In recent months there has been a lot of talk about Pastoral Accommodation and LLF. This is an attempt to find a path through the deep division in the Church of England over Same Sex Marriage (SSM), and draws on the church’s handling of the issue of the remarriage of divorcees. One proposal put forward in the Hereford Diocesan Synod was that churches should be free to perform blessings of SSMs, but only if the PCC and incumbent both agree so to do.
Whilst this might sound reasonable, it does sow the seeds for an enduring pastoral breakdown. What is the likelihood that all the members of a PCC and the incumbent share the same view? In multi-parish benefices – the increasingly normal pattern of ministry – the situation is all the more fraught. Is there any chance that five or six PCCs will all agree with each other and their incumbent? Such is the heat in the debate, hard won partnerships within benefices are likely to suffer.
Issues will arise with pastoral re-organisations, when a church supportive of SSM find themselves now under the care of an incumbent who is opposed. Will such services have to cease in that church, what will be done with couples who have already booked services of blessing?
We might also envisage issues in vacancies, when a benefice who is split on the issue seeks a new incumbent. If clergyperson were to apply for what is an unappealing prospect, would all PCCs be happy to appoint that applicant since his or her view would clash with at least one PCC?
Added to all of this is the increasing financial pressure churches find themselves under. We simply cannot risk the loss of income to churches as they splinter, and neither can dioceses.
I’m afraid Pastoral Accommodation simply seems the worst of both worlds.
Of course, we do already have an example of Pastoral Accommodation. In 2014 “Five Guiding Principles” were drawn up following the passing of legislation to enable women to be ordained to the episcopate. These principles were designed to enable the “mutual flourishing” of those on both sides of the debate, but the experience of the past seven years has done little to give confidence that these have worked in practice. In 2020 Women and the Church (WATCH) published a guide to the principles , and one paragraph is worth quoting in full:
“This underlying assumption [that once women could be appointed as bishops, nothing more needed to be done to enable women to flourish in the Church of England] was challenged by an unpredicted result of research carried out by Dr Gabrielle Thomas published in 2019. Dr Thomas was investigating receptive ecumenism and her method was to set up several ecumenical groups of women who would discuss the same questions. One of these questions was ‘What would you name as a wound in your church?’ In every single group, ordained Anglican clergy described ‘mutual flourishing’ as ‘an active wound’ in the Church of England, and only three of the 22 Anglican women thought that everything was working well.” (p12)
Those on the Conservative Evangelical wing of the debate have expressed disappointment that the only Complementarian bishop appointed this century is a flying bishop, whilst the Anglo-Catholic wing watched in horror as the appointment of Bishop Philip North to the see of Sheffield unravelled in a storm of controversy.
It is therefore fair to say that both sides of the debate do not see the present situation as tenable, and it certainly should give pause to anyone who thinks that Pastoral Accommodation might work in the issue of SSM.
Within our ecclesiology, bishops are centres of unity within their dioceses. The nature of the calling leads to a mediating role in many circumstances, and both clergy and laity seek to have confidence in their bishop.
Already in the accommodation surrounding the ordination of women we have seen this unity lessened. Simply put: some clergy in the denomination will not receive communion from other clergy (and in some instances their bishops). Yet for all this, a bishop must exercise a uniting pastoral role over his or her clergy and laity.
Should Pastoral Accommodation be sought over the issue of SSM, intolerable pressure will be put on bishops. The question will be asked: what can clergy in same sex relationships hope for by way of respect from those who because of theological conviction do not accept their pattern of living? Similarly, what kind of recognition and respect can same sex partnered bishops expect from those who view such a relationship as contrary to the will of God?
There really is no way to win since Pastoral Accommodation takes an issue out of the realm of theological conviction, and makes it a matter of choice. After all, if the church says that two opposing views are equally valid why should one hold steadfastly to one of them? Is that not simply bigotry? Something simply cannot be both true and untrue at the same time.
Pastoral accommodation has a pleasant ring to it, but in the end it simply kicks a national division down to the parish. It is a shrug of the shoulders by General Synod, and an abdication of leadership. The easy decision is often not the right one.
Chris Moore is rector of the Fownhope benefice in Hereford Diocese, Regional Director of Church Society in the South and West of England, and a member of General Synod.