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Pilling report’s treatment of evidence; and gay Anglicans exploring a vocation

26 September 2014


From the Revd John Prysor-Jones

Sir, - The Revd Professor Chris Cook, in his critique (Comment, 19 September) of the Pilling report, helpfully refers to "complex and often hidden assumptions" informing our theology, interpretation of scripture, science, and experience of sexuality. Examining these assumptions in "facilitated conversations" could help redress the perceived imbalance of power felt by many sexual minorities.

To any discussion, each brings personality characteristics, personal histories, repressed conflicts, and the form of faith inculturated - all contributing to our view of the world and understanding of faith. Owning this humanity might counter the searching of science for proof that such sexualities are psychologically flawed (which leaves many feeling exposed and under scrutiny to justify themselves) with a willingness to examine states of mind obsessed with others' sexuality, and a religion of certainties which they wish to impose on others.

Psychological understanding is necessary for all involved in this debate. Those who are at peace with themselves, and self-respectful, can be respectful of others. Theological certainty is no substitute for psychological maturity.

In the UK, professional bodies in psychiatry, psychology, counselling, and psychotherapy are convinced that homosexuality is not pathological. Yet the Church implies that it is. A committed Anglican, mother of four adult sons, two of whom are gay, and one of whom feels a vocation to priesthood, asked: "Why does the Church have to say anything about sexuality? Why is it so central to its concerns?"

To these serious questions, from one struggling to stay in the Church, we could add other subjects. A different approach might focus on what will encourage flourishing for all, giving priority to justice, even when it is against our own interests, rather than unity at all costs. Damage has been done to the Church over the handling of sexuality and gender. There is an opportunity to make a corrective, which touches people's humanity, opening them to the deeper reality of God. The point of view presented here is shared by many, largely silent, and has the potential to move from wearying "for" and "against" disputes to serious engagement.

Bryn-Y-Môr, St John's Park
Penmaenmawr, Conwy, LL34 6NE

From Dr Stephen J. O'Connor

Sir, - I commend your excellent contribution from Professor Chris Cook. I would, however, go further in criticising the Pilling report; for I was dismayed by the all-too-apparent selectivity of the scientific findings considered by the House of Bishops Working Group, which failed to review, in many cases, the primary peer-reviewed papers referred to in much of the secondary literature cited.

There is also a tendency in the report, and certainly in the dissenting statement by the Bishop of Birkenhead, to reify the injudicious opinions of a lobby group, namely the Core Issues Trust.

As a scientist, a Christian, an Anglican, and one who genuinely seeks to know God's will in relation to this debate for both personal and theological reasons, I am disappointed that the report lacks the scientific and philosophical rigour I would expect from any of my postgraduate students. I was surprised that so much of its length is taken up by the divergent opinion of one member. This, for the most part, relies on personal anecdote and the use of single isolated texts to eschew the growing and increasingly definitive body of evidence that same-sex attraction is not a simple or sinful life choice, and must, therefore, be capable of finding its fulfilment in a committed and monogamous relationship for the same reasons as this is commended by the Apostle Paul to heterosexual followers of the Lord, and summed up in the very earliest pages of the scriptures, which state that it is not good for man to be alone.

Consequently, any discussion of human sexuality and the psycho-social and spiritual needs that arise from this God-given condition (of whatever variety), together with the correct theological, pastoral, and liturgical response to it, cannot be drawn from so narrow a premise as the Pilling report provides.

Its superficiality does great disservice to many thousands in the Anglican Communion worldwide, and represents, in my view, a well-meaning but ill-informed exercise in discursive capture by those holding an authorising skeptron over the lives, identities, emotions, feelings, and, indeed, ministries of many who deserve a better starting-point for such a discussion.

It is vital that this situation be rectified, if the report, and in particular, the minority view that follows it, is not to be used to defend an unnecessary and prejudicial status quo, and support the ongoing discrimination against homosexuals in some dioceses. The conversation needs to be based on a proper and more rigorous review of the evidence.

Such a review needs to be conducted by experts who have scientific as well as theological credibility, an objective and yet prayerful mind, and a sufficiently discerning spirit to present a better and fuller synthesis of the scientific evidence and its consequences. The House of Bishops would do well to extend the scope of their original inquiry to do just this. Professor Cook would be an excellent person to start with.

Reader in Cancer, Palliative and End of Life Care School of Nursing
Faculty of Health and Wellbeing,
Canterbury Christ Church University,
Canterbury CT1 1QU


From the Revd Toddy Hoare

Sir, - I read Professor Chris Cook on the Pilling report with interest. I am no scientist. There still seems to be a missing element when I ask myself: "What experience do any of us have of homosexuality?" As a parish priest, I encountered homosexuals, some open about it, others not, some bishops, some fellow clergy, as much as I had at school, at art school, as an artist, as a soldier, when working for the Missions to Seamen, and when at theological college. At the end of the day, they are people, and surely the real measure of their evaluation is "What do they contribute to the Kingdom of God?"

Some certainly contribute a great deal more than others of us. Would the Church was less obsessed about the matter and about making an issue of it rather than showing compassion and getting on with the good news of the Gospels. (There are checks and balances enough for those whose sexuality gets out of control or interferes with others.)

My only gripe is that same-sex marriage is a bridge too far, clouds what marriage is really about, and was introduced out of the blue by an ignorant government.

Pond Farm House, Holton, Oxford OX33 1PY 

From the Revd Owen Dobson

Sir, - I am increasingly depressed and angered by what I hear from people I encounter who are gay and exploring a vocation to ministry in the Church of England. Many of those I have had the privilege to meet and get to know are working in parishes, schools, hospitals, and chaplaincies, already engaged in vital ministries, and greatly loved and valued by their congregations and clergy.

It has been humbling to encounter these largely young, energetic, intelligent, prayerful people of great integrity: whence comes the rub. The selection process seems designed to encourage secrecy and silence about sexuality. I have heard of diocesan directors of ordinands' saying to candidates that it was because they disclosed that they were in a relationship that they were turned away: if they'd have kept quiet, all would have been fine. The system wants people to lie, though the blame falls firmly on candidates who tell DDOs what they make clear they want to hear, but are later found to be in a relationship.

Others have been told their case might be considered if they were to form a civil partnership: strange how convenient CPs have suddenly become to a Church that refuses to bless them. Others, whose gifts and calling are clear, have been asked to try another denomination!

God is calling gay people to ministry, lots of them: passionate, loving, faithful Christians whom the Church of England needs. But so many of them are left deeply troubled and compromised by a selection system that rewards dishonesty and denial.

The whole process needs to look in the mirror: what are we saying about the call of God when we force those responding to it to hide who they are and whom they love? Is this the way to a healthy Church with happy clergy? Is this the best example we can set to our congregations of daily following Christ's call to fullness of life?

61 Pembroke House, London W2 6HQ

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