Some thoughts on the Pilling Report

Last Thursday the Church of England published the long-awaited (if not eagerly-anticipated) Pilling Report, composed by the House of Bishops' working party on human sexuality and designed as a discussion document for the House of Bishops. As ever, the excellent Thinking Anglicans blog has provided more than one digest of links to responses and reactions from bloggers, journalists and other commentators.

My responses to the Pilling Report? Well, there is much here that is good. It's a far fuller and more nuanced account of gender and sexuality than the one which seemed to underlie other recent CofE offerings such as the Faith and Order Commission's Men and Women in Marriage. From early on, the Pilling Report acknowledges that the “listening process” which has preceded and fed into it has been patchy, and has not occurred equally everywhere. There is also an acknowledgement that faithful, prayerful, devout Christians do not all interpret texts in the same way or agree about the implications of the Bible for contemporary debates. The report exhorts care with words and terminology, and expresses a desire not to misrepresent people. It also openly acknowledges the unequal power relationships within the Church which mean that some perspectives may have been, and may continue to be, marginalized.

Jessica Martin’s theological prologue, in particular, makes clear that sexuality which is commodified is problematic, and that sexual relationships have implications for broader communities, not just those directly involved. She emphasizes the need to treat other people predominantly relationally, not contractually, and to acknowledge that sexual encounter is about our own and our partners’ pasts and possible futures, not just the present moment. A particularly striking point is that even if the remit of the Pilling Report has been to focus on same-sex relationships, such reflection cannot properly take place unless it occurs within a context of thinking holistically about bodies and sexuality more broadly. She says,

“We cannot talk about same sex relationships in isolation. Culturally the whole issue is being made to bear more freight than it can or should possibly carry. Second, that we cannot say anything about human sexuality without speaking first of our sense of the body and bodily relationships as holy. Christianity is incarnational: God and body come together in Christ. Anything Christians might think about same sex relationships (especially as we have not discerned how to speak with a single voice on this topic) has no value except as part of this larger vision of all our human relationships; and for this reason the vision itself comes first, before we ever start talking about single-issue specifics.” (p. xiv)

The point is well made, and for this reason it might have been hoped (and even expected) that the report would engage more fully with tropes of sex, gender, sexuality and embodiment as intertwined. Indeed, it is somewhat dismaying that larger questions of humans’ relationships to our bodies, sexes and genders were barely discussed. Rachel Mann’s blogpost of 28th November makes this point compellingly, and I’d add that, whilst transgender and intersex may only impact on relatively few people directly, our responses to them (whether we are intersex or not, whether we are trans or cisgender, and whatever our sexual orientation) have much wider implications for how we understand the relationship of sex to body and society. Rachel Mann acknowledges that transgender and intersex are rare – but, nonetheless, I find it disappointing that just about the only thing the Pilling Report has to say about them is quite how rare they are. As I said in a comment on Rachel's blog,

"At face value, it's a very encouraging step that the Pilling Report acknowledges there's a need to think and talk much more about variant sex and gender, in a way that perhaps really couldn't have been done justice to within the purview of this report. On the other hand, however, it looks a bit like tokenism, to acknowledge that trans and intersex exist, but then barely to engage with the fact that this might prompt us to rethink how our whole model of sex, gender and sexuality works."

Indeed, there is a larger issue at stake here, which is that their frequency or infrequency is probably not really the point. When the Pilling Report insists that intersex seldom occurs, and (by implication) therefore does not disrupt the male-and-female model of humanity, it sounds rather defensive. Furthermore, given that the frequency of intersex conditions / differences of sex development continues to be debated and contested (with estimates varying hugely depending on which conditions are and are not deemed to fall under the umbrella, and with a caveat that conditions which do not present in childhood are likely to be underreported), it is striking that the paper on the frequency of intersex which the Pilling Report cites is Leonard Sax’s 1997 article – hopefully not just because it is one of the first things to come up when one Google searches “How common is intersex?”, that being the paper’s title.

The Intersex Society of North America wound up its operations in 2008, but its website still hosts an interesting exchange between some of its members on whether frequency rates for intersex are significant or a bit of a red herring. Jane Goto holds that it is important to hear about accurate figures (or as accurate as possible) precisely because intersex is more common than many people realize, and it is valuable in terms of advocacy and empowerment that intersex people, and the parents of children with differences of sex development, know that they are far from alone. On the other hand, Colleen Kiernan follows scholar Alice Dreger in holding that what matters is that intersex people, however few they may be, are human and deserve to be treated respectfully, not written out of existence. So Kiernan says,

“Whether it’s 1 out of 300 or 1 out of 30,000, it doesn’t really matter how big or small; what matters is that we recognize individuals as human beings deserving of recognition, support, and respect. Just because organizations/donors/governments tend to give money/recognition to larger numbers doesn’t mean that numbers should legitimize conditions or feelings.”

