Editor’s note: KLICE is happy to post this response to Sean Doherty’s KLICE Comment (March 2014) from Malcolm Brown, Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Archbishops’ Council and one of the Secretaries of the Pilling Group. As one very closely involved in the production of the Pilling Report, he sets out a different view of how to read the report in the light of its particular origins, diverse authorship and intended audience.

- Jonathan Chaplin


A response to Sean Doherty’s KLICE Comment on the Pilling Report

Malcolm Brown

Sean Doherty’s response to the Pilling Report (KLICE Comment, March 2014) is one of the most thoughtful of the comment pieces that have appeared since the Report was launched – along with a few others, some of which he mentions. As someone much involved in the work of the Pilling Group, I am heartened by Sean’s warm acknowledgement of the things the group did well, and I am sure that many of the members of the group will share my reaction.

But I think that Sean’s critical analysis of the report – like many of the other critiques that have appeared – makes a kind of category error: one, indeed, to which theologians above all should be alert. I mean that Sean and others have not given enough attention to the kind of text that the report represents.

There have been quite enough fisticuffs over the report and the issues behind it, so let me try to illustrate my point with as light a touch as I can manage.

There are not so many serious scholars nowadays who regard the book of the prophet Isaiah as the work of a single mind, writing at one moment in history. Textual analysis has identified different voices and differing sitz im leben, and understanding these points has (in my view anyway) greatly enriched our understanding of the prophetic message in that book.

So imagine, some centuries hence, the body of work at the Centre for Advanced Pilling Studies. Scholars very quickly identified a number of voices at work in the text in front of them. The academic consensus recognised Ur-Pilling, an early attempt to set out the structure of what later became the report. Some of Ur-Pilling remains in its original form and some sections were modified by other hands. It was also clear that, behind the bulk of the text, one could identify First- and Second-Pilling, and some scholars, working on both theological and typographical evidence, identified a short but important passage only explicable by attribution to a Third-Pilling. There was less agreement about the evidence for further discrete voices in the text, although a lucky post-Doc, finding some old Church House Working Papers in a cave near Westminster, argued for no less than eleven individual authors.

It is also clear that these different authors, however many there were, adopted different styles. Ur-Pilling, and First and Second Pilling write in a rather institutional voice which seems designed to conceal personal commitments and to articulate a collective position. But the other voices, though contributing less material, shaped parts of the text in order to stress particular points of view or to redress perceived imbalances. Because elements of the report are, in some minor ways, inconsistent or contradictory, the “several voices” thesis carries scholarly weight. First and Second Pilling seem also to have been redactors, and they conceal these inconsistencies to some extent, although not sufficiently to outwit 31st century textual scholars.

Another line of the Centre’s research explored the relationship between the main report and the minority statement by the Bishop of Birkenhead. Was the former written with knowledge of the latter, or vice versa, or is the relationship more dialogical? One interesting study looked at the text in its historical context – not easy in the rapidly-changing society of 2013-14 – and deduced that much, but not all, of the text predated the contemporary debate on same-sex marriage. This was an important finding because several other texts reacting to the report appear to miss this point. Another working group asked similar questions about the relationship of the Prologue and the other Annexe to the rest of the text.

I won’t pursue this conceit further. My point is that Sean (and others) criticise the report on grounds that would be more be valid if it were the work of a single mind (Sean’s analogy with students’ essays is a give-away here) but which mistake the kind of text in front of the reader. One obvious clue is that Joe Pilling, in presenting the report on various occasions, said that it was not a report that any one member of the group would have been happy with had they written it alone. This is the key difference between a student essay (or an academic monograph) and a group report – especially one from a conflicted group writing into the context of a divided church.

Sean is astute in noting the turn towards virtue ethics within the report. That, too, may make more sense if viewed as part of a negotiated, rather than a unitary, text. Let us, as a hypothesis, suggest that the group began its work believing that its task was to find a position on the rights and wrongs of same sex relationships which could help bring a divided church together. Let us further suppose that the group recognised from the outset that its membership had been selected to include a spectrum of views including “liberal”, “conservative”, and some whose position was less easy to categorise. Clearly, a report grounded solely on a conservative approach to scripture, or one based on a liberal world-view, would not move the group in the desired direction. Might virtue ethics be an approach which, firstly, rejected liberalism’s consequentialism and individualism yet, secondly, did not depend on ascribing ultimate authority to a disputed reading of scripture, and thirdly, had a respectable pedigree in Christian ethics? Might we further deduce that the use of virtue ethics in the report reflects this attempt to find a mediating discourse? And what does the alleged failure of this approach through virtue ethics tell us?

It tells us, I think, that the real contention is not “about” the ethics of same sex relationships but that this issue is standing proxy for much bigger concerns about scripture, and about power and marginalisation within the church. In short, if people on different sides of a controversy all feel that their identity as Christians is under attack, a discourse on virtue ethics is not very likely to assuage their anxieties. In many kinds of text, not least scriptural texts, one can discern the author(s) testing out different kinds of argument as they try to dig deeper into their theme. Perhaps the text of Pilling is open to assessment on just such grounds?

I should add, by the way, that I don’t completely buy Sean’s analogy between a virtue-based approach to same-sex relationships and adultery, polygamy and incest. Each of the latter examples involves the explicit vices of deceit or deeply asymmetrical power relationships. Of course, you can argue, as Sean does implicitly, that same-sex sexual activity is just such an intrinsic vice, thus holding his analogy together – but a judgement on the virtue or vice of same sex activity is precisely one of the points at issue, so Sean’s analogy only works if one, in the technical sense, begs the question.

