Blessing Same-Sex Unions – A Legitimate Pastoral Accommodation?

As we move from shared conversation to shared deliberation, initially among the bishops, there are a number of important elements which must be at the heart of the discussion.  We do not start from a blank sheet.  The Church of England has set out its official teaching and discipline in relation to sexuality in a number of places over the last three decades (see summary here).  But we also need to recognise that the practical realities are much more complex (see summary here) and to consider how we got into this situation and where we might go next (a sketch is provided here).

There is a strong sense that the basic structure of the Pilling Report is a likely path: no change in teaching but authorisation, or at least formal permission, for actions affirming same-sex unions as a form of pastoral accommodation.  The Church of England would continue officially to hold that marriage is a union between a man and a woman and the one divinely sanctioned form of sexual relationship.  However, in practice, things would change quite significantly.

The argument that follows is that, whatever one thinks the church should teach or should do, simply reaffirming traditional teaching while permitting greater freedom for clergy to enter into sexual same-sex unions or offering some form of liturgical celebration of such unions is an unprecedented and seriously flawed way forward.  It is also not genuine pastoral accommodation as the church has practised it in other areas.

Pilling’s Approach: Problems in practice and principle 1 For a slightly more detailed discussions of points in this and the following section see this short article

The approach faces at least three significant practical problems.

First, combining theological conservatism and practical revisionism is a “splitting the difference” which has very few if any current adherents within the church. The overwhelming majority of those who believe that the current teaching is biblical believe that the church is already at or beyond the limits of acceptable pastoral accommodation in practice.  In contrast, those wishing a more affirming stance in practice believe the teaching is wrong, even damaging, and needs changing.  They will see “pastoral accommodation” as patronizing or insulting.

Second, it stretches even further the tensions between theory and practice, theology and pastoral care which have made it difficult to speak and act with integrity and been detrimental to our unity and mission.  Continuing with this approach is likely to exacerbate rather than resolve the problems and to lead to continuing conflict and instability rather than a new peaceful settlement.

Third, in 2007 the General Synod recognized that working to prevent “further division and impaired fellowship within the Church of England and the Anglican Communion” meant not “doing anything that could be perceived as the Church of England qualifying its commitment to the entirety of the relevant Lambeth Conference Resolutions”.   Greater acceptance of either clergy in sexual same-sex unions or liturgies relating to such unions will be perceived by the overwhelming majority of the Communion and much of the CofE as at best qualifying and at worst reneging on our commitment to Lambeth resolutions as evidenced by the recent Global South Communique and Statement from the Global South and GAFCON Primates.  To go down this path is therefore a clear reversal of the 2007 Synod decision and an acceptance of further division and impaired fellowship.

More fundamentally, there is a problem of principle: it appears to worsen the habit of institutional hypocrisy.  The church continues to teach that certain behaviour is wrong, falls short of God’s purposes and is contrary to Scripture, but then moves from tolerating it as a form of respected conscientious dissent among baptized believers to commending it through public services and seeing it as no longer a bar to ordination.  Whatever one’s views it is hard to see how this has integrity.  Pastoral care and church practice need to be related to theology and to biblical teaching even when that is difficult and contested.

Pastoral Accommodation as the Principled Basis for Pilling’s Approach?

The problem of principle is regularly answered by an appeal to pastoral accommodation as a principled approach justifying divergence between teaching and practice.  This has potential in that pastoral accommodation, as defined by Oliver O’Donovan in his evidence to the Pilling Group, refers to an approach which, while “without ultimate dogmatic implications”, can be “paradoxical in relation to basic moral belief” in the response it offers to “some urgent presenting needs”.  The question is at what point one moves from paradox into incoherence and/or an undermining of basic moral beliefs.

