next.

  7. I both agree and disagree. On the issue of why there are no LGBT people on the group I think it is because the fundamental problem is the view heterosexuals have of us and indeed their right to have a view of us which profoundly disenfranchises us from life's goods (love, family, children) that for Christian heterosexuals are the highest goods in life. That is the core problem - were that problem overcome the difficulties ineluctably dissipate - we can all go home because (presumably) the issue will be resolved in short order.

    The obstacle is therefore tightly centred in what heterosexuals want to hold to as a priviledged group over against the LGBT people who define heterosexuals and work towards creating heterosexuals' non-LGBT identity.

    That is to say 'we haven't yet reached the rung of LGBT and non-LGBT people sitting in the same room and speaking as equals or near equals. So therefore we are at the 'rung' of heterosexuals wanting to water down their exclusion of LGBT people from the common life. I don't mean to be disrespectful - Pilling is for heterosexuals because they are starting to feel uncomfortable about the terrible damage done by their exclusion, discrimination (we have a word for this - homophobia) and want to ease it and, coming from different perspectives, have sort of identified a 'next step' which they pragmatically think can easily be reached. As one locked out of the discussion (you straight guys have a few moments to think again about what you think about me and how much of God, the gospel and the goods of life I get to access and then report back to me on your thoughts) I think this is a necessary, if painful and at times absurd process.

    The one time I saw any evidence of any genuine dialogue was between the bishop of Leicester and Wahid Alli and the House of Lords debates on the marriage bill. This may have been possible because Lord Alli is a Muslim and therefore completely outside the bishop's frame of reference and therefore somehow 'worthy' of inclusion as a moral subject for inclusion in a genuine discussion. At the time I thought "Well this is amazing - you're talking to a gay person as if you've never met one before, let alone your own clergy who are gay, let alone the LGBT people present in any church meeting".

    In addition I don't want to criticise Pilling for failing to be critical or analytical enough or from engaging enough with Christian thought. Pragmatism has its own beauty. Plus I think Christian thought exposes its utter bankruptcy when dealing with sexuality in such a top down manner as we are now accustomed to. I think the more unthought out moral intuitions of the faithful to be much more illuminating than the tedious offerings of theology when applied to human life when this ends up creating injustice and horribleness. That is precisely what people are rebelling against. This is howI understand Pope Francis to be helping the Church. Not by more Christian thought to rethink and modify the doctrine, the teaching, but by actually living and allowing the teaching to take care of itself, as it surely will in due course.

    Pilling is there because enough people think the Church position is very uncomfortable (for straight people - its been uncomfortable for LGBT people for quite some time) and feel an adjustment is needed.

    It is needed. The heterosexuals are right that a step change of some sort is needed. As oppression comes into open view it starts to do moral harm to the oppressor. If, however tortuous the process, they are willing to take steps I am willing to give them time and for the thinking to be somewhat imperfect and catch up some time later, as it surely will.

  8. Thank you. Very interesting and I agree with much of what you say. The only thing I am cautious about is making any assumptions at all about who is gay and who is not and therefore the contribution they make. I just can't understand why the church does not make sure it listens to people of every sexuality, orientation and experience. I do think, however, that there has been a change in the air of late - ironically it is often liberal authority figures who hamper the progress of those who are excluded and kept out of the picture - they listen too much to all sides without coming to an opinion and acting on it. I know it's very, very slow, but I think the tide is turning. I realise the question is, 'Will there be anyone left standing when it goes out`?

    1. But isn't that one of the core problems, that we do not know who is gay and who isn't because all those round the table, if they are gay, are closeted? That is not the healthy, wholesome contribution openly gay people who have not bough into the idea that to be gay is shameful would bring to the table.

      Openly gay people must not just be listened to, they must be part of the decision making process. They cannot just be witnesses, they must also be in the jury and among the judges.

    2. As an example of gay people who were in the room we could cite Cardinal Keith O'Brien. I do not lay all of the blame for what happened at his door and understand the great forces at play that no doubt overwhelmed him. Nevertheless one clearly cannot count him on the side of the gays but rather as he actually was in fact, one of our persecutors. Doubtless the closeted and semi closted have different modi operandi and some are more benign than others, some more toxic. I don't necessarily blame the individuals but the current system stops current bishops from speaking the truth even though they're actually present (e.g. when Pilling is discussed). If they are trying to maintain their closet or never experienced their sexuality in a healthy way because of the closet they are unlikely to be able to communicate openly. The current system therefore relies on distorted communication where only heterosexuals are able to be open about their lives (and that only up to a certain point).

  9. Great post, and thanks to 'Thinking Anglicans' for the link.

    Pilling shows the wrongheadedness of CofE neutrality. In particular, the false equivalence that it draws between evidence-based medicine and "gay cure" advocates.

    Treating homophobia and affirmation as two equal "sides" in a "debate" is like an organization in the 1960s treating segregationists and civil rights as equivalent, or like the "teach the controversy" cries from advocates of Intelligent Design. The way this is framed is wrong in itself.

    No organization should tolerate prejudice from its office-holders, as such tolerance is a form of endorsement. Would the Church of England allow a parish to advocate the Curse of Ham? Of course it wouldn't, even though that position can enlist the Bible as readily as others. In allowing parishes to advocate homophobia or patriarchy, it is making a statement that some prejudices are worse than others.

    If the church doesn't take a stand on this, it's done so by default.

  10. Thank you - you state the problem with trying to be seen to support directly opposing movements very clearly and this lies at the heart of the matter. I don't think it can be done nor ought it to be attempted. It causes untold distress and difficulty and provides people with an excuse not to even try to understand an issue, let alone change their thinking and behaviour.

  11. "Support directly opposing movements" says it very concisely!

    "Tolerance" and "diversity" might work in defusing theological battles over how many candles go on the altar (or whether we call it an altar), but they're woefully inadequate in dealing with issues of human dignity.

    That approach has lead to the absurdity of "two integrities" within the Church of England's priesthood (or presbyterate), with one set of male clergy refusing to acknowledge that their female colleagues *are* colleagues. It makes a nonsense of ecclesiology.

    The day is fast approaching when the CofE is going to have to learn to deal with conflict instead of avoid it.