Bishops’ statement on Pilling Report

Following Monday’s meeting of the College of Bishops, the Church of England issued the following statement:

Statement from the College of Bishops

27 January 2014

The College of Bishops met on 27th January, 2014 to begin a process of reflection on the issues raised by the Pilling Report (GS 1929). The College expressed appreciation to Sir Joseph Pilling and to all members of the working party for the work they have done on behalf of the Church.

We are united in welcoming and affirming the presence and ministry within the Church of gay and lesbian people, both lay and ordained.  We are united in acknowledging the need for the Church to repent for the homophobic attitudes it has sometimes failed to rebuke and affirming the need to stand firmly against homophobia wherever and whenever it is to be found.

We are united in seeking to be faithful to the Scriptures and the tradition of the Church and in seeking to make a loving, compassionate and respectful response to gay men and women within Church and society.

We recognise the very significant change in social attitudes to sexuality in the United Kingdom in recent years.

We recognise also the strongly held and divergent views reflected in the Pilling Report, across the Anglican Communion and in the Church of England.  We acknowledge that these differences are reflected also within the College of Bishops and society as a whole.

We accept the recommendation of the Pilling Report that the subject of sexuality, with its history of deeply entrenched views, would best be addressed by facilitated conversations, ecumenically, across the Anglican Communion and at national and diocesan level and that this should continue to involve profound reflection on the interpretation and application of Scripture. These conversations should set the discussion of sexuality within the wider context of human flourishing.

We have together asked the Archbishops to commission a small group to design a process for these conversations and additional materials to support and enable them.  We hope that the outline for the process and the additional materials will be approved by the House of Bishops in May.

We acknowledge that one of the challenges we face is to create safe space for all those involved to be honest about their own views and feelings. This has not always happened and it must do so in the future. We recognise that we will not all agree and that this process is in part committed to seeking good disagreement that testifies to our love for one another across the church in obedience to Christ

As the Archbishops noted in November, the Pilling report is not a new policy statement from the Church of England and we are clear that the Church of England’s pastoral and liturgical practice remains unchanged during this process of facilitated conversation.

No change to the Church of England’s teaching on marriage is proposed or envisaged. The House of Bishops will be meeting next month to consider its approach when same sex marriage becomes lawful in England in March.

We are grateful to the whole Church for their prayers for our meeting today and for the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  We recognise that on many occasions in the past the Church has faced challenging questions.  It is vital in these moments to take counsel together, to read and reflect upon the Scriptures and to continue to discern together the mind of Christ”

Comment

The interest generated by the publication of the Pilling report is reflected in the number of campaign statements, media reports, blogs (including our own), commentaries from the US and other parts of the Anglican Communion, and reports to the College of Bishops. These are helpfully listed on the Anglican Mainstream web page which is updated as new items appear. Further comments and insights are available at Thinking Anglicans, including Andrew Brown’s piece on The Guardian’s Comment is free and links to useful data on attitudes to human sexuality, globally from Pew Forum here and here, and within the CofE from Changing Attitude. Also of relevance on the TA site is a link to the CofE’s Osborne Report of 1989, Report to the House of Bishops on Homosexuality, initially not reported but “re-published” by the Church Times two years ago.

As we have noted before, the Pilling Report is a report to the House of Bishops, not a report of the House of Bishops and it is therefore unsurprising that: yesterday’s statement emphasized that it was not a new policy statement; and the statement itself did not expand on the report’s conclusions, an unlikely possibility given the strongly held and divergent views within the College .  Nevertheless, there are two important points within the statement:

– acceptance of Pilling’s recommendation for “facilitated conversations, ecumenically, across the Anglican Communion and at national and diocesan level”, these conversations to commence following the approval of the process and materials by the House of Bishops in May; and

– that there will be no change to the Church of England’s teaching on marriage or to pastoral and liturgical practice during this process of facilitated conversation. Too much cannot be read into the wording, but it would tend to suggest that the introduction of extra-liturgical public services of pastoral accommodation, i.e. blessings of same-sex unions, over the next two years is ruled out, whilst this is may be an option for the future.

If the timetable suggested by the Report is followed, i.e. “without undue haste but with a sense urgency, perhaps over a period of two years”, the formal position of the Church of England is unlikely to change from that expressed in the 2005 HoB statement before mid- to late-2016.  Whilst this will be a comfortable two years before the next Lambeth Conference, a potential flash-point for the Anglican Communion, in other respects the delay is unsatisfactory.

This raises the question of what “added value” the Pilling Report has given the Church.  Unless its deliberations are viewed as a resource for use  by those involved in the forthcoming facilitated discussions, it could be argued that the decision to embark upon these discussions could have been made in July 2011, when the House of Bishops announced its intention to review the 2005 Pastoral Statement on civil partnerships, and to carry out a more detailed examination of the Church’s approach to human sexuality[1].

The 2005 Pastoral Statement was issued on 25 July 2005 in advance of the Civil Partnership Act 2004 coming into force the following December, and after outlining the Church’s teaching on marriage, addresses the impact that Act will have upon the Church:  the effect of the legislation; the blessing of civil partnerships; those wishing to be in ordained ministry and to register a civil partnership; and lay people who register civil partnerships.

Had Men and Women in Marriage[2] adopted a similarly practical approach to the issues to be faced as a consequence of current legislation, the Church might have been afforded the luxury of the Pilling timetable.  In the event, there will be a further two years of uncertainty during which the Church does not have a definitive response to the issues raised by the developing social and legislative agenda.


[1] ‘Civil Partnerships and Human Sexuality’, Statement from the House of Bishops, GS Misc 997, 1 July 2011.

[2] A document from the Faith and Order Commission published with the agreement of the House of Bishops of the Church of England and approved for study, GS 1046.

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