The Church of England at its General Synod today launched a new set of ‘Pastoral Principles’ for ‘Living Together Well’.
The principles, commended by its House of Bishops, are said to ‘focus on LGBTI+ issues but apply to wider issues of diversity’.
They are strikingly similar in substance and tone to the principles put forward in the controversial letters from the bishops in Oxford and Lichfield dioceses to their clergy last year.
As with those letters, many of the sentiments are commendable and uncontroversial. But from the point of view of biblical Christianity there are some notable problems, and some striking omissions.
Here are the ‘highlights’, with commentary:
- ‘Welcoming people as they are, rather than offering a welcome that is dependent on individuals’ willingness to conform to a way of thinking and being that is perceived as ‘the norm’.’
This appears to rule out bringing standards of conduct to bear in discipleship.
- ‘Unconditional positive regard that is without judgement or question.’
There is ambiguity here in what this ‘positive regard’ involves – to be biblical it will need to distinguish between the person and their conduct, but mention of that crucial distinction is missing.
- ‘Acknowledging that unintentional subliminal actions or language can convey powerful messages’ – points like this one seem to be written in a kind of code directed at what are perceived to be the exclusionary habits of conservatives.
- ‘A willingness to respect difference so that all feel they belong.’
No limits are set on the difference here that must be respected in order to facilitate the only goal mentioned: a feeling of belonging.
- ‘Acknowledging that the Church is composed of people who are different from each other, and people who embody particular kinds of difference are missed when they are not there.’
Again we see a failure to allow that some embodied differences are contrary to God’s standards and, while the people will be missed, the problem with those differences needs to be recognised.
- ‘Our preaching, Bible study groups, public prayer and praying in informal contexts will not categorise a person’s physical difference, identity or sexual orientation in themselves as an illness, or as demonic or as sinful.’
This seems to rule out regarding transgender identities as a form of mental disorder, despite gender dysphoria being considered as such by many medical authorities. It is also odd to deny that physical difference can be an ‘illness’ when many physical differences are recognised disabilities. This seems to be part of a drive to insist that no one can have anything wrong with them if they don’t think it’s a problem, i.e. a shift to the subjective away from the objective.
- The sacraments are ‘God’s gifts, not ours and we receive them at Christ’s invitation and his alone.’
On the face of it this absolves the church of any role in discerning who should be admitted to communion.
- ‘Commitment to building open and trusting relationships in the face of disagreement.’
This fails to recognise that there is a point where disagreement is sufficiently serious to require breaking of communion.
- ‘We need to look for ways to identify, acknowledge, dispel and dismantle the power dynamics in our communities.’
This unqualified statement is redolent of neo-Marxist theory, and does not acknowledge that authority is established by God in his church to defend the faith and preserve it from error, and to build up the people of God in holiness to do good works.
- ‘We will minister to one another in the recognition that God alone, through his Holy Spirit, can effect transformation in our lives and the lives of others.’
Once more we find the church apparently renouncing its role in discipleship. The suspicion, as with many of the other principles, is that the aim is to prevent Christians from exercising pastoral ministry in line with biblical teaching.
Overall, these new Pastoral Principles read as a liberal manifesto tempered ever so slightly at the edges by a few conservative voices. With their radical and unqualified commitments to welcome, include, respect, positively regard, not judge, not use power and so on, with no care taken at any point to distinguish the person from their conduct, they appear to rule out all pastoral ministry in line with biblical norms. Following on from the very similar sentiments in the Oxford and Lichfield bishops’ letters, biblically faithful clergy and members of the Church of England should be beginning to get very worried indeed about where this is all going.
I am told that the Pastoral Advisory Group which produced the principles had originally intended to produce prayers that could be said in churches to mark same-sex unions. The group could not agree on what would be appropriate for this, however, and so produced these principles instead. There is, then, perhaps a small mercy here.
However, the much more serious problem represented by the principles is the continued attempt to produce pastoral guidance in isolation from sound biblical theology. All pastoral practice should be informed by biblical theology, not produced independently of it, where it can quickly take on a life of its own. The principles are presented as part of the Living in Love and Faith project, which is examining the Church’s theology of all things to do with sexuality. Yet they have appeared now, while the theological part is still being prepared. This is back-to-front. The pastoral principles should proceed from the theology, thoroughly saturated in it, so that all practice harmonises with sound biblical teaching and is no danger of developing in opposition to it. Of course, it is very possible that Living in Love and Faith will go on to produce and inspire bad theology – but at least then everything would be clear and everyone would know where they stand.
At this point I suggest the most urgent need is for the House of Bishops to issue a statement to reassure biblically faithful clergy and churchgoers that nothing in these new principles is intended to prevent them from undertaking pastoral ministry in line with the Church’s biblical teaching in any area, including sexual relationships. There is also a need for pastoral guidance that actually informs clergy on the ground how to handle difficult situations while remaining faithful to the Church’s biblical teaching – something these principles almost entirely ignore.
In the longer term the House of Bishops, guided by the outcome of the Living in Love and Faith project, needs to reaffirm its commitment to the teaching of the Bible as the Church of England has received it, eschewing all modern errors in anthropology and sexuality. I have less and less optimism that the Church of England will do this, as its trajectory towards grave doctrinal error and thus schism and decline (like all other churches that have embraced postmodern attitudes to sexuality) appears to be set, being led from the top and driven by a very liberal centre.
But for now we hope and watch and pray – and speak out as necessary.