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"Since then, Section 28 has been repealed, and civil partnerships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
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
"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
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
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."