A crucial aspect in walking this tightrope is that, in the words of the Faith and Order Commission’s report, Men and Women in Marriage  (para 49), proper pastoral accommodation should have the goal of “bearing witness in special ways to the abiding importance of the norm”.  It achieves this by being an action which can “proclaim the form of life given by God’s creative goodness and bring those in difficult positions into closer approximation to it”.

In considering whether, and if so how, any of the proposed extensions of pastoral accommodation in relation to same-sex unions can meet these criteria, it is worth examining other areas cited as parallels or precedents.  Although the New Testament’s response to slavery or the tradition’s development of just war could be explored, the most common examples in recent Anglican practice are a proposed prayer after abortion and two practices which, like same-sex unions or marriage, appear to deny church teaching that marriage is a lifelong union between one man and one one woman: polygamy and remarriage after divorce.  The rest of this article summarises these three and their implications for our debates (with links to more detailed analyses in the footnotes).

Example 1: Prayer after abortion 2 A brief expansion of this section, including the text of the prayer is here

In 1979 Synod debated – but rejected – a proposed prayer after abortion.  It was clearly a form of pastoral accommodation.  First, the act in response to which prayer is offered is clearly described in ways which witness to Christian teaching in this difficult context – life is God’s gift and we are called to share in the care of life which is given.  Second, it speaks honestly of the act about which it prays – we have cut short a developing life and have to plead for God’s mercy in judgment.  It is not an easy prayer to pray!

This as pastoral accommodation does not offer a model for public prayer for a same-sex union.  Any prayer after abortion is not dealing with a situation of celebration which is how those wishing prayer after a same-sex union view their situation.  But that is precisely to say that they are asking for something other than pastoral accommodation.  We are making a serious error if we think we can meet their concerns by offering pastoral accommodation.  To take and adapt wording used by O’Donovan, pastoral accommodation does not enable us to “invoke the blessing of God” on something the church teaches is wrong.  Pastoral accommodation would need to bear witness to the abiding importance of the church’s teaching about marriage and sexual holiness and “bring those in difficult positions into closer approximation to it”. Those seeking and those wanting to offer prayers after a civil partnership or a civil same-sex marriage do not wish to “acknowledge sorrowfully” that their union places them in a “difficult position” which needs to be brought “into closer approximation” to “the form of life given by God’s creative goodness”.

In summary, this example suggests that if what is offered liturgically is true pastoral accommodation then it is almost the opposite of what is being sought.  If, however, it offers celebration, thanksgiving or blessing it is not genuine pastoral accommodation but something else and so needs to be acknowledged and defended as such.

Example 2: Polygamy  3 A slightly fuller discussion is here

In the recent Communion debates about sexuality reference has been made to polygamy and the inconsistency represented by its alleged acceptance in provinces most hostile to same-sex unions.  This is a serious misrepresentation of both the history and the current reality in relation to polygamy.  From the third Lambeth Conference in 1888 Anglicans took a strongly non-accommodationist stance.  Polygamists were to be refused even baptism as long as they had more than one wife until 1988.  Then resolution 26 upheld “monogamy as God's plan, and as the ideal relationship of love between husband and wife” but permitted the baptism and confirmation of converted polygamists on three conditions and, recognising that some became polygamists after conversion, called on provinces to share “their pastoral approach to Christians who become polygamists so that the most appropriate way of disciplining and pastoring them can be found”.

Here again there is a genuine pastoral accommodation.  First, there is a witness to the norm in explicit teaching and in the conditions set down when moving to no longer exclude those whose situation did not conform to that norm.  Second, the accommodation extends only to permitting baptism and confirmation.  No Anglican province will accept a current polygamist into orders or liturgically celebrate a polygamous marriage.  Christians entering a polygamous marriage are usually disciplined in some way such as being refused participation in communion and/or removal from ministry.

If polygamy were to be taken as a model for pastoral accommodation to those in same-sex unions then the most obvious application would be to allow their baptism and confirmation subject to a promise not to enter another same-sex union once this one ended.  There would however be no permission for those in such unions to be ordained or to have their unions celebrated in church.  The church would also be expected to find the most appropriate way to discipline and pastor any Christian who enters such a union. Clearly this is an even more limited form of pastoral accommodation than that currently permitted within the Church of England.

