The Pilling Report, the CofE and human sexuality

Deliberations of Sir Joseph Pilling’s Group

In July 2011, the House of Bishops announced its intention to review the 2005 Pastoral Statement on civil partnerships, with the expectation of reaching a conclusion ‘during 2012’. It also undertook to carry out a more detailed examination of the Church’s approach to human sexuality[1] in preparation for consultation in 2013. The Church of England established two separate groups in late 2011 and early 2012 to address these issues; and we reported that the December 2012 interim report of the House of Bishops necessitated a hurried response (once the media had caught up with the story in January).

Later in the year, when the HoB Report Men and Women in Marriage was published, despite its lengthy gestation the document did not clarify or advance the Church’s thinking in this area; and this was reflected in the media responses, summarized by Thinking Anglicans. Stephen Bates of The Guardian reported that some diocesan bishops took issue with the Church’s report[2] which the standing Faith and Order Commission had subcontracted to be written by two conservative academics, Oliver O’Donovan[3] and Michael Banner.

More recently, at the end of October issues of human sexuality were raised following a Press Conferences on GAFCON and the forthcoming General Synod; and the Church had to scotch rumours on its possible content. In the event, the final Report was published after General Synod on 28 November, accompanied by a Press Release and Statement from the Archbishops.

Pilling Report: the basics

The substantive Terms of Reference were:

  • 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;
  • To advise the House of Bishops on what proposals to offer on how the continuing discussion about these matters might best be shaped; and
  • To offer a draft of the consultation document that the House intends to produce.

Initially, the group was to report to the House through the Standing Committee by October 2013, but this was changed to December 2013. The House of Bishops will discuss the Report for the first time in next week, and it will be further debated by the College of Bishops in January 2014 [4].  In the next couple of years there will be a broader discussion of the report and a consultation, a draft of which is to be produced. However, the Report is initially directed to the House of Bishops and it does not represent a new policy statement from the Church of England.

The Working Group held 15 meetings and at five of these oral evidence was presented by individuals and groups chosen for their expertise. Additionally, all CofE bishops and other interested parties were invited to submit written evidence.

The Report commences with a Prologue by the Revd Dr Jessica Martin which issues a challenge “to think about human sexuality more widely than most of the evidence was leading the group to do”.  Part 1 describes the background to the group, the rapidly changing context; the importance of listening to each other, the obligations of belonging to the Anglican Communion and the current teaching of the Church of England. Details of the group’s membership and a list of those presenting evidence are included in Appendices 1 and 2.

The evidence considered is included in Part 2 which addresses: sexuality, culture and Christian ethics; sexuality and social trends; homophobia; arguments about science; arguments about Scripture; and perspectives from two theologians, Professor Oliver O’Donovan and Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP.

Part 3 provides a reflection in this evidence and considers: Christian ethics – the Anglican tradition; scripture and theology; countering prejudice and homophobia; science, society and demographics; a process for listening to each other; the Church’s practice; and the Dissenting Statement by the Bishop of Birkenhead, whose views are presented in Appendix 3, ‘Scripture and same sex relationships’.  A different interpretation of scripture is provided by Rev David Runcorn in Appendix 4, ‘Evangelicals, Scripture and same sex relationships – an ‘Including Evangelical’ perspective’.

The Report’s recommendations and findings are founded on the statement

“We warmly welcome and affirm the presence and ministry within the Church of gay and lesbian people, both lay and ordained. (Paragraphs 73 –6)”

and are grouped into three sections:

  • On the next steps for the Church of England;
  • On the teaching of the Church and the missiological challenge; and
  • On the Church’s pastoral response.


Initial reactions to the Report

In the past we have been critical of the Church’s handling of the media interest in Men and Women in Marriage and in events leading to the publication of the Pilling Report. However, its publication has necessitated no post facto explanatory statement from Church House, although it appears as though it was published before it was received by the bishops. Comprehensive reviews and updates of the comment surrounding the report are available on Thinking Anglicans and Anglican MainstreamWhilst interest groups and the media have been quick to comment, there have been relatively few detailed analyses of the document as a whole, although Andrew Symes has provided a comprehensive review in which he identifies a number of “elephant in the room” issues that are not addressed, including, the Episcopal Church’s unilateral decision to consecrate Gene Robinson and the resulting “tearing of the fabric of Communion”, and civil partnerships and candidates for ordination.

