Fulcrum is grateful for the research and the listening to God, each other and the wider church undertaken by all members of the Pilling Group. We offer these initial reflections on their report which we recognise is going to take us all some time to weigh and test so that we can hold on to what is good.
A. Welcoming agreements shared by the main Report and the Dissenting Statement
It is important to recognise that the Dissenting Statement agrees with many of the Report’s recommendations which contain much that all should be able to welcome.
In particular, Fulcrum agrees with all members of the Group that:
We must warmly welcome and affirm the presence and ministry within the Church of gay and lesbian people, both lay and ordained (Recommendation 1)
Urgent facilitated conversations (Recommendation 3) about our differences on this subject are needed in the church as a whole and these must “involve profound reflection on the interpretation and application of Scripture” (Recommendation 2) at their heart.
The Church of England “should address the issue of same sex relationships in close dialogue with the wider Anglican Communion and other Churches” (Recommendation 4)
Hostility to homosexual people is a serious sin requiring repentance and resistance (Recommendation 5). With the Report, we also commend the “Don’t Throw Stones” initiative (paras 189-191).
“No one should be accused of homophobia solely for articulating traditional Christian teaching on same sex relationships” (Recommendation 6)
We need to consider seriously scientific work on same sex attraction (Recommendation 7) and recognise that sexuality is not reducible to “gay or straight” (paras 181 and 419-423)
We must recognise that attitudes to same sex attraction have changed markedly in recent years, particularly among younger people, but “that should not of itself determine the Church’s teaching” (Recommendation 8).
The Church, nationally and locally, “needs to find ways of honouring and affirming those Christians who experience same sex attraction who, conscious of the church’s teaching, have embraced a chaste and single lifestyle” (Recommendation 13). Here we note the new website Living Out which tells the stories of such Christians and offers guidance for pastoral care and support.
“All candidates for ministry should be treated in the same way regarding their sexual conduct: that is, they should be reminded that they are called to chastity and fidelity in their relationships and to order their lives according to the will of the Church on matters of sexual conduct, and they should be asked to give an assurance that they will seek to live by that standard” (para 411).
B. Welcoming elements of the main Report
In relation to the main Report, Fulcrum welcomes:
The recognition that “there is not sufficient consensus to change the church’s teaching on human sexuality” (para 349)
The acknowledgment that we face a new context in which those of us committed to upholding that teaching face new and major pastoral and missional challenges. We believe that these must be taken very seriously if we are committed to evangelism and mission and may require new responses.
The importance of challenging many aspects of our culture’s approach to sexuality while recognising and encouraging any virtues we find in relationships, including sexual relationships which do not conform to the church’s teaching.
The introduction of the category of “pastoral accommodation”. This is a way, in the words of para 49 of the Faith and Order Commission’s report, Men and Women in Marriage (which is referred to in paras 118 and 275 of the Report), of the Church marking “the point where teaching and pastoral care coincide”. It does so by devising “accommodations for specific conditions, bearing witness in special ways to the abiding importance of the norm”. We agree with the Faith and Order Commission that the goal of such accommodations is to “proclaim the form of life given by God’s creative goodness and bring those in difficult positions into closer approximation to it”.
C. Welcoming elements of the Dissenting Statement
In relation to the Bishop of Birkenhead’s Dissenting Statement, Fulcrum welcomes:
The clear and irenic statement of the church’s teaching that “the proper context for sexual expression is the union of a man and a woman in marriage”. We also welcome the biblical case set out for this vision by the Bishop of Birkenhead in Appendix 3 and would further have liked to see this biblical engagement throughout the whole report.
The commitment to shape the Church’s witness by Scripture, tradition and reason even when that results in a counter-cultural stance which may be costly and cruciform.
The careful analysis and critique of the Report’s weaknesses and inconsistencies. We believe these need to be weighed seriously by the bishops in their discussions and by those structuring the facilitated conversations because they express concerns which are shared by many.
D. Concerns about the main Report
In particular, in the light of the Dissenting Statement, we express the following concerns about aspects of the Report:
Although the church’s teaching is upheld, its theological and biblical basis is not clearly articulated and there appears to be a willingness to separate teaching and practice in a way which threatens incoherence and charges of hypocrisy.
The emphasis on the qualities of a relationship without clear reference to the gift of marriage fails to do justice to Scripture and tradition in relation to both sexual same-sex relationships and heterosexual cohabitation (para 148).
The recommendation “to mark the formation of a permanent same sex relationship in a public service” and to leave the form of this to the discretion of the parish priest risks undermining the unity of the church’s teaching and practice and our ecclesiology. This is particularly of concern if such services were to follow a civil marriage. We would like to see a form of genuine pastoral accommodation together with rigorous engagement with doctrine and Scripture.
This recommendation disregards the statement of the Joint Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion in 2006 that “the authorisation by any one bishop, diocese or Province, of any public Rite of Blessing, or permission to develop or use such a rite, would go against the standard of teaching to which the Communion as a whole has indicated that it is bound” (italics added) and its judgment in 2007 that “the celebration of a public liturgy which includes a blessing on a same-sex union is not within the breadth of private pastoral response envisaged by the Primates in their Pastoral Letter of 2003” and that “the use of any such rites or liturgies” with the bishop’s authority would represent a breach of the Communion moratorium.
We therefore believe that for the House of Bishops to implement this recommendation, particularly prior to the conclusion of any facilitated conversations (as appears to be proposed in para 391) would damage the unity of the Church of England and the Communion.
E. Exploring “Pastoral accommodation”
In considering alternative forms of genuine “pastoral accommodation” (“pastoral hospitality” may be a preferable designation) we believe that there are two distinctions which are helpful and important and which need further thought and application:
(1) The distinction between (a) “blessing” (declaring on behalf of God to his people) and (b) “thanksgiving” (the people offering thanks to God for that which is good)
(2) The distinction between (a) private prayers and (b) public services and acts of worship.
We believe that “pastoral accommodation” which upholds church teaching is best expressed in private prayers in the context of Christian formation that sets out God’s purposes and leads people into greater conformity with them. Such prayers should focus on prayers for God’s grace and thanksgiving for the virtues evident in a loving non-marital relationship. This, rather than public services, particularly services of blessing, on non-marital patterns of life, is the form of “pastoral accommodation” we commend.
F. Conclusion: The Church after the Pilling Report
The lack of agreement within the Report reflects the deep divisions which are found within the wider church. We urge all Anglicans to pray for the bishops as they face major decisions and for those who will design the proposed facilitated conversations. In addition to exploring sexuality we believe these need also to consider how, given such deep differences, we can better live together and be faithful to what we understand to be God’s call in this area.
In Fulcrum we remain committed to “participate in debates on issues in sexual ethics arising today in the life of the Church” and offer these initial assessments to assist fellow evangelicals and others in discerning how to respond to this important Report.