That said, Sean hints at a very important point about virtue ethics which the report might have explored further had this proved to be a useful line of reasoning in terms of the group’s remit. That is: can one speak meaningfully of discrete virtues, or do some “virtues” only become virtuous in a package with others, as it were?

Instead, I ask again what kind of report one might expect from a group whose members had a wide variety of views. Let me start with the report’s approach to science. The group quickly rejected any notion that “science” could direct “ethics” to one conclusion or another (eat your heart out Richard Dawkins…). In the plethora of scientific papers relevant to the subject, it was impossible to discern a single trajectory which would establish the nature of same-sex attraction in a way that placed it beyond ethical controversy. For every paper drawing one “evidence-based” conclusion, another could be cited which cast doubts on it. Questions arose about the sources and funding of research and the influence of interest groups. The kind of questions scientists asked – and the kind of conclusions they drew – seemed to depend strongly on their prior ideological convictions. If the group started out thinking that science might be the key to resolving its dilemmas, they were rapidly disabused.

But – and this will come as a shock to many, I suspect – “science”, “theology” and “scripture” were very much of a piece here. All the same questions apply, making every contribution to the debate suspect from one perspective or another. There are libraries of theological reflection and argument on same-sex relationships – coming to profoundly incompatible conclusions. For every essay arguing a particular scriptural position there are others, equally authoritative in terms of the professional standing of the writer, debunking or querying that approach. Each viewpoint has its acknowledged champions, and each claims to take scripture equally seriously, so which is to be regarded as the authority for the whole church? To all the critics who say that the Pilling report deals inadequately with scripture or theology, I reply: “Think what kind of text this is.” Clearly no report of this nature could epitomise the whole compendium of academic reflection on the topic. Equally clearly, no quantitative evaluation (“245 papers argue X. 398 papers argue Y – so the answer is Y”) would do justice to the subject. What the critics really mean is, I suggest, that they would have written a different report. But we are not looking at a monograph here. There is always scope for another monograph – or a dozen – on this topic. But a report for a divided church is a different kind of text. If Sean and others think that doing more work on the scriptural or theological questions would somehow settle the matter at issue they should tell us how it might happen.

Many readers, I know, are disappointed with the report because they hoped it would endorse their own position. For such critics, the text is not regarded as a source of new thinking or a way to educate the mind of the church, but is looked to as validation for a commitment already made on other grounds. In a nice expression of Alasdair MacIntyre’s, their epistemological defences are firmly in place. But the report could have fulfilled that function only by invalidating very large constituencies within the church. By contrast it had much greater potential to provide a valuable service to the church if it adopted the more humble objective of dispassionately assembling a range of relevant and contemporary material, offering some cool assessment of what can and cannot be said with confidence and mapping as honestly as possible where the divergences of conviction and belief lie.

Which brings us to the facilitated conversations – a clumsy term, but perhaps sufficiently lacking in pedigree to have relatively few unhelpful associations. If part of our predicament is that people on all sides of the question fear that the issue of sexuality is about to be settled in a way which would render their reading of scripture and their understanding of the love of God unacceptable to the Church, they will have their defences up already. But should not Christians be called to echo Oliver Cromwell in beseeching each other, in the bowels of Christ, to consider that they might be mistaken? – and does not the principle of the motes and beams suggest that, in so doing, they should imagine themselves both as Cromwell and as the Synod of the Church of Scotland to whom his words were addressed? The objective of the facilitated conversations, as understood in Pilling, is to discern (as far as possible, this side of the eschaton) the face of Christ in the other. That requires all participants to be open to the possibility that they may change their minds – but, paradoxically, it does not require that minds must be changed. That is not an easy point to get across, but it is hugely important in creating the conditions for real human meeting instead of sloganizing and demonization, and at the same time to assure emotional safety.

In his presentation to Synod in February, Joe Pilling noted that, “The division (within the group and in the report)  is painful for all of us on the group but the report holds up a much more accurate mirror to the church than a single agreed document could have done.” I do not claim that the Pilling Report is a flawless document, or that it could not have been done better. But to Sean, and many of its other critics, I say: This is a report for, and about, the Church of England as it is. Of course the report would have been more consistent had it adopted one viewpoint or taken as authoritative those sources which one group of Christians insist must be authoritative, whether under the guise of “scripture”, “tradition” or “reason”. But it would not then have reflected the church as it is – it would have told a significant body of the church that it could not regard itself as welcome. Which group would have “won” the argument, and which would have “lost” is, I suggest, a matter likely to be determined to a great extent by the way the question was asked and by the ways the answers were counted – not, in other words, a foregone conclusion.

The task, then, is to help make the facilitated conversations work so that, whilst the possibility of changing minds remains open, we the Church can seek together the face of Christ in those brothers and sisters whom we believe, sincerely and profoundly, to be wrong.

The Pilling Report is a complex text and needs to be read for what it is and not for what it never tried to be. I hope these thoughts, prompted by Sean’s observations, have not only helped the debate to move on helpfully, but have hinted at some textual puzzles for future scholars – blowing the electronic dust from the KLICE website –  to solve.

The Revd Dr Malcolm Brown is Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Archbishops’ Council and was one of the Secretaries to the Pilling Group.

21 March 2014

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For the latest newsletter from KLICE - Sibylline Leaves - see here

The latest edition of Ethics in Conversation is also now available. In this issue, Rev. Dr Craig Bartholomew (Director of KLICE) explores the subject of Christian Higher Education - see here