Content of the Report

Undaunted by the tl;dr culture [5], the 203-page Report prefaces its Findings and Recommendations [at paragraph 490] with this:

“Although the recommendations are often regarded as the only part of a report which really matter, they appear at the end of this report for a good reason. The points which follow have been developed after careful thought and argument, and how they were arrived at is as important as their content. They should not, therefore, be read out of sequence but after reading the whole report.”

However, from the point of view of law and religion, no immediate changes in the church’s legislation are in prospect: the Pilling Report is a report to the House of Bishops, not a report of the HoB. Therefore, the status quo is unchanged and the HoB 2005 Pastoral Statement continues to provide guidance in this area, although technically this is quasi-legislation.  However, Hill[6] notes that

“such pronouncements are not law per se, nor do they have the force of a statute, but they have “great moral force as the considered judgment of the highest and ancient synod of the province”, [Bland v Archdeacon of Cheltenham [1972] Fam 157, at 166].

As such, it has significant persuasive authority in the ecclesiastical courts. In fact, although there have been important statutory changes on several human sexuality issues, the Church has not enacted any primary or secondary legislation in this area and its policy has been guided by quasi-legislative measures, viz.

  • 1987     General Synod, the Higton Motion[7]
  • 1991     House of Bishops, Issues of Human Sexuality, GS Misc 382[8]
  • 1998     Lambeth Conference, Resolution 1.10
  • 1999     House of Bishops, Marriage – a teaching document[9]
  • 2003     House of Bishops, Some issues in human sexuality – a guide to the                  debate, GS 1519[10] (a discussion document)
  • 2005     House of Bishops, Pastoral statement on civil partnerships.
  • 2013     House of Bishops, Men and Women in Marriage, GS 1046, A document from the Faith and Order Commission[11]

References to statutory legislation in the Pilling Report tend to focus on the legislation relating to civil partnerships and same-sex marriage; and it would be interesting to follow the Church’s response to the development of legislation impacting on LGBT rights, as listed by Stonewall and Liberty, commencing with the instrumental role played by the then Bishop of Durham, later Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, in the establishment of the Wolfenden Committee[12], whose report led ultimately to the Sexual Offences Act 1967.  

Future Developments

In the medium term, the report will be considered by the House of Bishops next week and by the College of Bishops early in 2014. Assuming that its findings and recommendations are endorsed, the Church is likely to engage in “facilitated conversations or a similar process” and a Consultation on the Report is to be conducted “without undue haste but with a sense of urgency, perhaps over a period of two years”. It is possible that this would conclude with a further Statement from the House of Bishops.

In the shorter term, however, the agenda is likely to be driven by statutory legislation as same-sex marriages begin to be conducted under the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 and  the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 Shared Buildings Regulations, for which the MoJ Consultation closed on 2 November. An earlier post reviewed the implications of the Draft Regulations (as Annex A) and Revised provisions of the Marriage Act 1949 for Registration of Shared Buildings for marriages of same sex couples (as Annex B). The Consultation stresses that the government

“wants to ensure more generally that the regulations strike the right balance between protecting the religious freedom of religious organisations who do not wish to solemnize marriages of same sex couples and enabling those religious organisations who do wish to register places of worship to solemnize marriages of same sex couples to do so”

and we noted that some religious organization may fear that this constitutes a “salami slicing” exercise to further reduce their religious freedom.

One aspect of Pilling that has been subjected to subsequent comment and earlier discussion has been that of the blessing of civil partnerships, the interpretation of the 2005 Statement, and Canon B5. The foreword to Men and Women in Marriage states that it

“sets out to explain the continued importance of and rationale for the doctrine of the Church of England on marriage as set out in The Book of Common Prayer, Canon B30, the Common Worship Marriage Service and the teaching document issued by the House in September 1999”.