In summary, an appeal to the church’s response to polygamy, accommodation to which can claim biblical precedent, is not able to justify any further pastoral accommodation in relation to same-sex unions.  In fact, if the two situations are similar in representing a departure from the church’s teaching, what is being sought for those in same-sex unions in cultures where such unions are accepted would entail a radical liberalisation of current pastoral accommodation in relation to polygamous unions in cultures where those unions are accepted.

Example 3: Divorce and remarriage 4 A much fuller discussion of the evidence is here

From 1971 to 2002 a number of areas relating to remarriage after divorce were the subject of several reports and much Synodical debate. Just as debates about sexuality today are set in the context of past official teaching so these debates had an existing framework -  particularly the 1957 Act of Convocation by Canterbury Province - for considering proposed changes.  It summarised wider Anglican teaching on marriage as permanent and concluded that the Church should not allow the marriage service to be used “in the case of anyone who has a partner still living” and indeed “no public Service shall be held for those who have contracted a civil marriage after divorce”.  However, it also stated that “it is not held within the competence of the Convocations to lay down what private prayers the curate in the exercise of his pastoral Ministry may say with the persons concerned, or to issue regulations as to where or when these prayers shall be said”.  The bishop’s explicit written permission also had to be sought before baptizing, confirming, or admitting to communion anyone in a marriage where a former partner was still living.  During the decades of debate, some clergy rejected and in practice ignored the church’s official stance, exercising their right as registrars to marry anyone who could legally marry.  This offers a potentially illuminating example of developing greater pastoral accommodation given the practical areas of dispute have so much overlap.  Each can be taken in turn.

Admission to Baptism, Confirmation and Communion

It was only in 1982, following the 1978 Lichfield Report,  that Synod removed the 1957 rule requiring the bishop’s permission for remarried divorcees to be admitted to communion.  This established the level of pastoral accommodation now also permitted to lay people in same-sex unions including marriage.

Remarriage in Church

Before changing policy, the church wrestled with theological principles.  Two theological reports (The 1971 Root Report and 1978 Lichfield Report) concluded that it was compatible with reason, the Word of God in Scripture, and theological tradition to, in certain circumstances, allow marriage in church of divorced persons.  That this was nevertheless pastoral accommodation was seen in Root’s proposal that penitential material should be introduced for such marriages.  Synod did not accept either of these studies.  Only in July 1981 did Synod agree that while “marriage should always be undertaken as a lifelong commitment…there are circumstances in which a divorced person may be married in church during the lifetime of a former partner”.  However, Synod also agreed that “before any action is taken to repeal or modify the relevant existing regulations and resolutions of the Convocations” there needed to be agreement on how to proceed and that proved intractable.  Having failed to agree on how to permit re-marriage in church in 1985 a liturgy for prayer after a civil marriage was authorized (see below).

In 1994 Synod invited the bishops to “consider the present practice of marriage in church after divorce, and to report” and Marriage in Church After Divorce finally appeared in 2000, preceded by a 1999 teaching document on marriage, signaling the need to explain teaching before proposing any changes in practice. This led to the House of Bishops’ report in 2002 (GS 1449) which included guidance for clergy on when to allow remarriage in church. Finally, in July 2002, General Synod passed a motion by 269 votes to 83 which allowed remarriage in church and in November 2002, over three decades after a theological report unanimously recommended support for some remarriage, all 3 Houses of Synod decided by large majorities to rescind the marriage resolutions of the Canterbury and York Convocations.

