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The Pilling Report - Bishop of Birkenhead's Dissenting Statement

The Pilling Report - Bishop of Birkenhead's Dissenting Statement

By the Rt. Rev. Keith Sinclair
November 28th, 2013

It is with much regret that I have concluded that I cannot sign the report of the House of Bishops' Working Group on Human Sexuality ('the Report').

I offer this dissenting statement to set out another vision and explain why. Those who have been part of the Working Group on Human Sexuality have gone out of their way to listen to my views. They have sought to produce a report that, in their view, goes as far as possible to meet those concerns.

I am supportive of many of the Report's recommendations and share many of the concerns driving the Report as we wrestle with being faithful to Christ in our changing culture. For the sake of the peace and unity of the Church I would have loved to have put my name to a unanimous report. I have no desire to see issues of human sexuality distracting us from proclaiming the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. However, after much prayer and soul searching, I have concluded I cannot sign.

Why have I reached this conclusion? For a number of reasons which I try to set out in more detail in this statement:

* I believe Scripture and Christian tradition offer a clearer and better vision from God for the world in his gift of our sexuality as men and women and that this is sufficient for directing the Church at this critical time of major cultural change. In particular, I am not persuaded that the biblical witness on same sex sexual behaviour is unclear.

* I believe the trajectory in the Report will undermine the discipleship and pastoral care of many faithful Christians and, by leading the Church into the kind of cultural captivity which much of the prophetic writings warn against, weaken our commitment to God's mission.

* I believe in the unity of Christ's Church and think the Report has not heeded the view of General Synod expressed in February 2007 that 'efforts to prevent the diversity of opinion about human sexuality creating further division and impaired fellowship within the Church of England and the Anglican Communion... would not be advanced by doing anything that could be perceived as the Church of England qualifying its commitment to the entirety of the relevant Lambeth Conference Resolutions (1978: 10; 1988: 64; 1998: 1.10)'.

Although this lack of agreement is painful for me and all of us who have been part of the Working Group, no one who has listened, as we have, to so many, can fail to be unaware of the pain of many in the whole Church. I think a unanimous report with my colleagues would suggest that the differences between us do not continue to be deep and real. By submitting a dissenting statement in this way, I pray the House and College of Bishops will continue to be able to bear the pain of the Church in our own life together, and continue to seek and trust God for his better way.

The mystery of human sexuality

It is important to begin by stressing there is much in the Report's analysis and recommendations with which I agree and hope the Church will accept. I want to make clear at the outset that I am in agreement with Recommendations 5 –7 and absolutely committed to challenging prejudice against or exclusion of those we may perceive as being 'different' from ourselves, whatever form of difference that may take. We are talking about friends and family and the body of Christ. This raises the issue of the many kinds of sexual 'difference' now encountered among us in our society and how we speak about that difference.

Over the last eighteen months the Working Group has heard from those who are committed, with passion and conviction, to wanting the Church to revise her teaching and some who were actively campaigning for that change. There was also passionate argument, including argument from those with bisexual and same sex attractions, that the traditional teaching of the Church should remain unchanged.

Whilst there were encouraging accounts of affirmation and acceptance by church communities on all sides of this debate, many had more painful stories to tell, stories of shame, ignorance and exclusion. The need to repent of our readiness to exclude, judge and patronize those who are different from ourselves, whatever those differences may be, has become even clearer to me. This is a challenge that faces all of us involved in this conversation because, sadly, prejudice and intolerance sometimes have a strange tendency to flourish among those who were once their victims.

We need as a Church to recognize that this isn't only about 'homophobia'. I strongly agree with the recognition in Paragraph 181 that 'Human sexuality is not simply and irreducibly binary'. The challenge to radical inclusion and acceptance must extend well beyond the categories of what once we called 'homosexuality'. We live today in a pluralistic sexual culture that explores and celebrates a kaleidoscopic range of sexual interests and practices.

With evidence that more women may identify as 'bisexual' than 'lesbian' we need as a Church to recognize that this is not simply a matter of learning more about 'homosexuality'. The term 'homosexual' gave way some time ago to 'LGBT' (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered) and is already being supplemented by 'Q' (Questioning/Queer), 'P' (Post-label) and 'A' (Asexual). This coalition of sexual minorities has banded together to resist and repudiate the stigma and prejudice of the past. One positive development of this has been the challenge to the Church to respond with a renewed conviction that the love of God is extended to all, whatever their lifestyle, interests or patterns of relationship.

I also agree that we need to be clear about what can be learned from the social and biological sciences and must examine the question of the relation between the findings of science and the Church's traditional teaching and reading of Scripture (Paragraphs 193–219 and 329–335). My understanding is that, in recent years, attempts to discern the causes of different sexual interests have moved well beyond the false polarities of 'nature' versus 'choice' which still sadly shape much popular discussion.

I believe that these recent insights need to be integrated into our conversations on these matters. The magnetic draw of sexual desire, whether towards people of the opposite sex, same sex or both, is rarely 'chosen' in any straightforward or simple way. Human desire is experienced from deep within the self and sexual desire is clearly a complex phenomenon shaped by a mysterious interplay of genetic disposition, environmental events and unconscious habits formed from previous behaviours and choices.

