by Jonathan Clatworthy
from Signs of the Times No 52 Jan 2014

How did you celebrate the publication of the Pilling Report on sexual ethics in the Church of England?

As for me, I went to a Greek food shop and bought a jar of Lesbian honey. I’m sure Sappho would approve.

There have been heaps of immediate responses. The press release and tidy list of 18 recommendations made it easy, but I decided to follow Pilling’s advice and read the whole 200-odd pages. As a result I have written a commentary1 which is almost 5,000 words long.

Pilling’s recommendations are all of a piece: small steps in the direction of accepting same-sex partnerships, but highly qualified. I have described them as cairns on a mountain path. The one which has attracted most attention is the one suggesting that clergy should be permitted to perform gay blessings, but only if they have the support of their Church Council, and there should be no formally approved order of service.

On the other hand the way these steps are justified makes all the difference. The magic paragraph is:

We believe that God’s grace is mediated, not solely through the institutional church, but by God’s presence before us in the world and his continuing activity in the Holy Spirit which is not confined to working through Christians. Part of our calling as disciples is to seek out this prevenient grace of God and celebrate his works (§340).

This needs to be shouted from the rooftops. The dominant voices have been telling us for decades that paying attention to public opinion is selling out to the spirit of the secular age – the kind of thing liberals do.

Well, yes, it is indeed the kind of thing liberals do. But it doesn’t mean we are selling out. It means what that paragraph says. According to Paul and Luke, Christianity began when Judaism got stuck in its inherited rules and the Spirit produced a new movement. In the same way Christianity sometimes gets stuck in its past and needs challenging. When the spirit of the age has more moral credibility than the Church’s inherited teachings, let’s face the fact that we don’t have a monopoly on divine inspiration. And celebrate it.

…..but dubious use of Scripture

An extract from Jonathan’s fuller commentary

The ‘nub of the disagreement – the sticking point, as we understand it, which has prevented us from coming closer as a result of our deliberations’ is, we are told, the interpretation of scripture (§57). There is much discussion of biblical texts, supplemented at the end of the document by the two analyses of the biblical texts on homosexuality by Sinclair and Runcorn. Although they take contrasting positions on same-sex partnerships both are evangelicals with a strong commitment to deriving ethical norms from the Bible.

This skews the whole document, in three ways:

  • It puts too much emphasis on debates about biblical texts. Of course many Christians, especially evangelicals, seek to be guided by scripture, but on reading Sinclair’s and Runcorn’s exegeses it is hard to believe that the different conclusions result only from different theories of biblical interpretation. In reality we all have other motives: our feelings, our desires, our anxieties, our good and bad experiences. Some of us, especially evangelicals, learn ways of interpreting difficult biblical texts so that they mean what we want them to mean, and this enables us to claim that we are being true to scripture; but for many people the real sticking-point is that we differ in what we want to believe.
  • It puts too much emphasis on evangelical discourse. Sinclair, Runcorn and the Report itself all approach the biblical texts from the perspective of the Church’s internal conflicts and seek to interpret scripture in ways which will resolve them. The discussion of relevant biblical texts should have begun with biblical scholars who have less ecclesiastical axe to grind.
  • It gives too much say to Sinclair. In effect he gets three bites of the cherry. Firstly he took part in the discussions about the content of the Report itself. Secondly he contributed one of the two statements about the biblical texts. Thirdly, his refusal to sign the Report is accompanied by a substantial account of his reasons.

Notes

  1. Pilling’s progress: cairns on a mountain path

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and is  Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.