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


  1. Thank you for your thoughts on this issue.

    How do you suggest that irreconcilable viewpoints be reconciled? "Liberals" and "conservatives" approach this issue from incompatible frameworks.

    For conservatives, this is, simply, an issue of biblical authority. The Bible says that same-sex copulation is wrong, therefore it's wrong, end of debate. If the church deviates from this position, it has abandoned the faith. They cannot agree to disagree, and cannot allow liberals to do their own thing.

    For liberals, the Bible isn't the last word on the subject. It contains errors. Either Paul of Tarsus was wrong, or what he said applied only to Corinth in the 1st century A.D. The Spirit is speaking to us today.

    Unity bought with injustice is an amoral transaction. If this were another time and place, would you advocate that white supremacists and anti-racists share a church in the name of unity? If not, why should it be different with homophobia? Even if the ethical argument does not persuade, the practical one should. There is no way for the two camps to remain in communion with one another when their values are at war.

    There isn't a neutral position to be had here. Neutrality is the problem, as is drawing a false equivalence between two "sides." Affirmation and homophobia are not two equal sides in a debate, anymore than racism and equality are. This is not a debate: it is a fight to see the human rights and dignity of gay people accepted by an organization that has long denied them.

    Where do you stand? Do you affirm gay people and their relationships? Or do you believe that they are sinners who need to repent?

    1. Byron. There are not just two sides here - liberal or biblical evangelical. Nor is Paul's teaching 'for all time' or irrelevant today. These are fall opposites. The report appendix includes an overview of the approach of a significant number of evangelicals who accept same sex relationships on the basis of/not in spite of scripture. The bible is still the foundational guiding word for them. The issue is how it is interpreted - then and now. It always has been actually.

  2. My reply picked up on "liberal" and "conservative" as used in Dave Young's post. :)

    I do agree that someone who believes in biblical authority can affirm gay relationships, if they read the text in a certain way. Texts can be read in most any way if we're so minded. Many are unable to join that reading, and consider this a "salvation issue." If, as the Pilling appendix puts it, submission to scripture is "primary and non-negotiable," they'll feel compelled to call same-sex relationships sinful.

    The issue is only about how it's interpreted if we accept the concept of biblical authority. If we have to work within that framework, then affirmation is an uphill battle. As a 1st century Jew shaped by the moral norms of Mosaic law, it's overwhelmingly likely that Paul of Tarsus would have condemned same-sex acts in all circumstances (as, for that matter, would Jesus of Nazareth).

    The affirming position is in a much stronger place if it argues that Paul was wrong. I couldn't honestly take another route, as I believe the "conservative" reading of the (authentic) Pauline letters is correct. Paul condemned same-sex activity, just as he told slaves to obey their masters, and ordered women to be silent in church.

    LGBT "issues" are being used as a battlefield in a proxy-war over biblical authority. Better to address the nature of the Bible directly. It's horribly unfair to gay people to use them as a means to an end, especially when you consider that gay people were singled out at a time when homophobia was widespread in society. They were viewed as an easy target. It was an abuse of power. Appealing to authority is also about power, judging a claim by its source, not its merits. It's all linked.

  3. Thank you to you both for your comments.

    There is of course much more that can be said about the specifics of this issue than is possible in one short blog post. Certainly, there are a spectrum of viewpoints on human sexuality and my blog doesn’t argue for neutrality. It isn’t really possible to be truly neutral on anything let alone an issue as contentious as this. As I said I have generalised the two polar opposite positions, but when I refer to ‘those in the middle’ I’m talking about a whole spectrum of views (as David Runcorn reiterated) - and of course there may be some who have not yet made up their minds.

    However, I would take issue with the suggestion that those who oppose same-sex relationships on scriptural grounds are homophobic. I think that is a generalisation too far and doesn’t allow for complexity in how human beings relate to each other. Homophobia no doubt exists in the Church and should be challenged for the ugly sin that it is. However, to disagree with someone’s lifestyle or core beliefs doesn’t automatically mean that hatred is involved. It should be possible for fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to fundamentally disagree while still remaining united to our Father. Using the family analogy, which I think is really helpful in this situation, brothers and sisters don’t need to agree on an issue to still love each other. Indeed love is essential if brothers and sisters are to remain in communion with each other.

    And for me that is the key here. If both ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ and all points in between can genuinely learn to love despite difference then homophobia shouldn’t even come into the equation. You cannot love and be homophobic any more than you can love and be racist, so Byron’s challenge of a false equivalence between affirmation and homophobia shouldn’t be an issue if both ‘sides’ can truly and genuinely learn to love each other for who they are and for who God has created them to be (irrespective of gender, sexuality or race).

    Reconciliation will be difficult but I don’t believe it is impossible. However, it does mean that all sides will need to learn how to love as Christ loves us. And that is no easy task.

