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Responses: too far or not far enough

06 December 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

THE report of the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality, chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling, has prompted a wide range of response and criticism.

Among those who welcomed the report were groups that lobby for greater acceptance of gay and lesbian people in the Church.

The Revd Benny Hazlehurst, the secretary of the Accepting Evangelicals group, issued a statement: "We welcome this clear recognition of diversity in biblical understanding and commend the report to the whole Church. We also welcome these small steps towards church services for same-sex couples."

The chairman of Inclusive Church, the Very Revd Dianna Gwilliams, said: "We hope that this will enable all Christians to find ways of celebrating the covenantal love between people which reflects the love of God for all people."

Many, however, also criticised the report for not going far enough. Changing Attitude, which campaigns for equality of opportunity for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people within the Church, said in a statement: "The report, far from reassuring us, goes so far out of its way to balance the needs of conservatives that it reinforces the lack of welcome for lesbian and gay people. The Church of England is systemically homophobic."

The Sibyls, a group that represents transgender people in the Church, also condemned the report for not addressing its concerns.

The chief executive of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, the Revd Sharon Ferguson, said: "This was a great opportunity for the Church of England to make some substantial changes to embrace all God's children and I am sad that it hasn't grasped it fully. Whilst the freedom for clergy to 'mark' committed same-sex relationships following civil partnership or marriage registration is a cause for celebration, it is a shame that a formal liturgy of blessing wasn't included."

The Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, said that the Church must address its perceived "homophobia" if it wanted to establish a dialogue with LGBT communities, such as the one in Brighton, in his diocese.

"Let us speak more clearly to people who do not share the Christian faith, irrespective of their sexual orientation: 'God loves you very much,'" he said.

Other groups, however, condemned the Pilling report, describing it as unhelpful and in conflict with the Bible. Andrea Williams, chief executive of Christian Concern, said that the lack of new teaching in the report was undermined by the proposal that clergy should mark same-sex relationships. She said that the Church should offer "courageous leadership" and "speak clearly about marriage as the union of one man and one woman and the only proper place for sexual expression".

An official response to the Pilling report from Anglican Mainstream stated: "The report as a whole errs towards trying to appease this secular world-view by saying in effect we should ditch any biblical and supernatural certainties. The report says that Scripture and theology are apparently unclear on the rightness of homosexual practice, but we should go ahead and bless it anyway, as long as the relationships are 'permanent, faithful, stable'. We are faced with officially sanctioned apostasy in our own Church."

The chairman of Reform, Prebendary Rod Thomas, described the report's proposals as "very divisive and distressing". He said: "True pastoral care in the case of those experiencing same-sex attraction will be to help them live Christianly."

The "open Evangelical" group Fulcrum said in a statement that it was glad that the report had not recommended any change in the Church's teaching on homosexuality.

It criticised what it described as "a willingness to separate teaching and practice", and the recommendation that the formation of permanent same-sex relationships could be marked by a church service.

Meanwhile, Sir Paul Coleridge, a senior High Court family judge, has announced that he is standing down because of opposition to his traditional understanding of marriage. A number of complaints were made to the Judicial Com- plaints Investigation Office, after Sir Paul described same-sex marriage as a "minority issue" last year.

Question of the week: Is the Pilling Report radical enough?

Report findings and recommendations


By Madeleine Davies

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 (GS 1929), 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 of last week, at the report's launch, that he would not write a letter of complaint to a journalist who used such a term.

Other recommendations include repentance for homophobia in the Church, the avoidance of "intrusive questioning", and further debate, in particular a series of "facilitated conversations" (Report findings and recommendations, opposite).

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

The long-awaited report was published on Thursday of last week, 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 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 congregations 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 of two years".

On the subject of permitting gay-relationship 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 sex-uality 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 of last week, Sir Joseph 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 to 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, and it was assisted by advisers.

The report is not unanimous. It contains a dissenting statement and 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.



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