Divisions Deepen in Pilling

Written by:
Saturday, December 7th, 2013

The Church of England House of Bishops’ Working Group on Human Sexuality, chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling, published its report (“the Pilling Report”) on November 28, in advance of discussion by the House of Bishops in December and the whole College of Bishops in January (see this TLC report by John Martin). It is, as Lambeth Palace tweeted, a report to not of the Church of England but it will set the agenda for future discussions and so its content, rationale, and significance are important. They can be summed up by exploring nine areas (building on the analysis I offered earlier this year here).

First, the report is very conscious of the church’s context and the demand it find a fresh way to address the issue of sexuality, particularly same-sex relationships (although it touches also on heterosexual non-marital cohabitation at paras 138, 148). This demand arises pastorally with gay and lesbian couples who are Anglicans and with Anglican clergy being approached for spiritual support by gay and lesbian parishioners. There are also the missional demands, particularly in the public square in the light of the legislation introducing same-sex marriage. It is noteworthy that the practical recommendations end by stressing that they are “the pastoral response which the majority of our group believe the Church of England should make as a result of the missiological challenges we identified earlier” (para 414, italics added).

These demands are pressing, second, because of the clear distance that has opened up between the church’s teaching and the wider culture, particularly among young people and the political and media elites. This can lead to a strong sense of cultural dissonance. The report, after explaining its origins and task, begins here (paras 39-54) and frequently highlights this as a major new challenge the church must address (e.g., paras 123-173, Recommendations 8-12). This is particularly pressing in a national, established church, as demonstrated for example in Sweden. During my evidence to the group, when pressed on whether we did not therefore need to change I replied that the point may come when we have to decide whether we are primarily the Church of England or the church of Jesus Christ.

Third, the demands and dissonance are strong because of the recognition of homophobia, which the report stresses “is still as serious a matter as it was” (Recommendation 5) for which the church needs to repent, although it is clear that “no one should be accused of homophobia solely for articulating traditional Christian teaching on same sex relationships” (Recommendation 6). To counter this problem, its first recommendation, presented as the foundation of the report, is that “we warmly welcome and affirm the presence and ministry within the Church of gay and lesbian people, both lay and ordained” (Recommendation 1).

In this context the fourth reality is that of significant and increasing diversity and disagreement within the Church of England about how the church should respond. In relation to the church’s teaching and practice the range can be categorised in terms of different mixes of reassertion, reassessment and revision. The group (a lay Chair, four bishops and three advisors) embodied a wide spectrum of views (although its weight, given known personal views, would appear to be between reassessment and revision) and was left in no doubt about the extent and strength of views in the evidence it received. The report encourages greater openness about this diversity, particularly among the bishops who have tended to seek to hold a common line, recommending that “all, including those with teaching authority in the church, should be able to participate openly and honestly” in debate and discernment (Recommendation 12).

This diversity and disagreement relates, fifth, to church teaching or doctrine. Here the report sets out, with extensive quotations, what the church has taught (paras 101-122) but offers little substantive explanation, let alone defence, of “the current teaching” in the face of the four challenges noted above. Although subtle, and under the guise of presenting something which all agree upon, the moral doctrine of the report itself — from the otherwise brilliant opening Prologue by Jessica Martin onwards — works with a paradigm focussed on virtue and the qualities of sexual relationship (“permanent,” “faithful,” “stable”) as the key determinant in a Christian sexual ethic (e.g., paras 123-148). Little or no attention is given to divine commands or natural law or the created order or the witness of Scripture as providing a normative structure for sexual relationships. Indeed, on the key question of Scripture, one of its central arguments is that “we do not all believe that the evidence of Scripture points to only one set of ethical conclusions” and “Christians who share an equal commitment to Scripture do not agree on the implications of Scripture for same sex relationships” (para 235). Two alternative views are set out in the appendix with no evaluation by the group, although one suspects most are closer to the revisionist position of David Runcorn than the reassertion of a traditional reading offered by fellow group member Keith Sinclair.

Despite this, the report states “at the level of declared doctrine, we are agreed that there is not sufficient consensus to change the church’s teaching on human sexuality” (para 349) and so “we uphold the church’s official teaching whilst recognising that it is important for alternative views to be explored openly as part of an ongoing process of discernment” (para 350). However, why the teaching of the church should remain unchanged is never explained with reference to Scripture or tradition but left as simply a pragmatic judgment that “there is not sufficient consensus to change.”

