Leading article

Why is the Church of England so obsessed with sex?

Sex isn't what a church is meant to be about. You'd never guess

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

Four bishops and a retired civil servant shut away in a palace, talking about human sexuality — it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. But the resulting Pilling Report is, in spite of 200 pages’ worth of double entendres, neither funny nor enlightening.

It has been clear ever since the Lambeth conference in 1998, which contained the ponderous resolution that ‘we commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons’, that the Anglican church’s position has been to agree not to agree on the issue. From the Jeffrey John affair to the debate over gay marriage, the church has handled the question like a whoopee cushion at a vicar’s tea party — with a mixture of bemusement and embarrassment.

Having spent many months interviewing everyone from the Society of Ordained Scientists to the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, Sir Joseph Pilling’s report comes up with the less than profound conclusion that the issue requires the church to have a ‘facilitated conversation’. What do the bishops think they have been doing for the past few months? At times the authors seem to try to dodge confrontation with the gay rights lobby by blaming global capitalism which, we learn, ‘is founded upon making desire an end in itself’. That is a fascinating insight which did not even occur to Karl Marx.


The Pilling Report is essentially a fence-sitting exercise — which does not mean it is without the occasional nugget of wisdom. One is the observation that the liberalisation of sexual ethics is not a one-way process and that ‘attitudes which a few decades ago seemed liberating have sometimes been revealed as having a dark and oppressive side which has shocked many’. The pursuit of libertine celebrities in and out of our courts now puts those who opposed sexual licence during the 1960s and 1970s suddenly on the side of the majority, however stuffy they may have seemed at the time.

Pilling usefully reminds us that Michael Ramsey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, was instrumental in the setting up of the Wolfenden Committee in the late 1950s, which led to the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults a decade later. At the time, this magazine was one of the few publications on his side — we were denounced as the ‘bugger’s bugle’ for our trouble. Then, as now, there are plenty of attempts in the church to dress up homophobia as ecclesiastical doctrine — and occasional threats about mass defections. But even the Catholic church, hardly known for its concessions to modern trends, explicitly denounces homophobia. Its catechism calls for gay men and women to be treated with ‘respect, compassion and sensitivity’.

It is the very notion of sin that is a harder sell nowadays, and this is a problem for all western churches. Greed, backstabbing, grudge-bearing — the Bible has plenty to say about all of these vices, and precious little to say about sexuality. Yet the four bishops who co-authored the Pilling report — or maybe only three, given that one of their number, the Bishop of Birkenhead, is listed as being in dissent — give the impression of being motivated by the fear of irrelevance due to this one issue. They express concern that they may have been isolated by social change beyond their control. They hint that they are too shy to express any firm view about sexuality, for fear of putting off the young people they wish to attract to their pews.

Post the gay marriage debate, in which the bishops were hopelessly outnumbered in the House of Lords, the leadership of the Church of England sees its job as a shoring-up exercise: preserving what it can of its values as the tide of public opinion washes around its pillars. Degree by degree, they cede ground. The latest idea is to airbrush references to the devil from baptism ceremonies, so parents no longer have to ‘repent sins’ and ‘submit to Christ as Lord’. It is as if the grit is being removed from the Anglican catechism — in the mistaken belief that this will somehow make the church more appealing to non-believers.

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has a gift for making Christianity accessible. And he comes from a branch of the church that rejects the idea that if only Christians dropped the bits that non-believers found a little odd, congregations would swell once again. The Alpha Course, founded by Holy Trinity Brompton, still emphasises the importance of repentance and the seriousness of personal sin. It still teaches the crucifixion and resurrection as the centre of the faith, rather than rejecting these tenets as old-fashioned or saying that they are metaphorical.

Welby will have seen that the churches that stick to these central truths, rather than trying to dress Christianity up in modern clothes, tend to be the ones with growing congregations. Pilling is an exercise in concluding nothing, and in trying to keep the Church of England hanging together. But Welby should know to be wary about another exercise in ‘updating’ the church’s teachings — for this is the real road to irrelevance.

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Show comments
  • The Laughing Cavalier

    1% of the population, 99% of the debate. How tiresome.

  • Tom Tom

    It is typical of the Erastian Church that a retired Permanent Secretary heads the Committee just as it was that Etonians become Archbishop of Canterbury, though Michael Ramsey was Repton where his headmaster became Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury.

