THE Pilling report, The Report of the House of Bishops
Working Group on Human Sexuality, adds a shade more civility
to the gay debate. It talks of repentance for homophobia, and
begins its findings and recommendations with a statement of welcome
and affirmation of the "presence and ministry" of gay people in the
Church of England. And at various points in the report we can feel
the group's members, or rather most of them, yearning towards a
greater liberalism. Its concession, however, that same-sex
partnerships might be "marked" in church has been construed as the
very least that the group could have recommended. The C of E, if it
has the stomach for it, now faces the prospect of two years of
facilitated conversations, "conducted without undue haste but with
a sense of urgency", about a move that will be moribund unless it
encompasses same-sex marriage, and will do little to convince the
gay community, and society at large, that the Church really knows
the meaning of the words "welcome" and "affirmation".
The report was always likely to be disappointing. When it was
set up in 2011, the Pilling group's task was to reflect on the
post-Lambeth '98 "listening process" and merely "advise the House
[of Bishops] on what proposals to offer on how the continuing
discussion about these matters might best be shaped". In other
words, it was not being asked about policy, only about process.
Even this modest goal of directing how future talks might be
modelled proved too difficult, damaged by the fact that one of its
number, the Bishop of Birkenhead, the Rt Revd Keith Sinclair,
queried even the continuation of the listening process on the
grounds that no further discernment is necessary. His dissenting
statement, which, with his appendix, takes up more space than the
group's reflections, is a key factor in the report's ambivalence.
If evidence were needed on the brokenness of the Church on this
matter, here it is.
A narrow brief and internal disagreement have made for a tame
report, one that is hardly likely to enliven further consultation.
Bishop Sinclair does his best to portray it as dangerously radical,
but his description of it as undermining the Church's teaching
about homosexuality is inaccurate. The undermining has already
happened: the report's most radical act is to reveal in an official
document what is already widely known: that a significant
proportion of churchpeople regard that teaching as flawed.
Faced with this gulf between conservatives such as Bishop
Sinclair and, say, almost everybody under the age of 30, it is easy
to see why the majority in the working group latched on to the
concept of "pastoral accommodation" with such enthusiasm. But this
merely takes the Church's ambivalence into a pastoral situation,
saying to a couple, in effect: "We agree with what you're doing,
but are too weak to prevail against those who disapprove of you."
This is hardly a convincing response to the missiological challenge
that the Pilling report identifies.