The diversity and disagreement relates also, sixth, to discipline, or how the church orders it own life, in particular its public worship and its requirements for clergy conduct. Here the upholding of doctrine leads to no change in one sense: there should be no formally approved liturgy for a service for a same-sex relationship (para 384) and all ministerial candidates should still “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). In relation to the latter area the only slight change is to stress that “whether someone is married, single or in a civil partnership should have no bearing on the nature of the assurances sought from them” (Recommendation 18), although it is said that the church needs to consider “the extent to which different disciplines on sexual conduct should be required of bishops, clergy and laity” (para 373). It is left unclear whether “married” here would include clergy legally married to someone of the same sex, an issue the House of Bishops will have to address in the near future.

It is in relation to public worship that the most significant change is made. Here it is argued that whereas in the past “the Church has resisted calls to celebrate civil partnerships in any formal or liturgical way” (para 380), “we believe that parishes and clergy, who conscientiously believe that celebrating faithful same sex relationships would be pastorally and missiologically the right thing to do, should be supported in doing so” (para 391). Although not authorised at a national or diocesan level, “it may be that the House of Bishops should issue guidelines” (para 393). The language of “blessing” is avoided (but the Chair reportedly said he would not write a letter of complaint if the press used such language) and reference made instead to “celebration” (paras 391, 392) and “an act of worship to mark the formation of a same sex relationship” (para 399, Recommendation 16) which it appears the majority thought could extend to same-sex marriages although it is stressed the service must nor resemble a marriage service.

Among the many serious questions this recommendation raises, four areas in particular are worth noting. First, although presented as a form of “pastoral accommodation” its institution of “local option” at a parish level does not fit well with the need for great care to ensure that, in the words of the FAOC report which used this terminology, any service is “bearing witness in special ways to the abiding importance of the norm” and will “proclaim the form of life given by God’s creative goodness and bring those in difficult positions into closer approximation to it.” It represents “local option” at the most local level and is more congregational than Anglican in its ecclesiology. Second, it appears to be more of a political accommodation or compromise within the group — conservatives get to uphold the doctrine but concede a change in discipline (this is almost hinted at in para 391). In practice it will lead to services being constructed by those who do not wish to uphold the doctrine and so are unlikely to do so in practice. Third, explicitly following the Church of Scotland’s approach, it creates a disjunction between the church’s teaching and its practice, risking the establishment on a formal level of precisely the hypocrisy that many have complained has existed informally for decades. It officially puts the practical cart before the doctrinal horse. Fourth, if approved by the bishops, this proposal appears to violate the Communion moratorium given the Joint Standing Committee made clear 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 the American bishops’ assurances therefore were only acceptable if they meant that “the use of any such rites or liturgies will not in future have the bishop’s authority.”

Alongside these attempts to navigate the differences over doctrine and discipline the central proposal of the report is, seventh, dialogue. The group argues that this is the next step for the Church of England at a national and diocesan level. It prefers to speak of “facilitated conversation” rather than “indaba,” although this appears to be a very close relative of the latter (paras 352-68). This should take the form of “consultation on this report … with a sense of urgency, perhaps over a period of two years” (Recommendation 3) and be “in close dialogue with the wider Anglican Communion and other Churches” (Recommendation 4). This is explicitly modelled on the group’s own working pattern (paras 55-83) and although it recognises “we are not certain that consensus … is possible” (para 70) it believes that it may enable people “to recognize, first all each other’s humanity, and then, perhaps, our shared belonging to one another in Christ through our common baptism” (para 71). Its purpose should be “relational, not institutional,” listening “so the journey can continue in an atmosphere of respect for difference”(para 357). Although it is said there would need to be “clear plans for evaluation and determining next steps” (para 365) it is unclear how such a process will relate to and shape the necessary formal corporate decision-making. A weakness of the report is that by choosing to set out and argue for its own vision, it largely fails to set out clearly the arguments on key decisive questions and issues that need to be discussed in a way that enables the wider church to understand the range of views that exist. Here the report Some Issues in Human Sexuality, although ten years old, remains a far superior guide to the theological debate than this new report.

Eighth, the report clearly represents a proposed development in the Church of England’s stance that may set a new trajectory. This is evident in both some of its substantive proposals developing the Church of England’s position and in the methodological approach to this issue that it embodies and recommends. Although this may appear to be only small, gradual, and evolutionary on the surface, it is arguably revolutionary in both substance and method in that it represents at its heart a departure from received doctrine.

To draw together the various areas above, the report and what it recommends appears to be driven by the need to respond to perceived pastoral and missional demands in a changed culture and to combat any hint of homophobia. Alongside this is put a claim that the existence of diversity and disagreement means that we need facilitated conversations based on acceptance of that diversity, and claimed consequent uncertainty, as the only way forward. In addition, to honour that diversity the church’s discipline must change and develop as soon as possible in order to reflect the diversity and reduce cultural dissonance and apparent homophobia. Throughout this, received doctrine in the form of church teaching and its sources in Scripture and tradition is effectively reduced to a silenced spectator. Although it is said that this is currently left unchanged, doctrine is explicitly detached from discipline (a move the Chair reportedly described as “Anglican in the best sense of the word”) and implicitly detached from Scripture whose teaching it judges unclear. It is noteworthy that the only substantive sections of the report not cited to explain its recommendations are those on Scripture and theology and that the wording in recommendation 2 that the conversations “should continue to involve profound reflection on the interpretation and application of Scripture” appears to be a last minute “fig-leaf” addition (it is missing from p. 22).

