Please note, I am not encouraging us to ignore the pastoral. Quite the opposite: I am convinced we’re often not pastoral enough. It is not pastoral to use the psychological discourse of our therapeutic culture rather than the biblical language of sin and repentance. It is not pastoral to keep nodding when someone self-identifies as gay. And it is especially not pastoral to refuse to call sinners to repentance.
Never may the theological and the pastoral be separated.
I know, never say never. But the above stated rule is an exception. Why? Theology is inherently pastoral, and the pastoral is by definition theological.
The recent upheaval within the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA) about “gay Anglicans” stems from ignoring this rule. It was sadly unnecessary, for recent history is strewn with ecclesial examples of exactly the same thing. Invariably, the path to a liberal sexual ethic begins with the argument: “We know the theology. But let’s be pastoral about this.”
The “but” is the problem. It’s just not the case that theology is hard-nosed theory, while concrete circumstances demand gentle pastoral implementation. On such a view, the pastoral tail invariably ends up wagging the theological dog, and the theology gets adjusted to the pastoral setting. The outcome, in terms of sexual morality, is invariably the same.
This, it seems to me, is what’s happening in the “gay Anglican” debacle.
But first, a skeleton background. On January 19, the ACNA College of Bishops put out a Pastoral Statement on “Sexuality and Identity” in response to growing differences in how ACNA folk talk about sexual identity. The Pastoral Statement is, in the main, a classical statement on human sexuality. The key affirmations are (1) same-sex sexual practice is incompatible with biblical witness; (2) human identity lies not in sexual orientation and behavior but in union with Christ; and (3) the labels we use must reflect that identity. The Pastoral Statement singles out, therefore, the language of “gay Christians” (and also “same-sex attracted Christians”) as a “subtle shift from identification in Christ by modifying our Christian identity with personal orientations and attraction.” Agree or disagree—and it’s the former for me—the theological and the pastoral don’t part ways in any of this.
The reactions were immediate, and they were sharp. On January 30, Bishop Todd Hunter issued a statement that begins with the words, “Policies are blunt instruments. They are rarely able to take into full consideration the nuances of context and the complexity of personhood.” The statement goes on to encourage church leaders to “discern how to best talk about sexuality through the dual lens of personal pastoral care and your context for local mission.” The separation between theology (or policies) and pastoral care seems unmistakable.
A second response came in an open letter written by Pieter Valk, a lay aspirant from the Diocese of Pittsburgh, co-signed by over 50 clergy and professors. It begins, “Dear Gay Anglicans,” flagrantly flouting the heart of the Pastoral Statement. The letter calls for “conversation about God’s love and wisdom for same-sex attracted people across the lifespan so children and teenagers feel safe to share early with parents and pastors.” Archbishop Foley Beach was not impressed, observing that “replacing ‘gay Christian’ with ‘gay Anglican’ is pretty much in your face.” The “Dear Gay Anglicans” letter quickly disappeared from its website at the instruction of Valk’s bishop.