I suggest that this is just as true when we are considering theological anthropology, and theologies of sex, gender and sexuality more specifically. Intersex and transgender are relevant to this discussion not because of their statistical frequency, but because the vast majority of theologies assume that, self-evidently and incontrovertibly, human dimorphic maleness and femaleness are a solid starting-point. If human dimorphic maleness and femaleness are not as universal as we may imagine, the question is whether they are still a good starting-point for theological reflection on these matters. For that reason, I suspect intersex and transgender are not single-issue specifics of the kind Jessica Martin mentions any more than same-sex relationships are. Rather, all these “unusual” cases might feed into a broader discussion of how normality and legitimacy come to be understood and transmitted in the first place (and there is still evidence, as on p.60, that the Pilling Report is conflating sex and gender). So while I’m delighted that the Pilling Report acknowledges that transgender and intersex need and deserve lots of further reflection in their own right (and I very much hope the Church of England will follow through on this), I think that was not a reason to fence them off from the broader discussion here.

For similar reasons, I’m also bothered by the attitudes towards two phenomena called “science” and “consensus” that seem evident in the Pilling Report. Consider statements like these:

“Since we live in the theological interim where the presence of the Spirit is challenged by the persistence of sin, a belief that the Spirit is calling the Church to change is not, in itself, a reason to change if the mind of the Church is divided.” (p.17)

“The Church’s teaching (on sexuality as on other matters) represents the wisdom of generations of Christians wrestling with Scripture, the Church’s tradition and their own reasoning. But where that teaching contradicts Christians’ experience of the world and of God’s nature, a process of testing begins. Just as the inherited teaching of the Church represents the fruits of generations of such testing, so the struggles of today’s Christians contribute to that process. But the teaching of the Church, like a thesis in scientific enquiry, stands until the evidence contradicting it is sufficient to change it. In the case of the Church, such evidence cannot be simply empirical. It emerges from an encounter with the Holy Spirit in the world and the world is understood through the story of God’s activity within it.” (p. 98)

Theology is not science, says the Pilling Report, and so it is appropriate for theology to draw on different types of knowledge and reasoning. Fair enough. Scientific paradigms change, and there is persuasive theological precedent for resisting human ideologies and hegemonies of all kinds. However, says the Pilling Report, like science, theology should not change its thesis until it has sufficient evidence on which to do so. I find this reasoning a bit troubling. Not least, it seems to assume that it is better to stick with the status quo, however wrong and damaging it might be, than to take a risk by changing. In other words, yes, there is a risk of getting things wrong by making a change, but does that mean we are compelled to stick with a (possibly equally or more wrong) status quo until it is impossible to do otherwise? 

Why could the Church of England not be bold, even prophetic, and lead the way in outlawing homophobia, injustice and exclusion for people in same-sex relationships, just as it has done on other issues during its history? If theologians in general, and the Church of England hierarchy in particular, wish to reject scientism, that is all very well. But I think this impulse necessitates a fuller account of or better mechanism for determining which “scientific” evidence is and is not acceptable. 

After all, as the Pilling Report itself owns, other kinds of evidence are also legitimate and important in a theological context. The experience of people in same-sex relationships, and who understand their orientation as other than heterosexual whether or not they are in a same-sex relationship, is also significant. In short, it is extremely unlikely that there will ever be absolute, overwhelming accord on the science behind what “causes” homosexuality. If that is what the Church of England is waiting for before it can move on unambiguously celebrating same-sex relationships, then we will all be waiting for a very long time.

Early in the report I detected a bit of a concern that the authors are worried that whatever the Church of England says about same-sex relationships – and, perhaps even more significantly, the way it is seen to come to its conclusions – will come to influence how it is judged on other issues. They say that the way the Church deals with sexuality touches on the question of the Church’s relationship to culture, and therefore that the answer to this question has broader implications for the Church’s relationship to culture. 

I see what they mean, but I think it’s a bit of a distraction. It seems to say something like, “LGBT people, bear with us, but we’re taking even longer than we might have done otherwise to come to some conclusions about this, because we’re worried that whatever decision-making process we use on this, we’ll be held to on other things” - in response to which LGBT people might well be justified in taking out some almost invisibly tiny violins. The Church of England needs to realize, if it does not, that the rest of society already does judge the Church on the decision-making processes it seems to be using. To put off dealing properly with same-sex relationships because that might create a precedent seems like the fudgiest and most hazelnut-laden of all fudges. It is simply postponing the issue at hand.