A Review of ‘Pastoral Principles for living well together’

What are the Pastoral Principles? 

Following on from the House of Bishops’ pastoral guidance on welcoming transgender people we now also have a set of ‘Pastoral Principles for living well together.’

These ‘Pastoral Principles’ have been produced by the Pastoral Advisory Group, which is a group chaired by the Bishop of Newcastle that was established by the House of Bishops in 2017 to ‘advise dioceses on pastoral issues concerning human sexuality so that we can make explicit our commitment to show the love of Christ to all people, regardless of sexual or gender identity.’ [1]

As GS Misc 1200, ‘The Living in Love and Faith Project and the Pastoral Advisory Group,’[2] presented to the February 2019 session of General Synod explains, while the episcopal members of the Pastoral Advisory Group have been giving advice on pastoral issues referred to them by other bishops, the main work of the Group as a whole has been the production of the Pastoral Principles document. This document was agreed by the House of Bishops at its meeting in December 2018 and has been commended by the House for use in the dioceses and parishes of the Church of England.

GS MISC 1200 goes on to say that the purpose of the document is to:

‘… set out some principles of pastoral practice for how the people of God in the Church of England can live well together within the parameters of its current position on marriage and the different deeply held convictions that individuals and churches hold on these matters.’[3]

It further adds:

‘The Church has been found wanting in its welcome and treatment of LGBTI+ people and much can be done to address this. The Pastoral Principles are about encouraging churches to offer a welcome that is Christ-centred, that sees difference as a gift rather than a problem, and that builds trust and models generosity. The Bishops hope that these principles will go some way toward inspiring individuals and congregations to examine and enhance the quality of their welcome for all who are seeking a spiritual home in which they can flourish.’[4]

The starting point for the Pastoral Principles Document[5] is the claim that the quality of relationships within the Church of England ‘is hindered by six pervading evils’ which it identifies as prejudice, silence, ignorance, fear, hypocrisy and the misuse of power. The readers of the document are

‘…invited to consider whether these are at work in your church community and how your church might…

Acknowledge prejudice

Speak into silence

Address ignorance

Cast out fear

Admit hypocrisy

Pay attention to power.’

The document then declares:

‘Acting on these evils – which are applicable to all people – could be transformative for your church community and for the church as a whole. Together our church communities are called to LOVE:

Listen attentively and openly

Open your heart and mind without judgmentalism

Value everyone’s vulnerability and perspective

Express concern and empathy.’

The main body of the document consists of six sections, each of which gives a brief explanation of why we need to acknowledge prejudice, speak into silence, address ignorance, cast out fear, admit hypocrisy and pay attention to power, and then provides ‘something to ponder’ and ‘some questions to explore together.’

What is good about the document?

The basic point made by the document is one that everyone should be able to agree upon. Prejudice, silence, ignorance, fear, hypocrisy and the misuse of power are indeed evils which exist in the Church today and which need to be addressed and overcome.

Furthermore much of what the document says about addressing these evils is true and helpful. For example, it is true that ‘Central to our faith is the belief that each of us is unique; we rejoice that we are fearfully and wonderfully made by God,’ it is true that the sacraments ‘are a means of God’s grace in living lives of holiness in obedience to God’s call’ and it is helpful to be reminded to avoid ‘the cheap grace that denies the costliness of Christ’s call to his disciples to take up their cross and follow him.’

What is problematic about the document?

However, there is also much that is problematic about the document.

First, the reason why the document is necessary is said to be because ‘The Church has been found wanting in its welcome and treatment of LGBTI+ people.’ What we are not told, however, is who has found the Church wanting and on what basis. Nor are we told why we should believe that what the people who have declared the Church to be wanting say is actually true. What we have is thus a claim about why the document is needed that is neither unpacked nor substantiated.

Secondly, the document fails to define its terms. We are never told precisely what is meant by the key terms prejudice, silence, ignorance, fear, hypocrisy or misuse of power. In addition, there are lots of other terms that are used, but which are never properly explained. For example, the document stresses the importance of ‘authentic relationships’ and ‘deep listening’ but doesn’t explain what these terms mean. The document says that we need to repudiate ‘pastoral practice that is coercive or abusive’ but gives no guidance as to how we can identify forms of pastoral practice that come under these categories. The document suggests that we should ‘encourage vulnerability in our relationships,’ but it does not say what this might mean in practice.

Thirdly, and linked to the previous point, the document never gives any specific lived examples to illustrate what it says. For example it talks about ‘situations where people who might wish to be open about their sexual orientation feel forced to dissemble,’ but does not give any specific examples of situations in which people have felt forced to dissemble. For another example, it talks about the need for ‘a quality and depth of relationships that means that difference is respected and all feel they belong,’ but it again does not given any specific examples to illustrate what this means.

This lack of lived examples matters because it gives the whole document a very abstract tone that will make it difficult for many Christians in the parishes to engage with it.

Fourthly, the document declares that the source of authority for those in the Church of England consists of ‘the Bible and the Church of England’s foundational documents.’ This account of authority ignores the difference in authority between the Bible and these foundational documents, fails to explain which these foundational documents are, and ignores the place also given by the Church of England to the teaching of the Fathers of the Church and to other authorities such as Lambeth Conference resolutions, General Synod motions, Canons, Measures, and guidance given by the House of Bishops.

Fifthly, what the document says about fear lacks honesty and balance. The document states:

‘There is fear about ‘breaking ranks’ and speaking out. There is fear that if one’s personal circumstances are known then friendships may be affected or the validity of one’s ministry may be called into question. There is fear among the clergy of how they may be held to account as they attempt to care. There is fear that a bishop’s known views will colour her or his engagement with their people. These kinds of fear must be addressed because it can corrupt our life together and imprison individuals.’