    It is always The Good And The Great who must decide for The Great Unwashed and issue an edict from on high. Frankly the Church of England is dead, a shell, a husk. Believers are not to be found within The State Church which is simply a DEpartment of The Home Office receiving huge subsidy through “Cohesion Funds” and other muticultural slush funds while church buildings are funded as “community centres” by local authorities.

    There is no God in The Church of England – the curtain is rent in the temple

    • Ginger2012

      There are still churches within the Church of England where the Bible is believed and the gospel is preached. We are in a bit of a minority though. It’s not always an easy place to be.

  • jmjm208

    The Church of England is largely apostate anyway. How any true Born Again Christian can stay in it is beyond me.

    • Ginger2012

      Some see themselves as missionaries in the Church of England. And if you look at the 39 articles and the Book of Common Prayer, they are completely sound. But yes, the liberals are trying to get rid of us.

      • Jadissock

        Stick to your guns. The so called Liberals are at best passive-aggressive, and at worst unspeakable bullies.

        • dolusbonus

          What, rather like you and your Semite lapdog !

  • Mark Riley

    As my step father always used to say, The Church Of England is like a municipal swimming pool – all the noise comes from the shallow end.

  • Spycatcher

    The Church of England ceased to exist when Blair got his agent Rowan Williams appointed as its head, by rights it should be renamed ” The Church of Engladesh ”

    • Doggie Roussel

      So, the obsessive multi-posting, multi-titled half-wit from Tel Aviv, aka mahatmacoatmabag, spycatcher, General George Custer, strictly come dancing etc, etc, etc has decided to dip his toe into the slightly more cerebral waters of the Spectator and expectorate all the Tourettes-driven garbage that incessantly pours forth from his hyperactive maw.

      Stick to your own faith, sunshine, and all the iniquities that have resulted as a result of all the atrocities perpetrated in the Levant and leave us Christians to our own fora.

      Hope Jadis wishes you another fond goodnight on DT’s blog tonight… play your cards right and you might even get your leg over….

      Bon Soir !

      • Spycatcher

        Sanctimony, Doggie, Santi et al, who on earth is strictly come dancing ? not one of my ID’s

        • Doggie Roussel

          Your Rene, Allo Allo persona… you really are more dim-witted than I ever imagined… good luck with Jadis, and make sure she removes her curlers, pre-congress !

          • Spycatcher

            you really should not try to transpose your repressed sexual fantasies on others

          • Doggie Roussel

            I am quite sure Jadis is exactly like Caesar’s wife; quite without blemish.

            However, she appears to cultivate your patronage which is quite inexplicable… given your unceasing prostration for approval and all your inane attempts at humour, along with the unceasing pleas for endorsement from the sainted DT for your endless and multi-titled witterings.

            The lady in question once made a very funny comment but seems to feel entitled to trade endlessly on a very shonky foundation… what is this worthy housewife and mother doing exchanging banter with a simplistic and attention-seeking git, like you?

            I think we should be told… In the meanwhile I am off to listen to some of Mozart’s later piano concertos and dispell memories of this grubby exchange.

        • Doggie Roussel

          How’s this for starters: Mahatmacoatmabag, Pudding on my Top Hat, Colonel George Custard, Emmanuel Goldstein, Swiftly and with Style, perseseaqted2 extinction etc etc etc etc

          • swiftly & with style

            wrong, only 2 are banned on Damians blog , but not elsewhere on the DT & perseseaqted2 extinction has been renamed & is no longer on the DT by choice

      • Hamish Redux

        Well I flagged it. Who is this new kid on the block?

        • swiftly & with style

          Doggie is Sanctimony as is dolousbonus & possibly now a new ID called DonnyLonegan ( ? )

          • dolusbonus

            You really are the most hyperactive, paranoid freak imaginable… you are obsessed with being exposed as the Tourette’s-stricken, gibbering oaf who spends every waking moment on DT’s post, dreaming up imaginary persecutors and prostrating yourself in the hope of gaining friends for your pathetic and inconsequential gibberings.

            Now, God forbid, you’ve spread your tentacles into the as yet unpolluted waters of the Speccie.

            Vamos !

