The Church of England: Finally taking LGBT Anglicans seriously 5 April 2014

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The Church of England’s latest report on sexuality may not be satisfying to some, but Andrew Grey argues that it is exactly the sort of document needed at this stage.

In November 2011, the Church of England’s House of Bishops established a working group to commence a consultation process on the Church of England’s views on sexuality. Its aim was ‘to draw together and reflect upon biblical, historical and ecumenical explorations on human sexuality and material from the listening process undertaken in the light of the 1998 Lambeth Conference resolution’. Its results have now been published in The Pilling Report, named after the Chair of the group.

Sir Joseph Pilling

Sir Joseph Pilling, Chair of the working group that authored the report.

The report has provoked mixed responses: whilst John Bingham at the Telegraph regards it as representing a “historic shift” in thinking, Symon Hill of think-tank Ekklesia perceives it as little more than church leaders throwing LGBT people “a few extra crumbs from the table”, and representing no real change at all.

But neither view is a fair representation of the report. Bingham is wrong to label it as a shift in thinking because, in reality, it does not reflect the “thinking” of the Church of England at all: rather, it records the empirical observations of a small group of appointed representatives.

Nonetheless, Hill is wrong to be so pessimistic. For the first time, the Church of England has given a proper account of the voice of experience in the ongoing debate over homosexuality. Experience is a crucial source of moral authority that is often neglected – or at best, only nominally acknowledged. This failure to give it a proper place has led to statements such as “Human relations depend on the encounter of men and women, equally and differently human”  (from the Faith and Order Commission’s Men and Women in Marriage) that express ostensibly profound sentiments but which, in reality, mean very little in relation to the ordinary, lived experience of people who, whilst they do not solely interact with people of their own gender, nonetheless only feel truly fulfilled in the context of romantic relationships when they experience the affirmation of another member of the same sex.

The report also acknowledges that the existing Church of England policy statements on this issue, namely the 1987 motion from the House of Bishops which argues that “homogenital” acts fall short of the ideal for sexual relationships, and their 1991 document Issues in Human Sexuality, are 26 and 22 years old respectively, and cannot “be said with any certainty to represent the mind of Synod”. This clearly paves the way for a proper review of the Church’s position on homosexuality, and the need to present a statement that more accurately reflects the diversity of views within the Anglican communion.

“Diversity of views” could, of course, be taken to be euphemistic for “turning the Church’s stance from anti-gay to pro-gay”. But the Pilling Report avoids falling into such a trap: throughout the document, a concern is retained to take account of views across the spectrum. The reality is that the Church of England consists of people with an enormous variety of perspectives, ranging from those who would struggle to worship with active homosexuals to those who want to see them married in their churches, and every possible position in between. Even amongst LGBT Anglicans, as the document again acknowledges, stances range from those who want to be married in their churches to those who feel that the only possible vocation for LGBT Christians is a life of celibacy.

There is a real need to ensure that the Church of England itself, as well as the wider Anglican communion, does not become divided over this issue. There are many who oppose homosexuality who would like to see a Church without homosexuals or those who support them, whilst many progressives would much prefer a Church without traditionalists. But this document emphasises the need for Anglicans to remain in communion with those with whom they disagree profoundly on this issue, and the need to listen to them. This is surely a lesson from Paul’s letters to the churches in Corinth, Rome and Galatia: repeatedly he emphasises the importance of unity amidst division.

The document also addresses a number of very important aspects of this discussion in relation to wider society, including: the fact that a majority of Anglicans regard same-sex and heterosexual relationships as equally legitimate; the fact that opposition to same-sex marriage is considerably less prominent amongst people (both Anglican and non-Anglican) of a younger generation,  and that in general younger Anglicans were more likely to have fairly ‘liberal’ views over homosexuality; that sexual liberation has had both positive and negative implications, the latter being more related to the exploitation of women; the need to condemn homophobia and homophobic bullying; and the need to consider scientific findings on sexuality. It also accounts for a number of other points of great theological significance that are often overlooked in the debate, including the variety of possible interpretations of scripture, all of which nonetheless take it seriously as a source of moral authority; the need to affirm the body and the bodily nature of human existence; and the opening statement of the preface by Revd Dr Jessica Martin that, for Christians, “desire begins and ends with God”.

Clearly this report is noteworthy. It takes seriously a whole host of important voices, emphasises various theologically significant points, and offers practical considerations for engaging in dialogue over the next few years. It may not be the staunch defence of traditional views that more conservative Anglicans would have liked, nor the unequivocal affirmation of same-sex relationships that progressive Anglicans would have appreciated, but at a time of division, it is quite possibly the very document that the Church needs: a document which recommends listening, and in taking into account so many voices, is leading by example.

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About Andrew Grey

Andrew Grey graduated from the University of Oxford with BA and MPhil degrees in Theology. He is a Writer and Editor at a national charity. The opinions expressed in his articles are his own.