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SYNOD: Ours is not the last word, says Pilling

21 February 2014

Pilling report


"Division on the group was painful": Sir Joseph Pilling addresses the Synod on Wednesday

"Division on the group was painful": Sir Joseph Pilling addresses the Synod on Wednesday

A PRESENTATION by Sir Joseph Pilling on the report of the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality took place on the Wednesday afternoon.

"There are quite a few people who wish the group had never been set up," Sir Joseph said. "Selfishly, some of us on the group might have wished that, but we did come to see that it is now more than 22 years since [Issues in Human Sexuality] was published. The group who produced it were clear back then that they did not see their report as the last word on the subject."

He said that it was "hard to find another area of our national life where there has been so much change since 1991 as this". It had been only four years since the instigation of Section 28. "Since then, Section 28 has been repealed, and civil partnerships have been introduced. A Conservative-dominated Government has just driven through same-sex marriage. That almost bewildering rate of change may be judged irrelevant to what the teaching and practice of the Church should be, but it does make it close to inevitable that they should be examined."

He acknowledged that some had criticised the group's recommendation that there should be facilitated conversations. "Our work shows that, with some honourable exceptions in certain dioceses, the Church in England generally has not grasped the nettle of talking and listening and pondering.

"However many of us would prefer to avoid the subject, there are wider implications for mission if we simply appear to be sticking our heads in the sand."

In relation to the group's recommendations that priests should be free to mark the formation of a permanent same-sex relationship in a public service, Sir Joseph said: "Our starting point on this was that we were not recommending any change in the Church's teaching that the right context for sexual activity is a marriage between a man and a woman."

He said that a majority of the group felt that it was right to "take further the pastoral responses adopted in 1991", while seeking "a careful balance".

"If the priest and the PCC are content for the formation of permanent same-sex relationships to be marked by a public act of worship in that church, and if the priest considers this to be appropriate in the case of a specific couple, then we suggest that the priest should be authorised to conduct that act of worship.

"We are clear that this shouldnot be pressed on an unwilling priest and/or PCC; and we arealso clear that there should not be an authorised liturgy for the purpose, chiefly on the groundthat liturgy is a key way by which our Church articulates its teach-ing."

He continued: "Over several centuries, the Church of England has shown an unrivalled capacity to hold together Christians in quite fundamental disagreement with each other. A minor feature of that history has been a long tradition of church reports laced with generous helpings of fudge."

He said that the inclusion of the Bishop of Birkenhead's dissenting chapter and the two appendices on scripture in the report showed that the report did not fudge the issues in order to seek agreement. "A document signed by everyonemight have been positively misleading.

"The division is painful for all of us on the group, but the report holds up a much more accurate mirror to the Church than a single, agreed document could have done."

The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Steven Croft, said that the College of Bishops shared the view of the Pilling group on two general issues. First, it wanted to make it clear that the Church offered the same welcome to all, whatever their sexual orientation. Second, it wanted to acknowledge the need for repentance for homophobic attitudes "we have failed to rebuke".

Nobody should be accused of homophobia "simply for articulating traditional Christian teaching", he said. But the Church did need to stand firmly against homophobia wherever it was to be found. Facilitated conversations would take place, as recommended by the Pilling report, but not straight away. There was a need to conclude the vote on women bishops in dioceses first, to design a process for the conversations, and to develop further material for use in the discussions. The conversations would include both reflection on scripture and attention to the experience of LGBT people in Church and society.

It was already apparent from the reaction to the report that the prospect of talking aroused a "wide variety of hopes, fears and expectations". For some, there was a reluctance to talk because they believed that scripture was clear, "So what is there to talk about?" For others, the need for a change in teaching or practice was equally clear.

Some felt that there was a need for decisions rather than further talking. Some had a "sinking feeling" at having to talk further about a subject they thought had received a "disproportionate amount of attention in recent years". The College of Bishops had not suggested that this subject should be the main subject of attention; "far from it". But in a society where context and assumptions had changed so rapidly, there was a need to "take counsel together, seeking agreement where we can, and good disagreement where we cannot".

Bishop Croft then chaired a short question-and-answer session. Yes, he said, they were aware of the Ekklesia report Church Views on Sexuality. He also said that the process was under way to draw together different stakeholders in the debate.

Canon Simon Butler (Southwark) spoke as a gay man who did "not have a calling to celibacy". He said that "those who selected, ordained, and licensed me know this, and my parish know this." He wanted to know whether, at the end of the process, the Church would be able to let him know "whether there is a place for me and a place for people like me".

Dr Croft said he shared "the aspiration that we may become more open with one another" and he hoped that the process would "provide the answers you are looking for." He said that the House of Bishops "feel the weight of those questions very sharply. We are not able to answer them well, and we desire to do better."

Dr Philip Giddings (Oxford), who chairs the House of Laity, asked whether "those who have experienced same-sex attraction and feel they have been liberated from it" would be included. He also wanted to know how many instances of facilitated conversations would take place across the country.

Sir Joseph said that, in preparing the report, his group had gone out to speak with people in pairs, and had spoken with people with "contrasting backgrounds". It was easier to do it in those structures rather than in Church House with people making a record.

Dr Croft said he did not know how many conversations there would be. In Sheffield he was expecting there to be separate conversations in each deanery, with each parish sending two representatives for a conversation over a meal, having first had discussions in church councils.

Canon Giles Goddard (Southwark) asked about the provision of "safe spaces" for conversation, for bishops as for others. Dr Croft replied: "I would hope we would take due care as the process moves forward."

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