Fulcrum interim response to the Pilling Report

Fulcrum notes that the long-awaited Pilling Report is now published.  We are grateful to all the members and advisors of the House of Bishops Working Group on Human Sexuality for their work on behalf of the Church. We believe it requires careful study and discernment and will be offering a fully considered statement in the  near future.

1 thought on “Fulcrum interim response to the Pilling Report”

  1. Nine observations on the Pilling Report–

    (1) The Report’s comments on celibacy are very helpful.

    (2) The Report can indeed be read as promoting acceptance for same sex couples by diluting the scriptural witness for heterosexual marriage in a way unexpected in the Church of England. It is possible that this arises from a prior reluctance to ground a scriptural understanding of marriage in the creation mandates of Genesis 1:28 and 2:18, taken together, to avoid the pastoral difficulties that this can sometimes raise. Nevertheless, the creation mandates remain central to most Jewish and Christian understanding of marriage and family.

    (3) On some topics, the divided panel appears to have sought consensus in uncertainty where a centrist might see facts nearer to moral certainty.

    (4) It is mostly false to say that ‘Christian marriage changes through history,’ but it is certainly true to say that Christian societies have debated forms of accommodation before now. From the C10, the Orthodox Church accommodated the second and third marriages authorised by imperial decrees with penance beginning in the wedding itself (Meyendorff 137-139). On the West, Georges Duby’s ‘The Knight, The Lady and The Priest’ entertainingly describes the juridical dilemmas of the High Middle Ages, many arising from the degrees of affinity and consanguinity derived from Leviticus 18 and 20. St Thomas Aquinas discussed polygamy (ST iii supp q 65).




    (5) Truth remains; discipline changes. The Report can be read as confusing the end of a pastoral paradigm for teaching sexuality with a ‘revolution’ that permanently changes human possibilities. In England as elsewhere, the Church has had a succession of pastoral paradigms for teaching gospel truth, and the end of any of them looks like a revolution to those who experience it. However, C19 Victorianism followed C18 licentiousness, and auricular confession modeled on the C7 Irish penitentials followed the general collapse of the Church’s ancient system of penance.

    (6) This history suggests that the logical next step is not so much ‘indaba’ to find a new church teaching, as identification of a new paradigm that will make the old teaching helpful in more ways and applicable in more lives.

    (7) New pastoral paradigms have been ‘disruptive technologies,’ and have sometimes come from the margins of the Church. (What similar commission in C7 Rome would have guessed that monks in Ireland were modeling its permanent pattern of discipline?) Institutional consensus-seeking may not prove to be a helpful procedure in recognising and evaluating the local patterns that emerge to become future paradigms.

    (8) On same sex attraction (SSA), there is a simple alternative to the view in the Report that cuts across several topics and both main positions–

    (a) The most elegant causal explanation for an unusual sexuality with a biological component is that some stage of the complex process that usually enables reproduction has faltered or failed. Recognition that both function and dysfunction in sexuality are multifactorial suggests this explanation.

    (b) That dysfunction in reproduction can occur in nature is a serious theological and pastoral issue, but not a new one. SSA is a new instance of the old problem, except that in SSA is that the mind is involved, and not all have accepted the biological nature of mental processes.

    (c) The elegant explanation suggests that the nature of missed reproductive function will be highly specific to the stage of development that has gone awry. Sometimes there is spontaneous remission (eg women with SSA who feel a strong desire in their late 30s to bear children with men). And if there are someday replicable (‘manualised’) and helpful (changes in time series measures; low rate of relapse) psychiatric interventions, they will follow a diagnosis that specifies the ‘target,’ use a mechanism known to change it, and be measurably more effective and efficacious in RCTs than more general therapies.

    (d) Whatever the causes of SSA, there is no reason to think that those who claim it are dissembling, and no pastoral application has been shown for attempting to argue to them that they do not actually feel it.

    (e) The elegant explanation discredits the idea that relationships founded on the capabilities that remain to support SSA are the heart of marriage between women and men, or are sufficient to their prodigious task of family-building, either in scripture or in science. Thus the elegant explanation supports the ongoing work that the Church does to support women and men in marriage, whilst illumining a pastoral challenge too seldom recognised in the past.

    (f) The significant difference between the homosexuality of antiquity and that of today is the disappearance long ago of the homophilic pagan culture of the ancient world, and the family-centered social context created by twenty centuries of Christian marriage.

    (g) If the Report is right, the best estimate of the incidence today of unusual sexualities with a biological origin approximates .015 in the general population. A proportion of the population this small would have been masked in antiquity by the vast homophilic culture that early Christians necessarily opposed to advance the Judaic family values in a pagan world.

    (h) Scriptural witnesses against the homosexual preference of their culture were not aware of homosexuality that arises from biological dysfunction, because indeed they lacked modern understandings of causation and development. Thus their prohibitions, though not mistaken and wholly reliable as general guides for life, did not engage the biological dysfunctions as we are discovering and are concerned with them today, and would not necessarily prohibit accommodations in the most difficult cases today.

    (i) Scriptural authority is strengthened rather than challenged by this distinction.

    (9) The elegant alternative owes more to Occam’s Razor than to even my own point of view. It exists mainly to be challenged by a more elegant alternative, either one that covers the facts more simply, or else one that forces a wider view by solving some explicit problem. Notwithstanding strong factional feelings to the contrary, the simplest ideas should stay on the table until some clear warrant is offered for removing them.

Leave a comment