Yesterday Sir Joseph Pilling reported to General Synod following the publication of his much discussed ‘Pilling Report’ on the Church’s approach to the issue of human sexulaity.
I don’t intend addressing the Report (with the accompanying Dissenting Statement from Bishop Keith Sinclair, one of its members) here, as this has been widely reported and analysed elsewhere.
The challenge now is how those of us in the Church of England approach and prepare for the proposed facilitated conversations. This is the main recommendation of the report although, as was revealed in the Q and A’s yesterday, the design and timing of the process has yet to be worked out. And that provides a window of opportunity.
I spoke yesterday at a Synod fringe meeting about the risks and opportunities of facilitated conversations, especially for those who have been heartened by the dissenting statement from Bishop Keith Sinclair and who hold to the Church’s current teaching.
I identified 3 risks and 2 opportunities. First, on the negative side, there is the risk that those who hold to the Church’s teaching will be deterred from participating positively if the talks are convened using forms of words that imply pre-agreement over certain key issues.
Some, for example, have voiced concerns that talks might be based on the assumption that Scripture is not clear about the ordering of sexual interests. However I thought this would be unlikely given the tone and sensitivity of aspects of the Report.
Second, I stressed the importance of listening to the experiences of people who experience same-sex attraction as being critical to the whole process. But there is a risk that only those who take a revisionist line might take part, thus aligning the experience of ‘lesbian and gay people’ with the theology and ethics of those who adopt a liberal stance. We need people to speak from their experience whilst holding both conservative and liberal views on this.
I noted however that the Pilling Report itself had set its face against this, which was extremely helpful:
‘Nor is it a repetition of the call for people in the Church to listen to the experiences and perspectives of gay and lesbian people. Instead, it is about addressing the real differences of theology, scriptural reading, cultural assumptions and so on between members of the church, whatever their sexual orientation. It is about mutual listening across differences expressed’
This is encouraging, especially as there are now several anglican clergy ‘living out’ their experience together with their commitment to biblical teaching. However we do need to be vigilant that the language of conversations isn’t confined to the old binary of ‘gay’ and ‘straight’. Human sexuality is more flexible and nuanced than these social constructions imply and we need to engage with today’s realities rather than yesterdays social labels.
Third, I highlighted the risk of those holding the orthodox position entering into the talks unprepared. In particular I’m concerned that people on all sides of this debate simply do not understand the complexities and nuances of the whole area of human sexuality.
More important still, those taking an orthodox view have often failed to grasp the role of emotion and context in the way people assess opposing viewpoints and make up their minds. The ‘gay advocacy’ movement has been skilled in its understanding of this. Much work is needed on the tone and content of messages conveyed and those seeking to help orthodox people understand these issues must attend to this issue with urgency. I commended the ‘Living Out’ website as a a much better example of how we should be conveying the Church’s teaching through narrative and nuance.
Finally, the opportunities. I think we should engage positively with the facilitated conversations and we have the opportunity, now, to contribute to the design process to ensure that as many people as possible take part, and do so positively.
The prospect of these conversations also spurs those of us who hold to the Church’s teaching to examine our hearts and minds, to root out homophobia where we find it, and ensure that we are building inclusive Churches that welcome all into the challenge of discipleship and radical obedience to Christ. Once again, the Living Out website, now the top google hit on that term, is the place to start.