            Go back to good Queen Bess… she’ll tuck you up tonight and tell you what a wonderful little man you are.

          • swiftly & with style

            your fixation with women & bed points to the conclusion that you are not enjoying a regular relationship with a woman

          • dolusbonus

            Several actually…. my wife, my daughters and a couple of granddaughters, not to mention many nieces and cousins etc… and who do you socialise with of an evening on the Golan Heights, as you defend your strange little statelet against its many oppressors ?

          • swiftly & with style

            so you have a relationship with your female relatives, isn’t that rather incestuous ?

          • dolusbonus

            Goodnight Dear Maha, you truly sparkled tonight and your Good Queen Bess is thinking of replacing Raleigh with a true red-blooded hunk…

          • swiftly & with style

            Like I said I am your Nemesis & you are no match for me

          • Doggie Roussel

            Methinks you are suffering from what the French call Folie de Grandeur…

          • swiftly & with style

            I see that Phil has Reported you & you are what the French call a ”Meshuganeh Pouffe ”

          • Doggie Roussel

            Stop trying to score points the whole time, you feeble-minded, inconsequential cockroach…

          • swiftly & with style

            I score Goals all the time & against you Hat tricks ( pun intended )

          • Doggie Roussel

            A homophobe into the bargain… you lay yourself open at every opportunity…

          • Doggie Roussel

            Ah, Nemesis… from my studies of ancient Greek under the Jesuits and later, I understand that she was the goddess of retribution, who especially punished hubris, violent acts carried through in defiance of the gods and human custom….

            Both of which, I would suggest that you are not only an exemplar, but a vigorous prosecutor and advocate, and if there is any justice you will, in due course, receive your meet reward.

          • dolusbonus

            Ughhh… no comment needed !

          • Doggie Roussel

            Isn’t that rather libellous ?…. better get some advice from your learned friend…

          • swiftly & with style

            A screen shot of your posts has been forwarded to Carter-Ruck

          • Doggie Roussel

            Great…. I await the writ… you know the old fart is long deceased and I hope that you and Cruella de Vil have funds to spare in pursuing such a pointless and fatuous cause… see you in court, Shylock ….

          • dolusbonus

            DonnyLonegan is Phil, you Levantine dunderhead?

            Comprende ?????

          • swiftly & with style

            that’s why I said possibly

          • Philip Broadhurst

            Untrue.
            Reported.

        • dolusbonus

          Mahatmacoatmabag in one of his many coats of many colours !

  • allymax bruce

    I’ve done a lot of thinking about this issue, and I’ve come to the conclusion that President Obama came to a few years ago; I’ve changed my mind. I’m not bothered if same-sex couples want to get married; I’ve reduced my consideration to only what Jesus says in the Gospels, and I don’t see anywhere He is against Love. I came to the conclusion it was a deeply embedded Calvinist dogma, along with a fear of my Christian heritage being eroded, that skewed my thinking on what should be a matter of Rights. Besides, if anybody knows anything about the ethos of The Bible, the World must Fail, for Jesus to come back; why are we/me covetting a hedonistic, decadent World, when I can just let The Bible prophesies just run its course? Everybody must be given the chance to come back to God. I’ve experienced many denominations of the Christian Church in my
    travels; some more ‘resistant to change’ than others. Some outright
    aggressive in their attitudes to Same-Sex Marriage. But all fiercly
    entrenched in their own Religious Dogmatic concern. I believe, (and this
    is all what religion is, a belief), Dogma has denied us to see the Truth; the Truth is God’s Spirit is in all our Hearts, and no-one has any more Right to this World’s social-values than anyone else. In-deed, those that are allowed to sin, are then being moved to see what God asks of them, to come back to Him. I had a very amusing experience the other night; I went to an event held at the National Library for Scotland, called Burnsiana. Basically, it was two guys, presenting their ‘take’ on Robert Burns poetry, but from their own perspectives. The first guy was an illustrator, that made a series of pictures of what Burns poems meant to him, and the second guy, was a poet, of which then had to write new Poetry to match the illustrators drawings! In one of the illustrator’s drawings, called Twa Dugs, he had two dogs facing away from each other. Apparently the two dogs represented ‘the sectarian divide’ across a Scottish City. At the end of the ‘presentation’, I asked the illustrator why he never mentioned the word ‘religion’; but chose to use the word ‘sectarian’? Of which I said ” I thought was a compromise” to suit his ‘beliefs’. He mumbled something about Marx, Engels, and death, then said to me, ” does that make sense?” I said, “Yes, thanks”! He probably thought he was ‘blowing me off with a sense of sneering wit’. However, what he didn’t realise was that everything he believed, even for constructing his drawings, was all man-made; of Dogma, of heritable social values, and contemporary social mores. My contention was that, like Scotland’s brilliant writer on religion said, “with our Sciences and Cyclopedias, we are apt to forget the ‘divineness’ [italicised], in those laboratories of ours, … Man cannot ‘know’ [italicised], either, unless he ‘worship’ [italicised], in some way. His knowledge is pedantry, and dead thistle otherwise.” (Thomas Carlyle; On hero Worship); Of which, my contention lays that man is ‘contended’ to choose; to face each other; to fight for one’s ‘beliefs’/religion even. Man must Worship something; even if it is a dividing belief. Thus, the twa dugs shouldn’t be facing away from each other, rather, they should be facing each other!