Christian doctrine, rooted in Scripture, rather than providing a basis for assessing and critiquing other factors such as context and practice, is now to be reshaped by them. As a result, the quality of life and the life expectancy of “the current teaching of the Church of England” appears to be much reduced by the Pilling Report.

The final feature of the report to note is the present and looming reality that this explosive cocktail will likely result in division or at least differentiation among Anglicans in England as it has in North America. This is evident on the face of the report in that, very unusually, it includes a significant “dissenting statement” from the one evangelical bishop on the group, the Bishop of Birkenhead, the Rt. Rev. Keith Sinclair. The report offers no basis to support the view that further dialogue is likely to prevent this outcome and yet it appears to have nothing to say to the bishops about how best to address this situation other than further dialogue about sexuality. Yet this focus for dialogue is one where it is clear many — across the range of views — believe that diminishing returns set in some time ago. As illustrated by initial responses to the report, there are such strongly held but incompatible theological and missiological worldviews driving people that the dialogue, when it is not simply the dialogue of the deaf, is increasingly more akin to interfaith dialogue than even ecumenical dialogue.

What the Pilling Report and its reception will perhaps show us is that rather than following its recommended departure from doctrine under the guise of “pastoral accommodation” or simply more talking about sex, what we urgently need are facilitated conversations that focus on the reality of our deep-rooted divisions on doctrine and the need to discern what differentiated church structures should be created in response to this reality. If some new structures can be found, that would mean that Anglicans committed to different patterns of doctrine, rather than continuing to struggle to establish their view as that of the Church of England, could be given the security and freedom to respond as they believe right. Shaped by their different doctrines, they could each address the real and challenging pastoral and missional demands, respond to the experience of cultural disconnect and dissonance, combat homophobia as they understand it, and establish their own form of church discipline in terms of clergy conduct and public acts of worship. If we can find a way to put such structured freedom and security in place so that we can all bear witness with integrity to what we believe is true and represents good news for our nation, we may, paradoxically, find it much easier to dialogue and work together across our diversity and disagreements. Then, as each approach seeks to share faithfully in God’s mission as they understand it, we could follow the Gamaliel principle cited by Runcorn and leave God to judge which developments and which trajectory is more faithful.

Andrew Goddard is associate director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics based in Cambridge and has taught Christian ethics at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and Trinity College, Bristol, and is an adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. He is a canon at Winchester Cathedral and assistant minister at St. James the Less, Pimlico, where his wife, Lis, is vicar. He is author of a number of books, most recently Rowan Williams: His Legacy (Lion, 2013).

December 07 2013 | Articles

Polity “Primer”: ACI Response

Written by:
Friday, November 29th, 2013

An “Ecclesiology Committee” committee advising the House of Bishops has released a “Primer” on polity prepared with the assistance of various consultants identified at the end of the document. The identity of those preparing this document—most have participated as counsel or witnesses or have been listed as potential witnesses in the various lawsuits—makes obvious that the primary purpose of this document is its perceived usefulness in litigation. ACI principals have also appeared as witnesses in this litigation. This is our response to the claims asserted in this Primer.

read more...

November 29 2013 | Articles

After Quincy: Rethinking The Purpose Of Our Common Life

Written by:
Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

The recent decision in Illinois upholding the property rights of dioceses who withdraw from General Convention may not stand up on appeal. But the opinion’s reasoning, by Judge Thomas Ortbal, was perhaps the most careful and thorough on record in such cases, and will likely have to be taken into account in all future judgments. In any case, the decision offers a chance for sober consideration of our church’s mission and its relation to ecclesiastical structure.

I am someone who once assumed that TEC was a single entity, and that dioceses were an integral part of this entity, gears in a larger machine. The notion of a diocese “leaving” TEC never crossed my mind, and in fact seemed simply antithetical to the meaning of “Church”. I still think this, deep down, and much of my academic writing on the Church has been devoted to trying to understand how Christian unity properly founds the very nature of our Christian faithfulness, as it is engaged by God’s gracious gift of Himself to our rebellious hearts and hands: God for the godless.

read more...

October 23 2013 | Articles

The Instruments of Unity and the Way Forward

Written by:
Friday, October 11th, 2013

Archbishop Josiah Idowu-Fearon at the Toronto Conference

Click Here to Listen To The Audio

read more...

