Pondering Pilling: a report that will satisfy no one
The Church of England's new Pilling Report on human sexuality has attempted to resolve a problem which at its heart is fundamentally irresolvable.
For the truth is that underneath the tensions in the Church on this issue there are two completely incompatible worldviews. While the debate that has played out over the airwaves in the last few days has so far been courteous, underlying it are differences which are irreconcilable.
On one side, in broad terms, we have those who believe that Christians should wholeheartedly endorse faithful, permanent same-sex and sexually-active relationships.
They point out that the Biblical references to homosexual activity are relatively few, and they suggest that the relevant texts in the New Testament do not refer to modern, stable gay couples. They believe that this is a battle akin to the ending of slavery, the emancipation of women, and the struggle against apartheid – and some would regard their opponents as homophobic bigots, even if they might not say so publicly.
On the other side, there are those who argue that while the gospel is inclusive it is always transformative – and that repentance and holiness involves forsaking any sexual relationship outside heterosexual marriage. They argue that the Biblical texts about homosexuality are clear, that they have been understood as such by the vast majority of Christians for 2,000 years, and that it cannot be an issue on which they simply "agree to differ" with others because according to Scripture it affects people's eternal salvation.
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They also say that those who would change the Church's historic position not only have to explain away the negative texts but also the absence of positive Biblical teaching on the subject: given some of the sexually unrestrained cultures into which the New Testament came, it is argued, why did the Holy Spirit apparently not inspire the writers of Scripture to speak of faithful same-sex relationships in that time and place, given its similarity in terms of sexual licence to our own?
The gap between the two positions is unbridgeable, and many on each side regard the other as making a mistake of catastrophic and historic proportions. The Pilling Report, will, therefore satisfy neither side. For on the one hand, its recommendations do not suggest any change in the Church's teaching on sexual conduct. Yet on the other, they do propose that clergy should be able to offer services to mark a faithful same-sex relationship. In sum, it seems to be saying: "Some but not all of us are willing to bless you as long as you're not having sex – but as you probably are, we're not going to ask, and when we've thought about it a bit longer we may well be okay with that anyway." No wonder that for some this report doesn't go nearly far enough – while for others it is a step across a non-negotiable rubicon.
It often seems the case that this is an issue on which everyone has an opinion but about which few have thought seriously and theologically. Interestingly, the publication of the Pilling Report pretty much coincided with the launch of a new website called www.livingout.org. This aims to "articulate a perspective that is not often heard" – namely that of those who "experience same-sex attraction and yet are committed to what the Bible clearly says, and what the church has always taught, about marriage and sex". Their aim is to offer "a plausible way of living out what Christians have consistently believed about marriage and sex".
Amid the melee of voices, that's not a bad place to start listening and thinking, is it?