    • Doggie Roussel

      More tea, Vicar ?

  • The Elderking

    The CofE is dead.

    It would be the decent thing to sell off all its assets, liquidate its holdings and distribute all the receipts to native Brits from whom the money was taken in the first place.

    Then the clerics etc could all move to Brighton and be happy ever after

  • David

    4 And I heard another voice from heaven, saying, Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues. 5 For her sins have reached unto heaven, and God hath remembered her iniquities.

  • Ian Paul

    It is not the Church which is obsessed with sex, but the media. This is one amongst a good number of reports on a range of issues—but which other ones have received as much coverage? Most in the Church are spending most of their time and energy on other things—but it doesn’t suit commentators to notice this.

  • JCF

    My goodness, the comments here (most of them) are sh*te! If the CofE is in trouble—and it is—it’s because of attitudes like “1% of the population, 99% of the debate. How tiresome.”

    I’ll have you know that God-in-Christ created, redeemed and sanctifies that (supposedly as small as) “1%”, JUST AS GAY AS THEY ARE, in their same-sex relationships. As God always favors the “least of these”, it is LGBTs who will be welcomed into the Kingdom, while homophobes (who “have their reward”) will be left outside gnashing their teeth. Homophobia is *sin*: REPENT of it!

  • Robusticus

    ‘The pursuit of libertine celebrities in and out of our courts now puts those who opposed sexual licence during the 1960s and 1970s suddenly on the side of the majority, however stuffy they may have seemed at the time.’

    Disgusting remark. No one said that freedom of behaviour amongst consenting adults permits the raping of children.

  • Sanctimony

    Where are the feds ?

    • Philip Broadhurst

      Sanctimony: Why are you being imitated above, with one commenter claiming – erroneously – that you are “Phil”?
      Please indicate, if you would, that I am not involved in this charade, or indeed, are you it would appear.
      Thank you.

      • Doggie Roussel

        I can assure you, Philip Broadhurst, that Sanctimony is not Phil, nor is Doggie Roussel.

        • swiftly & with style

          ?
          so who are you?
          do you even know yourself?

        • Guest

          Thank you.
          There appear to be two others claiming to be you – dolusbonus and DonnyLonegan – all from the same source. They are mimicking the mockery of your bête noire, a notorious troll best ignored in my opinion since he and his lady thrive on attention and the banter is probably theirs.

          • Doggie Roussel

            And, thank you and I quite agree with your description of that loathsome cockroach as a notorious troll… for some absurd reason he seems to think that you are on his side… and as for his lady… well no gentleman slags off a lady, but her alliance with this reptile is really quite extraordinary and I feel she might have domestic problems that force her into this unholy and hilarious alliance…. nothing so dangerous as a woman scorned, eh ….

    • swiftly & with style

      don’t you mean ” where are my meds? ”

  • Hamish Redux

    Who wrote this? It’s hard to comment on something when we don’t know whether the author is a deacon in a shed or perhaps Eccles’s aunt from Altrincham.

  • jillfromharrow

    The Church isn’t obsessed with sex. Society is obsessed with sex. The Church is merely trying to protect its position which has always been that marriage is between a man and a woman and that sexual activity outside of that arrangement is immoral.
    End of story.

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