The Church of England has been thinking seriously about same-sex relationships. Very seriously, in fact, as is clear from the recently published Pilling Report, a report to the House of Bishops by a working group chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling. (Hence the name.)
It's a long report, but it's definitely worth reading. However, if that's not your cup of tea, I'm going to try to offer a very brief summary of the report here, without much comment of my own.
The group consisted of four bishops and four other people. I have to say I was very impressed with the quality of the discussions the group has had. The members of the group were chosen to represent very different positions within the Church, and they have clearly listened carefully to each other and tried, very successfully, to understand each other. They have had conversations with innumerable people, seeking to learn about their experiences and convictions. At its best, the Church of England seems to be remarkably (perhaps incomparably) good at this kind of listening process. And for that I'm truly thankful.
But listening cannot continue indefinitely without action. What does the report recommend?
They couldn't agree.
The report itself was signed by seven of the eight members of the working group. In summary, as I understand it:
- Scripture is authoritative,
- but people sincerely disagree about what Scripture means for us today with regard to sexually-active same-sex relationships,
- so we'll have to learn to disagree about this issue (through a process of "facilitated conversations").
The dissenting member was my local bishop, Keith Sinclair, the Bishop of Birkenhead (in the Diocese of Chester). To summarise his position, as I understand it, based on his dissenting statement:
- Scripture is authoritative,
- but people sincerely disagree about what Scripture means for us today with regard to sexually-active same-sex relationships.
- However, the Church of England, the Anglican Communion and the Church throughout history have all maintained, with good reason, that Scripture is in fact clear on this issue,
- so to say that Scripture is not clear about this issue, and therefore that we'll have to learn to disagree, would amount to a significant change in the Church's teaching.
I think that's where the nub of the disagreement lies. (Mike Ovey has written an incisive blog post on the topic.)
So what next? Ian Paul is very concerned about the consequences of accepting the recommendations of the report. But he thinks that "the House of Bishops [HoB] can rescue this situation relatively easily" (emphasis in original):
Pilling is not proposing a change in Church policy or doctrine. They should accept this. Pilling is proposing 'facilitated discussions' to deeper our understanding of the issue. Personally, I doubt that these will make any progress at all—but I'm all for increased mutual understanding, even if it is understanding of how much we disagree, so I don't think the HoB could reject this. But in order to create any credibility at all for these discussions, the bishops need to agree to and implement an absolute moratorium on any liturgical change, however local and however 'pastorally accommodating.' The only alternative, as others have pointed out, would be a slow and painful death by a thousand (pastoral, local, liturgical) cuts.