However, with regard to civil partnerships, “which are not marriages but raise some analogous issues” the report falls back on the 2005 HoB statement, and notes that “the Bishops addressed what might be an appropriate form of pastoral response in 2005. The wider questions surrounding these continue to be a matter of study.” Pilling addresses this in paras 382 to 384  [our emphasis]

“382 … Moreover, some form of celebration of civil partnerships in a church context is widely seen as a practice that would give a clear signal that gay and lesbian people are welcome in church.”

“383 This is a question on which our group is not of one mind – not least since a willingness to offer public recognition and prayer for a committed same sex relationship in an act of public worship would, in practice, be hard to implement now for civil partnerships without also doing so for same sex marriage (which, like civil partnerships, makes no assumption, in law, about sexual activity)”.

“384 … Unless the Church of England agrees to some modification of its current teaching on committed, permanent and faithful relationships between two men or two women, it cannot prescribe a liturgy to celebrate them”.

This is an area requiring urgent clarification.

Complementary to the above are considerations for the Church’s relationship with the Anglican Communion and the Lambeth Conference 2018, for which much preparatory work and discussion will be necessary.

[2] The reports was said to be “badly written, incoherent and theologically superficial” and its launch was “naively mishandled”. Bates comments that at a private meeting of diocesan bishops, the Archbishop of York had apologized for the botched publication and the way the report was railroaded through.

[3] Professor Oliver O’Donovan gave a presentation to Sir Joseph Pilling’s group, which is summarized in paras. 270 to 277.

[4] The House of Bishops comprises: all 44 diocesan bishops, the Bishop of Dover as de facto diocesan of Canterbury and seven suffragan bishops, by election. The three Provincial Episcopal Visitors can also attend and but not vote. The College of Bishops comprises all serving bishops in the Church of England.

[5]too long, didn’t read

[6] M Hill Ecclesiastical Law, (3rd Edn, Oxford University Press, 2007)

[7] General Synod Report of Proceedings Vol. 18 no. 3, Church House Publishing, 1987, pp. 955–6.

[8] Issues in Human Sexuality, Church House Publishing, 1991.

[9] Marriage, Church House Publishing, 1999.

[10] Some issues in human sexuality, Church House Publishing 2003.

[11] Men and Women in Marriage, Church House Publishing, 2013

[12] The Pilling Report stresses, [para. 47],” the arguments adopted by Ramsey and others were based on the principle of tolerance of minorities, and decriminalization did not imply that the Church ceased to see homosexual activity as sinful.”

3 thoughts on “The Pilling Report, the CofE and human sexuality

  1. “We warmly welcome and affirm the presence and ministry within the Church of gay and lesbian people …”

    I don’t need to read any more. They think that so-called “gay and lesbian *people*” exist. That belief is not a Christian belief, and is incompatible with Christian beliefs. Within Christian doctrine, “gay” and “lesbian” *behaviours* are mentioned, but not the gay and lesbian “people” whom the whole of society is nowadays being indoctrinated to believe exist, and have always existed. Having abandoned (in this one platitude) an (admittedly non-scientific) Christian view of homosexuality, in favour of a novel (and equally non-scientific) view (or rather *doctrine*) that was crafted only a few decades ago, with the primary purpose (I would say) of harming Christianity and Christians, the authors of this report guaranteed the outcome, that few actual Christians will bother to read the rest of the report.

    When I am asked to tick a box describing my “sexual orientation”, I want a box marked “none”. The omission of any such option embodies the same assumption as the sentence I have quoted, which has guaranteed that the report will be harmful, not helpful.

    The authors of this report fell at the first fence, apparently without realising it. They are deceived.

  2. “They think that so-called “gay and lesbian *people*” exist. That belief is not a Christian belief, and is incompatible with Christian beliefs.” – John Allman.

    Where have you been hiding all this time, Mr Allman? Your statement here is a disturbing sign of your inability to hear, see or understand what has been going on in society and in the Church over the last 3 decades. I suggest you wipe your specs and look around you. You may find some of these people in the pew around you. You need not be afraid to embrace them, they are human – not like you, perhaps but human all the same – a part of God’s creation hitherto despised and rejected of men. Does that ring a bell with you, somewhere?

  3. Pingback: Religion and law round-up – 8th December | Law & Religion UK

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