By Hans Boersma
March 5, 2021
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.
Where Bishop Hunter and the “Dear Gay Anglicans” letter lamented the Pastoral Statement’s lack of pastoral focus (or tried to redirect the Statement into what they think is a more amenable pastoral direction), Archbishop Henry C. Ndukuba, Primate of All Nigeria, had the opposite reaction. He worried that the College of Bishops had already separated the pastoral from the theological. In his letter on the Statement, the archbishop appeared stung particularly by the bishops’ promise to “commit to great care and sensitivity for those struggling with same-sex attraction” and by the bishops’ commitment to churches as “places where those who experience same-sex attraction, especially our youth, know where they can go to share about this reality, be gently and clearly discipled in God’s Word.”
The Nigerian reaction is an overstatement. But it’s often people outside our bubble who throw our weak spots into the sharpest relief. In particular, Archbishop Ndukuba rightly focuses on the key issue, namely, how we relate the theological and the pastoral. He is clearly troubled by the Statement’s expressed desire to mitigate feelings of alienation and non-belonging. He is right to wonder what precisely we would need to accept for such feelings to dissipate.
Whither the ACNA? Much will depend on its ability to keep the theological and the pastoral together.
First, we should avoid blaming our Christian heritage or the contemporary church for singling out the sin of homosexuality. Such self-blame is understandable: It is a way of dealing with the emotional hardship caused by same-sex attraction. But this introspection is, for the most part, unwarranted. Traditional Christian morality does not single out homosexuality, whereas making it part of one’s identity does. Besides, power roles have reversed: In today’s therapeutic culture, insisting on one’s gay identity mostly gets applauded, while it requires great courage to speak and write biblically about homosexuality. And while greed, adultery, etc. are all wrong, Scripture hardly supports the notion that all sins are of equal weight.
Second, we should not blithely echo the culturally accepted aversion to conversion therapy. Proposed legislation in Canada (Bill C-6) bans conversion therapy as “a practice, treatment or service designed to change a person’s sexual orientation to heterosexual or gender identity to cisgender, or to repress or reduce non-heterosexual attraction or sexual behaviour.” The wording plainly opens up the possibility of judicial interference with pastoral and parental counseling. Fr. Raymond de Souza, not given to overheated rhetoric, responded by asking, “Does the federal government think that I should be thrown in jail?” I have neither expertise nor strong opinions on conversion therapy. But at a minimum, our context demands that we be alert to the link between banning conversion therapy and undermining religious freedom.
Third, we should keep in mind that the primary pastoral context of sin is alienation from God. If disordered sexual desires lead us away from a right relationship with God, then that is the key pastoral issue that we must address. The primary pastoral context, then, is not the feeling of exclusion from fellow believers as a result of sexual identity. It’s not that the latter doesn’t powerfully function; it obviously does. But it does so because of the way we have wedded sexual desire to human identity–a unique characteristic of today’s Western therapeutic culture. Carl Trueman’s recent book, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, is a must-read to untangle the cultural web that we have spun for ourselves and a welcome antidote to the inexorable drift toward acceptance of disordered desire.
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.
Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.