    1. Thank you for the considered response.

      I accept that a person can advocate a homophobic position without being personally homophobic: just as, I suppose, a person who believed the Curse of Ham to be God's will could advocate segregation without, personally, hating African-Americans. In both cases, their feelings are by the by. However the advocate feels, they're advocating a harmful position. Intent isn't magic. Actions speak loudest.

      Pilling erred in defining "homophobia" to exclude scriptural arguments, ignoring the motive behind the selectivity, whether the motive is personal, institutional, or cultural. Why cherry-pick the verses that condemn gay people, instead of the verses that command women to cover their heads, slaves to obey their masters, citizens to obey dictators, and so on? I don't believe that it's a coincidence that a light was shone on the "clobber verses" at a time when society was homophobic.

      So how to go forward?

      Biblical authority is "non-negotiable" to the anti-gay faction. (I don't run with the artificial split between orientation and "practice": if you condemn the expression of a person's orientation, you also condemn them.) For those who affirm gay people -- whatever their own orientation -- human dignity is non-negotiable, just as the human dignity of all people regardless of ethnicity is non-negotiable.

      It's easy to say that we should learn to love despite difference. You could equally say that white supremacists and freedom riders should love despite difference. How does this ideal translate into practice? How should the Church of England, and by extension, the Anglican communion, progress?

      And as I asked, where do you stand on the affirmation of gay relationships? I ask only because I believe it's useful to know what position we all come from.

    2. Sorry you don't get a pass on bigotry because you wear a frock - I could care less what your book of fables says. Justify your bigotry in secular terms or find your place on the dust bin of history with the racists and sexists.

      Also, drop the smug self-righteous tone - if you seriously think that justice for gay people detracts from your ability to serve the poor then I suggest purging yourself of your homophobia, repent to your gay brothers and sisters and beg for their forgiveness. You have been corrupted by your failure to do justice.
      Frankly, you should be ashamed of yourself for what MLK rightfully denounced as the sin of the "Christian Moderate" - always telling the other to slow down and wait.

    3. To be fair to Dave Young, he hasn't, as yet, expressed a view on the ethics of same-sex relationships, or advocated a specific course of action. For all either of us know, he may strongly affirm LGBT people, and lobby the church, through his bishop and synod representatives, to repent of its current position and to change its teaching. He may stand with his gay sisters and brothers courageously and at personal cost.

      King denounced the moderates in 'Letter to a Birmingham Jail' because they had taken a position. They told the civil rights movement to cease demonstrating. In King's words, they sought to "set the timetable for another man's freedom."

      King's statement that "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will" is a powerful warning against valuing order over justice when you're not personally affected, but it should be applied with care.

  4. " to disagree with someone’s lifestyle or core beliefs doesn’t automatically mean that hatred is involved."

    I'm calling you on this. The conservatives are not disagreeing with the "lifestyle" or "core beliefs" of LGBT people. They are denying us our very humanity. "Lifestyle"? Really? This isn't just a disagreement about being vegetarian, or choosing to drive a fancy car, or wearing Goth clothing. We don't have a "lifestyle". We have lives. We have loves. To reduce who we are and whom we love to a mere "lifestyle" is frankly offensive.

    It may not be hatred per se, but it is certainly ignorance, bias, and prejudice.

    The problem here is that for conservatives, being gay is at best a pathology or sickness, and at worst, a deliberate perverted choice. But for faithful gay people (and for the medical profession), being gay is a normal human variant, like being left handed, or red headed. Not a disease. Not a disorder. Not a sickness. Not a pathology. Being gay is not a sin, any more than being straight is a sin. As a married gay person, I am called to live by exactly the same values of fidelity and faithfulness as my married straight brothers and sisters. And, being American, my Episcopal church celebrates and strengthens my marriage just as it does for the straights. Not a "gay" marriage, by the way. Just a marriage.

    I do agree that there is no middle ground here. Either you accept gay folks, or you don't. You can't have it both ways. There's no compromise possible: it's a simple binary. Are we in, or out?

    1. Very well said!

      The courageous stand against injustice by the Diocese of New Hampshire, and by the wider Episcopal Church, is an inspiration to the rest of the Anglican communion. I do wonder if the Church of England's established status makes it readier to take the course of amoral compromise. It's notable that the Scottish Episcopal Church hasn't enshrined homophobia as a shibboleth of orthodoxy.

      Unity should never be used as a weapon against justice. "... consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people ..." Caiaphas may not have said it, but the sentiment holds good. Human worth is non-negotiable, and as you so rightly say, this is about the very humanity of LGBT people.

      To again be fair, although the word "lifestyle" is one I'd reject for the reasons you give, we don't yet know what Dave Young's position is, or whether he's gone to bat on behalf of his LGBT brothers and sisters. For me, the thing that would matter most is that he's been doing his all to bring them justice.