The Church of England has now entered another turbulent period of debate over sexuality, which threatens to tear it apart from the inside.
The Pilling Report on Human Sexuality came out at the end of November and will be discussed by the House of Bishops in January. It contains worrying evidence and worrying recommendations.
Like the apostle Jude, I’m sure that we would all prefer to discuss the good news of Jesus Christ and the salvation he offers. We are constrained, however, as Jude was, to respond to the teaching of those who are changing the gospel into an affirmation of cultural change.
At its publication, the Archbishops were keen to stress that this report is not a new official policy document for the Church of England. This should be borne in mind during any future discussions of it. The report will, however, have quite an impact on Anglican politics over the next two years.
Some good things…
There are some good things in it, such as a repudiation of homophobic attitudes which the church has too often failed to rebuke. It is also good to have it on paper that ‘no one should be accused of homophobia solely for articulating traditional Christian teaching on same-sex relationships’. Sadly, however, there are problems that need to be addressed.
The most pressing issue is that most of the report’s authors have lost touch with genuine Church of England doctrine, as crystallised in the Thirty-nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer. They downplay the authority and sufficiency of Scripture and make a case that it is unclear on the central issue at stake, that of the acceptability or otherwise of sexually-active same-sex relationships. This is not classic Anglican teaching as reflected in our formularies, which are consistent with evangelical convictions and remain our gold standard. As John Stott said in Christ the Controversialist: ‘according to its own formularies, this church is reformed and evangelical.’
The Pilling Report calls for two years of ‘facilitated discussions’ on the issue, so that we can listen to each other. But such processes, set-up to reach negotiated compromises, are a non-starter for evangelicals who are more convinced that we should listen first to God, then obey him without equivocation. God the Holy Spirit continues to speak through his unchanging word, but we are encouraged to ask: ‘Did God really say…?’. A worrying echo of Adam and Eve’s fall.
The opportunity here is that evangelicals in the Church of England have a chance to continue their mission to the nation. It is not the time to throw in the towel just because a loaded committee wrote a deeplyflawed report.
The courageous ‘dissenting statement’ in the report, by Bishop Keith Sinclair, is an excellent rallying point for supporters of authentic Christianity. It sets out biblical teaching on the authority of Scripture and the subject of sexuality, clearly, respectfully, attractively. Repenting of any timidity we may have had in wanting to avoid the subject, all of us should follow his episcopal lead and do the same in our churches. If we believe 1 Corinthians 6.9-11, then souls are at stake. There is only one way to save the lost and it is not to turn inwards or run away.
Now is the time to speak of God’s goodness and his glorious design for human flourishing through costly counter-cultural commitment to the Lord Jesus. It is time for evangelicals everywhere to engage in bold proclamation of the Bible’s life-transforming message, in every pulpit we are able to enter. We must give no ground away, but use every platform we have for the sake of our needy nation. God works through his word, as it is winsomely taught and prayerfully expounded, to soften hearts and change minds. We must never trust to political tactics alone, or despair of making an impact for Christ while we have his word in our hearts and our hands, but engage the world, and the worldly church, in an evangelical way — with the unerring, life-giving word of God on our lips.
Lee Gatiss, Director of Church Society and co-author with Peter Adam of Reformed Foundations, Reforming Future: A Vision for 21st Century Anglicans (Lost Coin Books).