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Pilling opens door to gay blessings in church

28 November 2013


Sir Joseph presents the report to journalists at Church House on Thursday of last week

Sir Joseph presents the report to journalists at Church House on Thursday of last week

CLERGY should be permitted to provide a public service to mark same-sex relationships, a House of Bishops working group has recommended.

The recommendations in The Report of the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality, known as "the Pilling report" after the group's chairman, Sir Joseph Pilling, are modest. They speak of the need for "pastoral accommodation", but do not propose any change in the Church's teaching on sexual conduct. Although the report does not speak of "blessing" gay relationships, Sir Joseph said on Thursday that he would not write a letter of complaint to a journalist who used such a term.

Other recommendations include repentance for homophobia within the Church, the avoidance of "intrusive questioning", and further debate (for full recommendations, see below).

As the Pilling report was published, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a statement to draw attention to the report's status: "The document offers findings and recommendations to form part of [a] process of facilitated conversations. It is not a new policy statement from the Church of England" [their emphasis].

The long-awaited report was published on Thursday with hardly any warning. Bishops received their copies only at nine that morning. The report suggests that "the Church of England's travails over these issues are becoming an increasing scandal to many and . . . a massive missiological challenge." It also lists the working group's observations after their research:

* that the Church of England's current teaching and practice is "deeply off-putting to those outside the Church and therefore a serious impediment to mission";

*that opposition of gay and lesbian relationships was "simply not an issue for most young people";

*that the "the Church's current discipline, with regard to ordinands and clergy, was inconsistently applied, encouraged a culture of dishonesty within the Church, and was particularly difficult for the partners of those concerned";

* that the views of conservative  groups and individual members of congregation were preventing church authorities from appointing gay and lesbian people to posts with the same freedom as secular organisations;

* but also that the C of E's current teaching was "helpful to those with same-sex attraction who believed that scripture forbade same-sex sexual relationships because it assisted them in resisting sexual temptation. They would experience any change in a more permissive direction by the Church of England as a betrayal."

Perhaps as a result of this diversity of opinion, the report recommends no change to the Church's general teaching on homosexuality, and offers no encouragement for anything that would look like a gay marriage. All its recommendations are subject to a consultation period "conducted without undue haste but with a sense of urgency, perhaps over a period two years".

On the subject of permitting gay blessings, Sir Joseph said on Thursday: "If a priest and a priest's PCC agree together that a couple in a permanent, faithful, stable relationship, typically a civil partnership, come forward and say they would like their relationship to be marked in an act of public worship, that should be possible."

The report does not recommend that the Church of England authorise a formal liturgy for use in such services, until such time as the Church agrees to "some modification of its current teaching". Nevertheless, it suggests to the Bishops that they consider issuing guidance to the clergy about what form a service might take. It states that "such a service should not be capable of being mistaken for the marriage service." No member of the clergy, or parish, would be required to offer such services.

The report contains a long exploration of the evidence on sexuality from scripture and science. At its conclusion, the report states:  "At the level of declared doctrine, we are agreed that there is not sufficient consensus to change the Church's teaching on human sexuality."

The Church of England's current stance is that those who are not married should practise abstinence. Resolution I.10 of the 1998 Lambeth Conference describes homosexual practice as "incompatible with scripture". A pastoral statement issued by the House of Bishops in 2005 stated: "The Church of England should not provide services of blessing for those who register a civil partnership." But it also said: "Where clergy are approached by people asking for prayer in relation to entering into a civil partnership, they should respond pastorally and sensitively in the light of the circumstances of each case."

On Thursday, Sir Joseph acknowledged that some clerics were already conducting the services envisaged in the report: "I think it is happening in a limited way in some churches, but it is happening against official guidance." If the recommendation of the report was taken up by the House of Bishops, "people who take official, central guidance more seriously than others might feel free to do it who do not do it at the moment."

He sought to draw attention to the working group's exploration of "pastoral accommodation". A "human and humane" pastoral response was not the same as saying that the recipient was "in the right".

The Pilling group was established by the House of Bishops in 2012 to review its 2005 Pastoral Statement on civil partnerships and reflect on discussions that had taken place since the 1998 Lambeth Conference undertaking to listen to the experience of gay and lesbian people. The group was small and episcopal, comprising the Bishops of Gloucester, Birkenhead, Ebbsfleet, and Warwick. These were assisted by advisers.