We should not be surprised, therefore, when we meet some people who tell us they have experienced same sex attraction from their earliest memories of sexual awakening, others who describe more recent developments in adulthood, and still others for whom their experiences are more flexible and 'fluid'. Whilst the evidence seems to suggest that the overall genetic contribution to same sex desire is relatively weak, there may be significant variation between individuals and we still have much to learn.

In evaluating claims about genetic or other biological contributions to our different experiences of desire and attraction, the field of modern genomics (not least in the fascinating new field of epigenetics) suggests that there is complex gene-to-environmental interaction at play in a wide range of personality characteristics and human behaviour. Although a great deal remains uncertain and contested, it is thus possible that genetic factors contribute to characteristics such as empathy and humility.

This poses questions about the limits of human responsibility in relation to a whole range of personality characteristics and not just the nature of one's sexual interests. For example, personality characteristics that dispose toward promiscuity or unfaithfulness may well be shown to be linked, at some level, to background genetic and environmental factors. Whatever the background factors, however, what we do in response to our desires and attractions is something for which we are all responsible.

The scientific questions do not remove or negate the ethical claims of the gospel. Radical inclusion is followed by the call to radical holiness. The gospel often calls us to challenge the 'desires of the heart' and it seeks to discipline our responses around a pattern of life that expresses obedient love for God.

'Loving to the end' (John 13.1): Gospel love, inclusion, transformation and obedience

Jesus never discriminated among those who could be invited to the gospel banquet of grace, forgiveness and renewal. For Jesus, there was no difference between the person caught in behaviour that was sexually immoral and those who misused property and wealth, exploited relationships or wielded unjust power. He could be found eating and drinking with those at the very margins of culture. The call to 'repent and believe' was applied equally.

Indeed, it is the ultimate 'inclusion' of the Christian gospel. The spirit of self-righteousness, discrimination and ignorance that has sometimes characterized the Church's approach to issues of human sexuality in the past is a violation of the Spirit of Christ and of the Christian gospel. But the gospel never leaves us where we are or without direction for life in Christ or without power to be transformed.

We need to be clear that although God's love meets and accepts us as we are, offering forgiveness and redemption in Christ, the inclusive call of the gospel is to radical discipleship and obedience. Whatever our life experience, The House of Bishops Working Group on human sexuality therefore, we are summoned to a new life, a life of love for God that is no longer 'conformed to the world' but characterized by the pursuit of holiness as the image-bearing children of God.

This means that for the Christian, whether 'straight', 'bisexual' or 'gay', our identity can never be rooted in the pattern of our sexual interests and the identity categories that have evolved in the last few decades. As one theologian puts it: ...those of us who have been baptized into Christ can own no identity except 'Christian'. Biblical discipleship is not trying to conform oneself to a 'straight' identity, anymore than it is trying to conform oneself to a 'gay identity; it is being conformed to Christ'.

In Paragraph 327 the Report rightly says 'the debate within the Church [about human sexuality] focuses on divine and human love. What does a loving creator God ask of his people? What does the love of Christ mean for fallen humanity?' These are the right questions to ask, but I do not think the Report gives an adequate answer to them. Before turning to some of the specific details and critiques of the Report I wish to offer an alternative theological and pastoral perspective. One of the crucial lessons we are learning through our conversations on sexuality is that this is not simply abstract theological debate or argument about biblical texts but about real human lives with poignant stories all around us which we need to hear.

The story of one couple known to me is Greg and Margaret: during his teenage years Greg's first sexual stirrings were focused strongly on another young man. He said he developed a love with all the passion and drama that comes with adolescence. But that magnetic pull of love and affection conflicted deeply with Greg's faith in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour. After a time of crisis in that friendship, Greg began to find that women were included in his attraction, and much later he met Margaret. They were married and had two children, Rob and Jenny.

Jesus said 'Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit' (John 12.24). Greg sought to apply this to his attraction to his friend, and through many ups and downs there was a death and fruit. Greg's prayer to Jesus became and remained thankful for his words, without which he wouldn't have known love for Margaret; and Rob and Jenny wouldn't have been born. The question is 'Can Jesus rightly ask us to let our sexual attractions and interests be part of the wheat that dies?'

Even if the story does not end like this but with a life of singleness? John 12.24 is followed by John 13.1: 'Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.' This means quite simply his death (no one has greater love than this, John 15.12), his willingness to be that grain of wheat himself; what he offers of himself, he asks of us, every part of us, including our attractions and desires. Jesus teaches that love and obedience go together in the gift of God and the gospel. Loving as he loved means keeping his commandments (John 14.15).

The structures of sexual relationships given by God in creation and re-affirmed in the law and the gospel are given because of love, love for us and for all life which will come into the world because of such love. Whatever our attractions, the key is whether we have heard and responded to Jesus' words to receive eternal life. Such life comes from receiving his washing, receiving him and doing what he says: 'Abide in me as I abide in you' (John 15.4).

There will be pruning and much fruit. Greg's story witnesses to this, and not just because of Margaret, Rob and Jenny, but because, he says, in learning that Jesus' words applied to sexual attraction he learned they applied to everything else in life too.

