Pastoral Care or Accommodation?

Jun 23, 2016 by

Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden  Church of England Newspaper June 25

The Shared Conversation process will close with a General Synod wide conversation at York in July. It is then expected that in the autumn the House of Bishops will consider what, if any, motion on the subject of sexuality should be brought to General Synod in February.

“Pastoral Accommodation” has been floated as a term to embrace the action, short of same-sex marriage, that the Bishops might propose. Accommodation might point to a deliberate stretching of theology to tolerate what the Bible forbids.

Pastoral Care for all is an imperative for the church. What could count as “Pastoral Care” which would leave intact a firm commitment by the Church of England to man-woman marriage and recognize that same-sex activity is contrary to the teaching of the Bible and of the entire Christian church since the time of Jesus, as evidenced by Fortson and Grams in Unchanging Witness (BH Academic 2016)?

The need for evidence

Many orthodox Anglican churches would contend that their current pastoral practice with reference to people with same-sex attraction faithfully expresses appropriate and biblical pastoral care. This practice is generally not known at best and misrepresented at worst among churches of other Anglican tradition

I (CS) was present when some orthodox evangelical Anglicans were making their presentation to the Pilling Commission. The vicar of a large evangelical church outlined their practice and policy. He noted that many who were in a same-sex relationship attended their church even though the church taught clearly that sex was to be honoured only in man-woman marriage. When asked why they did not attend a number of revisionist churches nearby, they responded that they found a unique quality of welcome and love in this large evangelical church. This greatly surprised the panel, one of whom very honestly said that they had expected that church to shun such people.

Before the synod or the bishops enter into a theoretical discussion of policy, might such anecdotal evidence be pursued to discover on a rigorous basis what pastoral support and help is actually offered by churches across the ecclesiastical spectrum in the Church of England? A few ‘horror’ stories, often from years past, are repeated in the media. Would not evidence-based research be helpful in discovering how the Holy Spirit has been leading the churches into providing Christian love and support which does not contradict the Spirit’s own teaching through the word of God?

This applies not only in the Church of England. A senior clergyman from Nigeria writes about how the Nigerian Anglican Church addresses these issues.In many African cultures, people with same sex attraction and those who have homosexual sex have lived within communities and not been challenged or harassed. In many Nigerian cultures they gain sympathy, as in the Berom and Anaguta tribes.

These small gay communities exist despite the introduction of Sharia law which, in northern Nigeria, prescribes death by stoning of any persons caught in homosexual practices.

Homosexuality is therefore a discreet and personal lifestyle. Despite the laws, people acknowledge the practices and keep them private. They only become crimes when they are brought to public attention.

In many African cultures and tribes, especially among the Igbo tribe of eastern Nigeria, homosexuality was a taboo even before the coming of Christianity and colonialism. Families had their individual ways of managing those who appeared to be “gay” and helping them live their lives, but it was not generally considered a public matter. The coming of Christianity provided a Christian community where people with same sex attraction were more readily accepted as Christians and were not necessarily segregated. The general understanding was that homosexual practice was not to be encouraged for disciples of Christ, and that certainly a leadership position in the church would not knowingly be offered to a person in this category.”

In India, Vinay’s organization has for many years worked with male transgendered people often working in the sex trade, without judgmentalism. They also attend their church’s worship services

The need for clarity

Not the least reason for getting clarity on present practice is that “pastoral accommodation” is currently virtually without content. Therefore it is susceptible to people filling it with all sorts of content of their own devising. Recent events in the public domain involving same-sex couples and the church have been described quite ambiguously, leaving people confused as to whether church teaching and practice has or has not been observed. A clear understanding would help counter media ‘spin’ and misleading descriptions.

Might it be also helpful for the subject of appropriate pastoral care to be discussed among Anglicans of different traditions and approaches to sexuality? It would not be breaking the rules of Shared Conversations to report that at one ‘conversation’ this formed the topic of a voluntary evening group. It was welcomed by people on all sides of the question and produced for some, some surprises.

Commitment to truth

The orthodox are committed to ensure that the Bible is never seen to be wrong on anything it teaches, whether on evolution or sexuality. Once one part of biblical truth is unpicked, where does the unravelling stop? Orthodox Anglicans seek to build on biblical truth as foundations, rather than dismiss some of it as errors of previous generations. If the position is taken to have ‘diverse’ views in one church, that is agreeing to truth and error abiding together, biblically revealed truth is reduced to a matter of opinion.

There is enough evidence to suggest that evolution is generally true but Creation is also true for the Christian who is both scientifically knowledgeable and biblically faithful. He/she negotiates both realities and can live with them in even though such a combination raises some serious questions like the historicity of Adam and Eve.

The same may well be true with sexuality. We know what the Bible teaches and are not willing to accept that the Bible is mistaken. But we also know that same sex reality in many cases is more complex than people deliberately breaking traditional sexual norms. So we take a pastoral approach that for us as pastors keeps our conviction of the truth of biblical teaching intact while enabling us to respond pastorally with people in same sex attraction and relationships.

Commitment to include

The orthodox are also equally committed to mission, to share the grace and love of Christ with those who are hurting, feel excluded and need to be included, whether because of poverty, marriage difficulties, social, sexual or other problems. This is why their churches grow.

Many recognize the reality of people struggling with sexual attraction and feelings which the bible teaches as immoral. Their struggles rather than their deliberate disobedience often evokes a pastoral response that is also biblically shaped.

How then can we build on the biblical teaching of man/woman marriage to extend the love of Christ to those for whom that teaching and practice brings special challenges, rather than dismiss the biblical teaching as erroneous or just another opinion?

The BBC TV series ‘Call the Midwife’ is an excellent example of Anglican compassion in circumstances of great difficulty where the mission of Christian love takes place without diluting or setting aside the truth of God.

A study therefore also needs to be done of present practices in relation to people who self describe themselves as LGBT, attend worship services and seek to take part in church life. These stories need to be told and this struggle needs to be uncovered so that the orthodox Anglican is not seen as an ungracious bigot.

Before the bishops or the synod move to take a decision on this fundamental Christian teaching, such studies as suggested above need to take place.

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