Thursday, 28 November 2013

Let's talk about love not sex: Thoughts on the Pilling Report

Today I’m breaking one of my own rules and talking about the controversy about same-sex relationships among Christians. To be honest I don’t like speaking about this issue for a range of different reasons. Perhaps the main one is that it receives too much air time and (however important the issues are for both sides) often becomes a distraction. It also gives the false impression in the media that the Church is obsessed with sex. On a local level we are most certainly not obsessed with sex. The amount of time I spend talking about human sexuality at a parish level is miniscule. We tend to talk about other things - life, death, poverty, suffering, and the meaning of life. Yet the wider public think that gay marriage and women bishops are all the Church is concerned with. When these issues (and I want to affirm that they are important) distract us from helping the poor, caring for the sick and dying, showing love to our neighbour and proclaiming the good news of Jesus then something has gone badly wrong.

The other reason I don’t like engaging in this issue is because of the lack of grace displayed by Christians on both ends of the spectrum. I don’t like labels, but for the sake of shorthand these groups are generally referred to as ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’ Unfortunately the media like to trot out Christians of both persuasions who are more interested in shouting about their own theological viewpoints rather than listening to someone else’s view. Liberals have public opinion on their side so often like to characterise conservatives as bigots who are undermining a gospel of love and acceptance, and conservatives, swimming against the tide of public opinion, like to see themselves as a persecuted minority upholding the true faith against liberal heretics who are unbiblical. Frankly, both views are rubbish and a degrading caricature of what the ‘other’ is like. This political posturing means that neither side really wants to listen to the other. The truth is that what both liberals and conservatives have to say on this issue matters, and that their arguments are always more thought through and complex than the opposing camp realises. There has to be a genuine and meaningful exchange between modern culture and the Bible with all the theological insights that all traditions have to offer.

The Pilling Report on human sexuality has just been published by the Church of England. This report is not a change in policy for the Church. Instead it is a set of recommendations by a working group on human sexuality which proposes, what both Archbishops call, ‘a process of facilitated conversations in the Church of England over a period of perhaps two years.’

Personally, I welcome any report which may mean that Christians who have fundamentally differing opinions will have the opportunity to have a constructive conversation about the way forward on such a contentious issue. However, any conversation has to be constructive and has to move beyond emotional rhetoric and entrenched positions and to allow all parties to be heard and encourage all parties to genuinely listen with a spirit of Christian love and fellowship.

I believe that this report and the facilitated conversations that follow could be a positive opportunity for the Church. We are never going to agree on everything - no group of human beings can. After all, how many families do you know who never have arguments? However, we do have the opportunity now to show the world that we are a family - albeit one that is fiercely argumentative - and that our disagreements do not stop us from being a family and do not stop us from loving one another. If we cannot do this then we have failed to be the body of Christ.

The Church at this time doesn’t necessarily need total uniformity in doctrine and practice, but it does need to be able to love one another. If this process of facilitated conversation is going to bear any fruit then all factions (liberal, conservative and those of us in the middle) need to be genuinely interested in what another person has to say, and why, even if we fundamentally disagree with them. For Christians, grace should be at the heart of all our relationships. Presently in debates about this issue I don’t believe that all commentators - both conservative or liberal - display that much grace towards those of a different opinion. And until we learn how to be genuinely gracious and Christ-like to those who we disagree with there will never be reconciliation. But this could be one of those moments in which love and family could perhaps, with the help of the Holy Spirit, transcend deep disagreements.

‘I pray also for those who will believe in me ... that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’ John 17:20-21