Two and a half years ago, I was walking through north London when I received a phone call from Ruth Gledhill of the Times. The Church of England’s House of Bishops had just announced a two-year consultation process on homosexuality. Ruth wanted to know my view on it.
It was a strange moment. I had just walked from Birmingham to London as a pilgrimage of repentance for my former homophobia. I had the privilege to meet some fascinating people on the walk and had learnt a lot from them. Some of them told me of difficult, uplifting or harrowing experiences. I found it hard to believe that many of these people were likely to be affected by another long-winded church consultation process into sexuality.
I told Ruth Gledhill that I did not doubt the bishops’ sincerity, but that I believed change in the church would come from below, not from above. Good change virtually always does.
Now the consultation process has ended, resulting in the Pilling Report. It was published last week, resulting in a flurry of excitement in the world of religious media, and widespread indifference elsewhere.
The Pilling Report recommends continued church discrimination against same-sex couples. I am sorry to say that some advocates of LGBT inclusion in the church have enthusiastically welcomed the report as a major step forward. This is because it suggests that churches should be allowed to bless same-sex relationships.
I am glad that this recommendation has been included, but I can’t get too excited about it. I have seen the devastating effects of church-based heterosexism too often to cheer gratefully when church leaders throw us a few extra crumbs from the table.
The report suggests that churches should be allowed to bless same-sex relationships but that no national liturgy should be produced for this (the implication is that this would suggest too much endorsement). Nor, according to Pilling, should they carry out same-sex marriages.
I don’t think I have ever felt so alienated by an official church report. It is full of comments about how the Church should be welcoming, accompanied by policies that say the opposite.
I’ve read the report’s “findings and recommendations” and skimmed through the rest but I have yet to read the whole thing. Reading part of it is depressing enough to put me off, but I am determined the read the full report before too long.
The report’s credibility – let alone the notion that pro-equality Christians should welcome it – is undermined right at the beginning of its “findings and recommendations” .The first point reads:
“We warmly welcome and affirm the presence and ministry within the Church of gay and lesbian people, both lay and ordained.”
No-one seems to have told the report’s authors that the quickest way to alienate a bisexual person is often to tell them that you’re really inclusive because gays and lesbians are welcome. In 2013, after two years of consultation, the House of Bishops have produced a report so removed from the everyday life of members of sexual minorities that this does not seem to have occurred to them.
I accept that there are some good aspects. Pilling acknowledges that Christians sincerely hold different views on same-sex relationships and that there are different ways of interpreting the Bible when it comes to this issue.
The report’s fifth finding is that:
“The Church should repent for the homophobic attitudes it has sometimes failed to rebuke and should stand firmly against it [homophobia] whenever and wherever it is to be found”.
I’m glad to see this but I would be a lot more pleased to see it put into practice. The phrase “sometimes failed to rebuke” is such a laughable understatement that it gives me little confidence that this will happen.
Perhaps the most significant of the “findings and recommendations” is Number 3. It’s perhaps the funniest, and simultaneously the saddest, part of the whole document. It declares:
“Consultation on this report should be conducted without undue haste but with a sense of urgency, perhaps over a period of two years.”
So there’s been a two-year consultation process and what does it recommend? Another two-year consultation process! And this is “a sense of urgency”! The authors’ sense of irony is either richly developed or non-existent.
I am not against consultations in themselves. I am all in favour of people with different views listening to each other and learning together. During my pilgrimage, I met interesting and helpful people with a variety of perspectives. I sat in a Quaker Meeting House with members of five local churches, discussing our varied attitudes to marriage, gender and the Bible. I stayed overnight with a Methodist minister who objected to same-sex relationships and we listened to each other’s views over breakfast. I was congratulated in a coffee-shop and berated by a taxi driver, thanked by a Muslim for promoting equality and criticised by a Quaker for talking too much about sin.
In all these experiences, I was privileged to participate in grassroots explorations of God’s will for human sexuality. These explorations are going on all the time. They do not need official church consultation processes in order to take place.
My fear, confirmed by the Pilling Report’s recommendations, is that consultations take the place of action and service. As Benny Hazlehurst of Accepting Evangelicals rightly points out, Jesus’ ministry had little to do with religious institutions. Jesus seems more concerned with people outside them.
Let’s remember the people affected by what really happens in certain church contexts. I can think of the people I have met and spoken with: a disabled woman told that her impairment was God’s punishment for her lesbianism, a man told by his minister that he would not be welcome at church again because he thought he might be transgender; a priest abused in the street by other church members because he was gay; a woman pressurised by a vicar into burning her fetish clothes; a man whose boyfriend broke of the relationship because he had been convinced it was unchristian.
I can also think of the enthusiastic Christian teenager who came out as gay at the age of fourteen. Condemned and insulted at church, driven to drugs, he jumped in front of a train four years later.
The job of the church, the imperfect gathering of Jesus’ disciples, is to serve people. These individuals, and countless others like them, were abused rather than served. We can choose to do something about this situation, or we can put it off for longer. I do not like to think how many more teenagers will have jumped in front of trains by the time another two-year consultation process has run its course.
No doubt the new consultation process will soon be inviting people to make known their views by sending in formal submissions. I will not be submitting anything to it.