The report is not unanimous. It contains a dissenting appendix from the Bishop of Birkenhead, the Rt Revd Keith Sinclair, a conservative Evangelical, in which he warns that "the trajectory in the report will undermine the discipleship and pastoral care of many faithful Christians and, by leading the Church into the kind of cultural captivity which much of the prophetic writings warn against, weaken our commitment to God's mission." There follows a second appendix, written by the Revd David Runcorn, which states the more liberal view of "Including Evangelicals".

The House of Bishops will meet next month, and the College of Bishops the following month, to consider the report.

Findings and Recommendations

The foundation of the report

1. We warmly welcome and affirm the presence and ministry within the Church of gay and lesbian people, both lay and ordained.

On the next steps for the Church of England:

2. The subject of sexuality, with its history of deeply entrenched views, would best be addressed by facilitated conversations or a similar process to which the Church of England needs to commit itself at national and diocesan level. This should continue to involve profound reflection on the interpretation and application of Scripture.

3. Consultation on this report should be conducted without undue haste but with a sense of urgency, perhaps over a period of two years.

4. The Church of England should address the issue of same sex relationships in close dialogue with the wider Anglican Communion and other Churches, in parallel with its own facilitated conversations and on a similar timescale.

On the teaching of the Church and the missiological challenge:

5. Homophobia - that is, hostility to homosexual people - is still as serious a matter as it was and the Church should repent for the homophobic attitudes it has sometimes failed to rebuke and should stand firmly against it whenever and wherever it is to be found.

6. No one should be accused of homophobia solely for articulating traditional Christian teaching on same sex


7. The Church should continue to pay close attention to the continuing, and as yet inconclusive, scientific work on same sex attraction.

8. Since Issues in Human Sexuality was published in 1991 attitudes to same sex attraction, both in English society generally  and also among Christians in many parts of the world, have changed markedly. In particular, there is a great deal of evidence that, the younger people are, the more accepting of same sex attraction they are likely to be. That should not of itself determine the Church's teaching.

9. The Church should continue to listen to the varied views  of people within and outside the church, and should encourage a prayerful process of discernment to help determine the relationship of the gospel to the cultures of the times

10. The Church of England needs to recognize that the way we have lived out our divisions on same sex relationships creates problems for effective mission and evangelism within our culture, and that such problems are shared by some other Churches and in some other parts of the Anglican Communion. The Church of England also needs to recognize that any change to the Church's stance in one province could have serious consequences for mission in some other provinces of the Communion.

11. Whilst abiding by the Church's traditional teaching on human sexuality, we encourage the Church to continue to engage openly and honestly and to reflect theologically on the circumstances in which we find ourselves to discern the mind of Christ and what the Spirit is saying to the Church now.

12. Through a period of debate and discernment in relation to the gospel message in our culture, it is right that all, including those with teaching authority in the church, should be able to participate openly and honestly in that process.

On the Church's pastoral response:

13. The Church needs to find ways of honouring and affirming those Christians who experience same sex attraction who, conscious of the church's teaching, have embraced a chaste and single lifestyle, and also those who in good conscience have entered partnerships with a firm intention of life-long fidelity

14. The whole Church is called to real repentance for the lack of welcome and acceptance extended to homosexual people in the past, and to demonstrate the unconditional acceptance and love of God in Christ for all people.

15. The Church's present rules impose different disciplines on clergy and laity in relation to sexually active same sex relationships. In the facilitated conversations it will be important to reflect on the extent to which the laity and clergy should continue to observe such different disciplines.

16. We believe that there can be circumstances where a priest,  with the agreement of the relevant PCC, should be free to mark the formation of a permanent same sex relationship in a public service but should be under no obligation to do so. Some of us do not believe that this can be extended to same sex marriage.

17. While the Church abides by its traditional teaching such public services would be of the nature of a pastoral accommodation and so the Church of England should not authorize a formal liturgy for use for this purpose. The House of Bishops should consider whether guidance should be issued.

18. Whether someone is married, single or in a civil partnership should have no bearing on the nature of the assurances sought from them that they intend to order their lives consistently with the teaching of the Church on sexual conduct. Intrusive questioning should be avoided. 

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