The current situation again is clearly a form of pastoral accommodation.  First, it makes clear that the Church of England has a doctrine of marriage and that this includes it being life-long so any marriage must be undertaken with that intention.  Second, the circumstances in which remarriage in church should happen are “exceptional”.  Third, the bishops’ advice to clergy opens by clearly stating that such decisions are to be based on church teaching: “It is not…a light matter to solemnise a marriage in which one partner has a previous partner still living. It is important that the decision you take as to whether to solemnise such a marriage should be on the basis of clear principles that are consistent with the church's teaching”.  Fourth, there is no requirement for clergy to marry anyone who has a surviving spouse.

Services of Prayer and Dedication after Civil Marriage

In the two decades between Synod agreeing that “there are circumstances in which a divorced person may be married in church during the lifetime of a former partner” and establishing a process another form of pastoral accommodation appeared.  In 1985, Synod removed the 1957 prohibition on any service at all where someone had a surviving spouse and the bishops commended a Service of Prayer and Dedication after a Civil Marriage.  This rejected the unanimous decision of the 1978 Lichfield Report which was “of one mind in rejecting the suggestion of a public service of prayer and dedication.  We recommend that the present use of such services be brought to an end” (para 232, italics original).  The report’s discussion of this proposal is very illuminating as a consideration of pastoral accommodation, especially given the current calls for some similar form of service, distinct from the marriage service, for same-sex couples (see longer discussion for details). 5 The key paragraph 230 reads "We believe that there would be a continuing risk of confusion between the service proposed and the marriage service.  It has already been noted that some clergy offer a form of service which closely resembles the marriage service (para 225).  Even if the minister had carefully explained the difference between a service of dedication and a marriage service to the couple, it is likely that some of those taking part in the service would be unaware of the distinction.  This risk would be increased if, as seems likely, elements of the traditional ceremonial associated with a wedding appeared in the service.  The appearance of the bride in white, the ringing of bells, the wedding march – all these would convey a powerful though misleading message which the words of the service would be unable to correct".    Although criticisms of such a service have continued, it remains an authorized liturgy which some have seen as a potential model to adapt for use after a civil same-sex marriage.

Clergy and marriage after divorce

It was not until 1990 that another recommendation of the Lichfield report led to a revision of the canons to allow the ordination of those with a surviving spouse or who marry someone with a surviving spouse.  In another example of how to accomplish pastoral accommodation this was done by maintaining (slightly amended) canon C4 which gives a seemingly absolute prohibition but setting out a process (new para 3A) by which exceptions to this could be permitted by the Archbishops.  This remains the situation today:  nobody can be ordained deacon or priest if they have a surviving spouse or are married to someone with a surviving spouse without formal scrutiny and the issuing of a faculty.  In 2010 the bishops issued a statement which clarified the situation in relation to the episcopate based on legal and theological advice and there is now a process used by those appointing bishops.

Application to same-sex unions?

Some will believe that the church has been too accommodating on remarriage and if so then clearly it is not an example to follow.  Others, however, will see this as a model for pastoral accommodation to those in same-sex unions.  There are, however, a number of important differences or questions which are summarized below (see longer article for more details).

  1. There are important biblical and theological distinctions between the two issues.
  2. Accommodation relied on an agreed prior understanding of the church’s teaching about marriage’s permanence which was compatible with allowing further marriage during the lifetime of a former spouse.
  3. Before authorizing liturgies or revising canons the church had clearly agreed to this understanding and affirmed the principle that there are circumstances in which a divorced person may be married in church during the lifetime of a former partner. This was not understood as revising the teaching or changing doctrine but clarifying it in relation to a particular situation.
  4. A liturgy for prayer and dedication was only approved once it had been agreed in principle that remarriage in church after divorce could be permitted and because agreeing a way to do this was proving difficult.
  5. Those who remarried after divorce were clearly accepting the church’s historic teaching on marriage and the service of prayer affirmed this.
  6. The debate related to how to distinguish between different examples of marriage after divorce based largely on the complex personal histories of each couple: some remarriages could be pastorally accommodated, others could not.
  7. In deciding whether or not to accommodate, the principles for reaching a decision were found within the church’s teaching on marriage and accommodation was not to be offered without reference to this teaching.
  8. It was acknowledged that further marriage and the circumstances leading to it were a sign of sin and failure and the world’s brokenness.

