Clergy should be free to hold services for same-sex couples, a Church of England working party has urged. While not embracing full inclusion at present, it marks a step forward in calling for a more welcoming attitude and recognising that there are strong theological arguments both for and against recognising same-sex partnerships.
The report of the House of Bishops Working Group on human sexuality, chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling, calls for a two-year consultation, with opportunities to discuss the issues in an atmosphere of mutual respect. This could be helpful for a church from which many – lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans (LGBT) and also heterosexual – feel alienated because of its discriminatory behaviour around sexuality and gender.
The recognition that church members can acceptably hold a range of views on this as on other subjects is valuable. “In the face of conflicting scholarship, as well as conflicting beliefs, we believe that the Church should be cautious about attempting to pronounce definitively on the implications of Scripture for homosexual people. We do agree that, as all Christians are called to faithfulness, exclusivity and life-long commitment in their sexual relationships, same sex relationships which do not seek to embody those aspects of vocation cannot be right.”
The report continues, “We learn from what previous generations of the faithful have understood the Holy Spirit to be saying to the Churches, wait for the Spirit’s guidance in our own generation, and commit ourselves to finding ways for the Church to continue to listen for his voice.”
Two contrasting views on the Bible and sexuality, by evangelicals for and against celebrating same-sex partnerships, are offered. This may prompt some readers to think more deeply about the risks of assuming that there is a single, clear-cut biblical view on this matter.
There are flaws, however, critics argue. For instance the failure to acknowledge the extent of work on this issue that has already taken place and use of outdated sociological information. It is rightly pointed out that holding ‘traditional’ views on same-sex partnerships is not necessarily homophobic, but the report is too hazy about what homophobia is. The experience of trans people is marginalised and the arguments for equal marriage are not properly explored.
However, on the whole, the review is being seen by all other than entrenched hardliners as helpful in moving forward the debate about Christianity and sexuality in the Church of England, and could be used to promote thought and discussion in other churches too.
The call for a more welcoming approach chimes with re-examination of these issues in other traditional churches, including the Methodists, the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), the bishops of the Scottish Episcopal Church, and among leading evangelicals like the Baptist Steve Chalke. It also coincides with the call for a ‘common ground’ way forward by Ekklesia in the new paper, ‘Church views on sexuality: recovering the middle ground’.
* The Pilling report can be found here (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat document): http://www.churchofengland.org/media/1891063/pilling_report_gs_1929_web.pdf
* Church views on sexuality: recovering the middle ground: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/19512
© Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, social justice, welfare, religion and spirituality. She was written extensively on the theological and religious issues involved in debates about sexuality and other 'hot topics'. She works in the care and equalities sector and is an Ekklesia associate.