In today's culture, it is not easy to insist on self-denial. We have been seduced (as the Prologue to the Report explores) by popular philosophies spinning the illusion that the uninhibited expression of our desires ('being who you are') is the key to human flourishing. It is claimed that for healthy psychological development a commitment to sexual abstinence is neither possible nor desirable.

But the Christian gospel insists that we are fallen creatures, the 'devices and desires' of our hearts having been deeply corroded and corrupted by sin. Christian discipleship, in all areas of life, whether same sex desire, 'heterosexual' desire, or other non-sexual desires, is always a call to radical submission, discipline and re-ordering of our errant desires in the way of Christ.

This, I believe, is the key to human flourishing according to the gospel. It has always been difficult for human beings to grasp the gospel principle that less equals more; that the denial of self could possibly result in life abundant. But that is what is at stake here, life in all its fullness for ourselves and for future generations. 'We love because he first loved us.'

Following Jesus faithfully in the present time and culture

'If a trumpet does not sound a clear call': The Report's lack of clarity

So what does it mean to follow Jesus today and how does the Report contribute to that call? I hope to show what I believe are intellectual and theological problems within the Report which, however well-intentioned, will make the cost of discipleship more difficult to know. It is important to recognize that this question of faithful discipleship is a distinct question from that of what our society should legislate in a particular area.

It has long been recognized that the Church may in some circumstances accept certain changes in the law, and even acknowledge some positives (such as harm reduction) in them, while maintaining a clear and distinct witness in the Church's teaching and discipline to a higher calling for those who accept Christ as Saviour and Lord. Archbishop Justin has referred to a 'revolution' in relation to society's view of sexuality which is now reflected in the current law on marriage. Does the Report help us in the pastoral and missional challenges we face in explaining to the Church and wider society what it means to follow Jesus?

With much regret I believe it does not do so and may even prevent the Church speaking clearly, faithfully and prophetically into the cultural debates about human sexuality. A question that has haunted me is whether Greg would have been helped by the Report to know what following Jesus meant, and my conclusion is that he would not. He would not have been encouraged to 'die' and consequently there would have been no new life, no marriage to Margaret and no birth of their children.

If we do not sound a clear call there will be negative personal and pastoral consequences in people's lives. In reading the Report two key questions for me are:

* What, in the light of this report, would the Church of England say to someone - perhaps a Christian, perhaps someone considering discipleship - who says they identify as gay or lesbian or (increasingly likely) as bisexual, and asks how as a follower of Jesus to respond to their experiences of sexual attraction and whether they can enter a same sex sexual relationship or some other relationship structure?

* What, in the light of this report, would the Church of England offer to wider society as the call of Christ when it is experiencing rapid rejection of traditional Christian sexual morality and asking major questions about sexual relationships?

I have concluded that the Report does not offer a consistent or coherent response to these questions in three key respects which shape the discussion that follows:

1. The claim to 'abide by the Church's official teaching' could give the impression that the Church still believes, as I do, that everyone should remain single and abstinent unless and until they find themselves able to marry someone of the opposite sex. But readers are not given reasons why they should do this. I do not see in the Report a clear Christian account of what it means to live a life of obedient love, a vision of the shape of holiness, a way of setting our story as sexual creatures in the biblical story of salvation, a message about what the gospel call to die and rise with Christ means (Paragraphs 436–448 below).

2. Conversely there are statements in the Report that undermine confidence in traditional Christian teaching and give the impression that the Church has little or nothing to say about same sex relationships (Paragraphs 449–471 below).

3. Examples of these two elements in the Report are its development of a Christian sexual ethic that says nothing about marriage between two people of the opposite sex (Paragraph 442) and its proposal that in public services recognition should be given to permanent same sex relationships. (Paragraphs 472–482 below).

As a result of these three features, I believe the Report will cause confusion to many faithful Anglicans, particularly those who experience same sex attraction. As a pastor and friend to such people I believe the Church should support and not undermine them. Two quotations from friends of mine, both of whom experience same sex attraction, will serve to illustrate this point:

'To Anglicans like me who are same sex attracted, the Church of England's increasingly ambiguous position on homosexuality is deeply confusing and distressing. It leaves us feeling unsupported in our loyalty to the Church's previous clear teaching that sex is exclusively for the marriage of a man and a woman - and gives the impression that generations of believers wasted their lives in orientating their lives around this core biblical truth. It unlovingly gives men and women like me unclear signals as to how we should best live our lives in a Christ-like way, and raises the suspicion that the Church is keener on appeasing the world around us - rather than protecting us and preserving what it previously said was in our best interests.'

'As someone who has experienced same sex attraction since my teens, I was so grateful that my Church showed me unconditional acceptance whilst gently guiding me to live according to the teaching of the Church of England. This pastoral care has enabled me and the many people in the same situation whom I know to flourish. We agree that the church's failure at times to show unconditional acceptance to same sex attracted people is pastorally disastrous. But a dilution of the Church's teaching would be equally disastrous, and a slap in the face to those who have quietly sought to live faithful lives.'

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