What is said here is dishonest because what is really being said is that it is a bad thing that clergy are afraid to disclose that they are in a same-sex sexual relationship and are afraid to offer prayers of blessing to same-sex couples, and that bishops are afraid to declare their support for a change in the Church’s teaching and practice on LGBTI+ issues. This is what is meant and so this is what should have been said.

There is also a lack of balance because there is no acknowledgement of the fear experienced by clergy and laity who hold to the Church’s traditional teaching on human sexuality and human identity and who are afraid that they will be attacked as ‘homophobic’ or ‘transphobic’ in consequence and that they will receive no support from the Church when this happens. This is a particularly significant issue for lay people who may well be subject to discipline or even dismissal from their employment unless they are willing to go along with the secular pro LGBT+ agenda.

If fear is a bad thing then this fear needs to be addressed as well.

Sixthly, the document declares that the existence of ‘tensions and difficulties both within and across our church communities’ arising from differences in theology should be seen ‘as a sign of strength rather than weakness in that it reflects our understanding that God’s church is a diverse church, welcoming the diversity of the people that God calls.’ The problem here is that the document seems to give a blanket endorsement to theological tensions and difficulties in the Church of England. What it does not address is why tensions and difficulties arising from a group or groups within the Church rejecting orthodox, biblical, Christian teaching should be regarded in a positive light.

It is certainly the case that the Church needs to be diverse because it is meant to include within itself people from both sexes, all races and all social groups united together through saving faith in Jesus Christ (see Galatians 3:28). However, it does not follow that the Church should therefore have within it a diversity of belief and contain teaching that is contrary to what God has revealed. The one does not follow from the other and the New Testament endorses the one but not the other.

Seventhly, the document insists that good pastoral care of LGBTI+ people must involve giving people ‘space, permission and opportunities to speak if they want to.’ The unanswered question here is what should happen if what they want to say goes against orthodox biblical teaching. Should they still be given space, permission and opportunity to speak even if the result is that the Church gives a platform for falsehood rather than truth, and even if there is a danger of the faithful being confused or misled?

Eighthly, and most significantly, the document puts forward an unduly limited understanding of what it means for the Church to be a community in which people ‘live well together.’ The position taken by the document seems to be that the Church will be a community in which people live well together provided that it deals with the evils of prejudice, silence, ignorance, fear, hypocrisy and the misuse of power and instead practices love in the way that it defines that term. However, the fact that such a view of the matter is too limited can be seen if we engage in a simple thought experiment.

Imagine a church in which there were a group of people who were habitually drunk. Imagine also that the people concerned were completely open and vocal about their drunkenness and received nothing but understanding and affirmation from all the other members of that church, including those in positions of power. In terms of the Pastoral Advisory Group document this would be a church in which people were living well together because none of the six evils they identify would be an issue and the members of the community would be practising love.

The question is, however, whether that church would be living well before God if it simply accepted the presence of habitual drunkenness among its members. The New Testament is clear that drunkenness is something that is incompatible with faithful Christian discipleship (see Romans 13:13, Galatians 5:21, Ephesians 5:18, 1 Peter 4:3). It therefore follows that by tolerating habitual drunkenness the members of that church would be failing to live up to the Church’s basic calling to teach all people everywhere to live as faithful followers of Christ (Matthew 28:19).

Furthermore the members of that church would also be failing to show love. This is because, contrary to what is said on the Pastoral Advisory Group document, love is not just about listening attentively and openly, opening your heart and mind without judgmentalism, valuing everyone’s vulnerability and perspective and expressing concern and empathy.

In the Christian tradition to love someone or something is to discern its nature, delight in its existence, and act towards it in accordance with its existence. To love human beings thus means to discern who they are, delight in who they are, and respond to them accordingly. Because all human beings are made by God to know, love, and serve him, we show love to them when we behave towards them in ways that help them to achieve this purpose. In the hypothetical case sketched out above, loving the habitual drunkards would thus mean challenging them about their behavior and supporting them in seeking to change it. Only thus would they be helped to serve God as they were created to do.

What this thought experiment shows is that living well together as a church involves more than the Pastoral Advisory Group suggests. It also involves challenging forms of behavior that are incompatible with faithful Christian discipleship and supporting the people involved in seeking to change the way they live.

In relation to LGBTI+ people this mean that a church that wants to live well needs to be willing to not only welcome those with same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria, but also, if necessary, to challenge people about engaging in same-sex sexual activity and gender transition and to support them in abstaining from this kind of sexual activity and living according to their God given sex. Only if it does this will it be a church that truly shows love since only if it does this will it help people to serve God by living in the way he made  them to live.

Conclusion.

What all this means is that the Pastoral Principles are deeply flawed as a resource for churches seeking to be welcoming and supportive communities for all people, including those who identify as LGBTI+. Those churches who are conscious that they need help in this area would do better to turn to the Church Audit material available from the Living Out group. [6]

M B Davie 14.3.19

[1] GS Misc 1158, Next Steps on Human Sexuality, at https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2017- 11/gs-misc-1158-next-steps-on-human-sexuality.pdf.

[2] GS Misc 1200, The Living in Love and Faith Project and the Pastoral Advisory Group, at  https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2019-01/GS%20Misc%201200.pdf.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Pastoral Principles Document is available from the Church of England in hard copy, but is also available online at https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2019-02/PAG-PP-website.pdf.

[6] Living Out Church Audit at https://www.livingout.org/resources/the-living-out-church-audit .

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