CofE bishops agree to disagree on human sexuality

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Bishops in the Church of England affirmed their support for the conclusions of the Pilling Report into human sexuality yesterday.

A statement released on the content of the meeting said: "We are united in welcoming and affirming the presence and ministry within the Church of gay and lesbian people, both lay and ordained."

There was also a mood of repentance, as the bishops said: "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."

The Pilling Report was put together by the Working Group on Human Sexuality, which was headed by retired civil servant Sir Joseph Pilling.

The report contained eighteen recommendations, including that the Church of England "...warmly welcomes and affirms the presence and ministry within the church of gay and lesbian people both lay and ordained".

However, the bishops insisted there was "no change" in the Church's official teachings on marriage, or the celibacy requirements of homosexual priests, and that none was being envisaged for the future.

Rather, discussions of this sort have been deferred: "The House of Bishops will be meeting next month to consider its approach when same sex marriage becomes lawful in England in March."

The bishops also acknowledged the breadth of opinion within the Church of England on human sexuality, as they voiced their support for the Pilling Report's recommendation that the Church initiate a series of facilitated conversations to help Church members talk through their differences on sexuality.

"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," he said.

"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."

The bishops continued: "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."

Speaking on the BBC's Hard Talk news programme this week, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby said: "I do not support the idea of same sex marriage ... I uphold the teaching of the Church of England which have not changed to any degree at all, that marriage is a lifelong union of one man with one woman."

The Church of England has been keen to state that the Pilling Report is not a new statement of policies. Previous statements on the matter describe it as "a substantial document proposing a process of facilitated conversations in the Church of England over a period of perhaps two years".

"The document offers findings and recommendations to form part of that process of facilitated conversations."

Yesterday's statement by the bishops said the conversations would be based on "profound reflection on the interpretation and application of Scripture", and "should set the discussion of sexuality within the wider context of human flourishing".

The bishops were also in agreement about the need to recognise the "very significant change in social attitudes to sexuality in the United Kingdom in recent years".

Archbishop Welby said "The reality of changes in Western culture are beyond any debate at all, and a Church that fails to acknowledge that the culture around it is changing...if it is willfully is being foolish"

"That doesn't mean [the Church] changes what it does."

The Pilling Report is to be discussed at the Church of England General Synod in February.