The Pilling Report is all about distinctions, and distinctions matter.
The commission which produced it offers eighteen “findings and recommendations”. Points two through eighteen read as recommendations, articulating what “should,” “needs” or “can” be done, or what the Church is to be encouraged or called to do or demonstrate. But point one is described as the foundation of the report, and doesn’t appear to be a recommendation but rather a premise or statement of fact. It reads as follows: “We warmly welcome and affirm the presence and ministry within the Church of gay and lesbian people, both lay and ordained.” Let us consider it as a finding of the commission then.
It is, of course, the official line that the Church takes on gay and lesbian people (though bisexuals and transgender people are notable by their absence here) and it may well be the attitude of the report’s authors. If so, it is of limited value, and should hardly be a “finding” of such a report. Reading it as a finding about the church itself then, the evidence doesn’t stack up.
The extensive YouGov polls commissioned by the Westminster Faith Debates this year, and funded by two of the UK’s research councils, are the only ones to ask whether churches are welcoming to lesbian, gay and bisexual people. Only 21% of the public think they are, a proportion which falls to 17% amongst 18-24 olds. These surveys also broke respondents down by religion, and found that, in contrast to the “finding” of the Pilling commission, only 30% of Anglicans think Christian churches are welcoming to lesbian, gay and bisexual people; 45% consider that their churches are not. Most people, then, do not recognise the premise of the report – even from within the church itself.
The commission did cite some surveys, but not this most recent and extensive poll which actually addressed the question of the Church’s welcome to gay and lesbian people – said to be the foundation of the whole report. It was available six months ago, and was widely publicised.
Another distinction which the report draws is between “marking” same-sex partnerships and “blessing” them. It was always going to be hard for the Church of England to control the reporting of this nicety, and most of the press quickly interpreted this as a new freedom for clergy to conduct “blessings” for gay and lesbian couples in churches.
So when is a blessing not a blessing? Such services will be without formal liturgy and are described in the report as to be “of the nature of a pastoral accommodation” (though only by those churches minded to be accommodating), with a recommendation that the House of Bishops consider issuing formal guidance. It will be interesting to see what they make of the distinction, but it seems unlikely that priests will be prohibited from, say, making the sign of the cross or even mentioning the word blessing during these services.
The reality is that all but the leaders of the Church of England will regard such services as blessings. One can understand the attempt to accommodate conservative conscience on this matter, but doing so by resorting to a distinction so fine that neither side recognises it, and the public ignore it, is to resort to fudge.
Simon is Research and Media Assistant for the Westminster Faith Debates, and a PhD student at Lancaster University.