October 11 2013 | Articles

The State of the Communion and the Way Forward

Written by:
Friday, October 11th, 2013

Presiding Bishop Mouneer Anis At The Toronto Congress

Click Here to Listen To The Audio

read more...

October 11 2013 | Articles

Greetings to the Faithful of the Anglican Communion and all our Friends in Christ

Written by:
Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

Greetings to the Faithful of the Anglian Communion and all our Friends in Christ:
We write to you from a conference in Toronto, Canada, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1963 Pan-Anglican Congress held here. We are Primates and bishops representing the Anglican Global South, including the chairmen of the Global South Primates’ Steering Committee, Council of Anglican Provinces of Africa (CAPA), and Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON).

read more...

September 24 2013 | Articles

Why Encouragement for North American Parishes and Dioceses Matters?

Written by:
Friday, September 20th, 2013

There are numerous background issues and specific historical factors that probably need a quick review—what role does a solemn declaration have in ACoC; does TEC have a basically diocesan polity by constitution and canon; what happened at GC 2012 in respect of SS blessing rites and how has that morphed into other things on the ground; is ‘extra-provincial’ a Communion-warranted category (approved at Dar Es Salaam) available for dioceses like SC which find themselves isolated in the province in which they were located.

But I want instead to begin with a more simple illustration, the now typical ‘story’ that introduces the Sunday morning sermon. I do this because to use the word ‘encouragement’ is to point to the fact that for conservative Anglicans it is no longer about serious debates, or theological arguments, or a proper liturgical understanding of this or that new rite.1 Rather, it is about the more basic question of continuance in a church that in many serious ways no longer resembles itself through time. Conservatives have become strangers—in worry or in fact—in their own church, because time marches on and the claim is made that as it does it makes “ancient good uncouth” (as the hymn puts it). That may look slightly different on the ground in Canada—more polite, perhaps—but here the Episcopal and Anglican counterparts in NA face I think the same basic challenge. Our vocation is to live in God’s time and that will require suffering, confusion, and struggle to preserve what we hold true as the friction with another account of time—in culture and in the church—is increasingly great.

read more...

September 20 2013 | Articles

Affidavit Of Mark McCall

Written by:
Saturday, September 14th, 2013

In April I submitted as affidavit in federal court in South Carolina on behalf of Bishop Mark Lawrence. It was one of several affidavits submitted by the Diocese of South Carolina in response to litigation filed against Bishop Lawrence by parties supporting the position of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina. My affidavit included work on issues relating to TEC polity that I have done over the last three years but had not previously published. This affidavit has been part of the public record for several months. ACI is now posting it online.

My affidavit contains a detailed analysis of the legal structure and history of TEC. The following paragraphs provide an overview of the analysis:

read more...

September 14 2013 | Articles

Same-Sex Marriage Is Still Wrong; And It’s Getting Wronger Every Day

Written by:
Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

The unexpectedly rapid civil acceptance of same-sex marriage in the West may lead one to imagine that the issue is somehow already settled. Whatever doubts one may have had, they have been swept away by the overwhelming flood of changed public opinion. Fait accompli. Traditional Christians must simply step aside now.

Such a judgment would be a mistake. Indeed, far from the matter being settled, at least form a Christian perspective it has hardly been engaged, despite claims to the contrary by proponents of same-sex marriage. What we have had instead is a bait-and-switch set of tactics, first seeking civil and religious recognition and affirmation somehow of same-sex attractions, then pressing for ordinations, then blessings of unions. What comes next? The question of a “slippery slope” is hardly a fallacy here, for in this case we have a historical track-record of legal advocacy and movement that stands as quite rational “evidence” for the slope’s existence.

read more...

July 17 2013 | Articles

“Motivated Thinking” Or On Why The Dynamics Of Life Within The Episcopal Church So Closely Resemble Those Of The U.S. Congress

Written by:
Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

Polls indicate that people of all political persuasions are frustrated by the “gridlock” that now characterizes congressional debate and action. Many go on to ask how and why this sad state of affairs has come about. Recently, these questions presented themselves to me in a particularly powerful way when I read that unspecified complaints by unspecified persons had been registered under the new Title IV against nine Episcopal Bishops. I wondered on what basis such complaints possibly could have been made. My question became more pressing when later I learned, upon enquiry, that a similar complaint against me had been lodged with my diocese.

The answer to this question came to me in the form of a disturbing thought. Perhaps the complainants believe themselves to be in possession of a set of facts that to my mind are not facts at all. Perhaps their complaint is based upon a construal of reality that to their minds is quite accurate but to mine is utterly fanciful. This thought was followed by another prompted by an article in a recent edition of the New Yorker entitled “Unpopular Mandate.”

read more...

June 05 2013 | Articles

Next »