In summary, how the Church of England has responded to remarriage during the lifetime of a former spouse is the best example to consider in relation to forms of pastoral accommodation that might be extended to same-sex couples.  However, there are many serious problems in so doing.  In particular, the practical changes only occurred with official sanction once it had been shown how they were compatible with the church’s teaching on marriage and agreement reached on such compatibility.  The Church of England has not done this in relation to same-sex unions and it is difficult to see how it could do so given its current teaching.


The appeal to pastoral accommodation as a way forward has now been analysed both in principle and in relation to three examples.  This has shown there are major problems with appealing to pastoral accommodation to justify commonly proposed developments affirming of sexual same-sex unions without either changing the church’s teaching or demonstrating and getting agreement that the developments are in principle consistent with that teaching.  This does not rule out such developments as clergy in same-sex sexual unions (including marriages) or the liturgical recognition of such unions.  It does though mean that if they are to be proposed (by the bishops or anyone else) then some other justifications than simply an appeal to pastoral accommodation are needed and these other rationales will need to be developed and weighed by the church.  An appeal to pastoral accommodation properly understood and as we have used it in the past simply will not work.

Andrew Goddard

Andrew Goddard has been on the Leadership Team of Fulcrum since its launch in 2003. He is currently a Senior Research Fellow of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics based in Cambridge (where he was previously Associate Director). He has taught Christian Ethics at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford and Trinity College, Bristol and is also an Adjunct Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California. He is a canon at Winchester Cathedral and Assistant Minister at St James the Less, Pimlico where his wife, Lis, is Vicar. He is author of a number of books, most recently Rowan Williams: His Legacy (Lion, 2013) and co-editor with Andrew Atherstone of Good Disagreeement? Grace and Truth in a Divided Church (Lion, 2015).

References   [ + ]

1. For a slightly more detailed discussions of points in this and the following section see this short article
2. A brief expansion of this section, including the text of the prayer is here
3. A slightly fuller discussion is here
4. A much fuller discussion of the evidence is here
5. The key paragraph 230 reads "We believe that there would be a continuing risk of confusion between the service proposed and the marriage service.  It has already been noted that some clergy offer a form of service which closely resembles the marriage service (para 225).  Even if the minister had carefully explained the difference between a service of dedication and a marriage service to the couple, it is likely that some of those taking part in the service would be unaware of the distinction.  This risk would be increased if, as seems likely, elements of the traditional ceremonial associated with a wedding appeared in the service.  The appearance of the bride in white, the ringing of bells, the wedding march – all these would convey a powerful though misleading message which the words of the service would be unable to correct". 

1 thought on “Blessing Same-Sex Unions – A Legitimate Pastoral Accommodation?

  1. It seems to me this is less a debate about pastoral practice than about the theology around sex and marriage, Creation and Sin, and that, therefore, pastoral accommodation is the wrong place to start and the models listed above are the wrong ones.

    Surely, a better model is the way the Church addresses differences of interpretation around ecclesiology or the Eucharist, where a plurality of views are held as to precisely what the words mean. We do not make any specific pastoral accommodation on Eucharistic doctrine, other than to keep the definitions suitably ambiguous so as to allow a range of interpretation and on ecclesiology the provision made for those who cannot accept women’s ministry is basically one of providing alternative personnel where consciences might be offended.

    The question is not how the Church can uphold its teaching whilst making provision for those who cannot practically cope with it, but how the Church can recognise that there is now an argument about what that teaching should be. Long term, the only way to address that is to continue to argue the case until (possibly) a resolution emerges. In the shorter term we have to recognise that not everyone can agree and both sides need to be accommodated, not pastorally, but theologically.

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