Part of a series leading up to the Anglican Church of Canada’s 2019 General Synod. Previous installments may be found here.
Everyone knows someone who has been hurt or wounded by the attitudes or behavior of other people. Our hearts would have to be hard indeed not to feel compassion as we listen to those who have been hurt, excluded, or maligned. To our shame, the Church, in its conflicted reality, has often been deeply implicated in that wounding. How can we not be challenged and convicted by those who demonstrate a desire to care, to include, and to value those who in the past have been excluded? For leaders in the church, the warnings about “false shepherds” from Isaiah or Ezekiel strike home when we recognize that we have often done a poor job of caring for the marginalized.
In one sense, we can be thankful that there is no room for triumphalism in North America, among those who hold to the historic understanding of marriage. Our working assumptions have shifted so rapidly that “common sense” now suggests that a lack of full inclusion in the church is bigoted or homophobic — how could it be anything else? To suggest that the biblical witness to marriage doesn’t allow us to change the way we understand marriage is perceived not only as wrong but as deeply offensive to many. Yet, we are compelled to struggle with the question of what it means to be faithful to the whole gospel even as we also seek to avoid rejecting or excluding others.
That brings us face to face with one of the most challenging questions for pastoral leaders: what does it mean to offer pastoral care to the marginalized, and especially to those who have been wounded or excluded by the church? Pastoral care, the particular calling and challenge for the church, is aligned with but not identical to a caring attitude and actions. We cannot elude the question of how theology informs pastoral care. In a desire to care for those who have been wounded by the church, some suggest that pastoral care must take precedence over theological claims. It is surely better to prioritize care for others, or so the argument goes. But that is to assume that our care can be pastoral without being theological and that the best we have to offer is our own human efforts to be loving, caring and inclusive.
Theological claims are not simply doctrinal positions supported by biblical texts that we do our best to defend. They are, rather, ways of speaking about the God who has created us and called us to live in response to his desires for us. Theological claims guide us into a way of living from God and ordered towards God. True pastoral care, rooted in the life of the Good Shepherd, means aligning our lives with God and what God has expressed of his desires for us as we enter into the strange new world of the gospel.
The idea that we should respond pastorally rather than theologically aligns with the tendency in the 20th century for pastoral theology to begin with the social sciences on the assumption that it is pastoral rather than theological. At the heart of our confusion are basic assumptions about the incarnation – that in Jesus Christ God has entered into the world so that we might know him and live in response to him. And, in relationship to pastoral care, that Jesus realizes and shows us what it means to be human. This, in contrast to the popular assumption that the incarnation is a straightforward affirmation of our humanity as we already understand it to be. As a result, we avoid the tension of living towards what it means to be remade in Christ and towards Christ.
The incarnation, as such, is not a simple affirmation of the intrinsic value of our humanity but is the declaration that God’s love and judgment are one and the same. This is most fully visual on the cross. Pastoral care, in an era when an emphasis on the incarnation excises the cross, inevitably shifts towards the idea of enabling individuals to realize their own identity, even while it is not clear exactly what that might mean.
In the cross we see both the extraordinary love of God for humanity and the devastating consequences of our waywardness – our choosing to understand ourselves and our world on our terms rather than on God’s. In the incarnation Christ does lift up our humanity, but he lifts it up on the cross. The love and hope that we have to offer to the world is not our love but the love of God in Christ. And that is a love whose glory, scandalously revealed in the cross, invites us to come and follow. Taking up our cross surely implies that we too will be misunderstood and rejected even as we seek to care deeply for others in the midst of their struggles.
Priests and ministers who hold to the traditional understanding of marriage find themselves facing anger from some for their stance and anger from others because of the actions of the Anglican Church. There is no easy or magical pastoral solution to this conflict. It is rather, to identify with Christ: Christ, held up on the cross, calls us to radically question our “natural” tendency to exclude those we see as different just as he calls us to recognize what it might cost to stand for the gospel and against popular opinion.
We are called to speak the truth of Christ but we can never do so lightly or glibly. In the light of the cross we must allow ourselves to be confronted by the pain that others have faced in being excluded at the same time as we face the inevitable conflict that arises from continuing to speak of our calling towards an identity in Christ that is not about self-realization or self-fulfillment.
That brings us, as pastoral leaders, to a twofold call to repentance. In the first place we need to repent of the ways we have excluded the marginalized and in the second place we need to repent from the ways our understanding of what it means to be human is more often derived from our experience or observations than from the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Precisely because we are called to realign our understanding of what it means to be human in light of Christ as the true Image of God and the fulfillment of our humanity, we are also called to live into a reality which we don’t yet know, and which at times will seem foreign to us. That reality is Christ.
If there is hope for unity in the Church, if there is a promise of transformation, it is rooted in helping one another to know and respond to Christ. Christ, obedient even to the point of death on the cross, calls us to allow him to radically question what we perceive to be right or good or true. He also calls us to care enough for others that we are willing to be misunderstood, maligned, and rejected as we seek to know and to bear witness to what it means to be faithful to God.
The Rev. Dr. Peter Robinson is professor of proclamation, worship, and ministry at Wycliffe College, Toronto.