This is something I’ve been pondering anew since Graham reminded me of something Eugene Peterson wrote: “Most pastoral work actually erodes prayer. The reason is obvious: people are not comfortable with God in their lives.”
What is the specific duty of pastoral care laid upon a priest?
It seems to me that there is a general duty of pastoral care laid upon every Christian. After all, it is every Christian who is to obey the command to love their neighbour as themselves; to pray for their enemies and to practice forgiveness; to share the faith – and so on.
Clearly the priest is not to be any less obedient to those commands than other Christians – possibly they are to be more so – but is that ‘more so’ the distinctive nature of the pastoral care offered by a priest? I would say not.
If you go to a Doctor, and you find that they have what might euphemistically be called a ‘deficient bed-side manner’ you might still walk away content if you know that you have received the right medication for your ailments, and have confidence that where once you were ill, now you are on the path of becoming well.
The cure of souls should surely be the same. However good at being straightforwardly pastoral the priest may be – that is, in being generally, kind, caring, solicitous and so on – that is not the central feature of their pastoral ministry. The priest is given the cure of souls within a parish. That means that the priest is called to cultivate and exercise spiritual discernment, in order to ‘feed the sheep’ appropriately. More and more I think St Benedict’s Abbot is a good model to have in mind, as he is called to “so temper all things that the strong may have something to long after, and the weak may not draw back in alarm.”
This is not a matter of being simply kind and compassionate – although those things are in short enough supply. Rather, as with the doctor who has no social grace, it is still possible to receive cure if the person administering is competent. So the question is: in what does this competence consist?
I would suggest the following. The priest is first and foremost one in whom the conversation with God is being conducted religiously, for whom the relationship with the divine is living and active, and who is therefore able, in some small way, to bring others into that same conversation. So the priest has to be a person of prayer, and to put that life of prayer before all other duties. Secondly, the priest has to be orthodox, and have the ability to share that orthodoxy with the flock. Doctrine is pastoral; poor doctrine is at the root of a very great deal – possibly the majority – of the suffering within the churches. The role of the priest is to share a right understanding of the faith – and therefore a right understanding of how we are in the world – with those who come to them in distress. The priest is one who understands and takes seriously the nature of spiritual warfare, and who has the most effective tools with which to further that combat. Lastly, and following on from this, the priest’s ministry is necessarily sacramental as the sacramental tools are the principal means of spiritual combat. The proper use of sacramental ministry is the summation of pastoral doctrine, which achieves what it teaches. And when the priest is sufficiently advanced in the faith, then they begin to share in the nature of the sacrament themselves.
We have forgotten what priesthood is for. This is the logical consequence of losing confidence in the faith more generally. If you take the faith seriously, then you take the ability to teach the faith – and share the fruits of the faith – very seriously. If you no longer have confidence in the faith then you scratch around for more or less acceptable substitutes – priest as social worker; priest as nice person; priest as politician; priest as the entertainment package on the cruise liner. Then, slowly, the whole edifice begins to drift, and starve, and succumb to the blandishments of the world. It is because we have failed at being a Christian community that we no longer have a distinctive sense of the ministry of the priest. They are simply to be the representative ‘nice person’, and heaven help the one who fails in that most solemn of Anglican duties.
If this is truly the nature of the priesthood, how then are we to find such people? How are we to train them? The training of a priest becomes not so much a matter of choosing nice people, those with a particular gift of smal talk making them more compassionate – although one would hope and expect that to be a natural byproduct – but one of deepening an understanding of the faith, equipping them with the capacity to share that faith with those in their charge, so that the sheep are fed and ministered to. This is not an academic exercise – a filling of the mind with theory and grammar – but the conscious guiding and shaping of a person’s soul, ‘spiritual formation’. How can one hope to be a priest – and therefore seek to help form the souls of a flock – unless that process of formation has been undergone in one’s own life?
Training, therefore is not a matter of abstract academics, even less is it a matter of learning a better bedside manner. All the various elements taken over from modern management and counselling theory are at best icing on a cake, at worst they are the idolatrous substitutes that we use to try to fill the void where a living faith once was. And the church will reap what it has sown. (See John Richardson for a related thought on this from the evangelical perspective).
The situation in the Church of England regarding the training of clergy is, at the moment, very fluid, but if I were to be given some dictatorial powers I would like to see a structure which made all those approved by the Bishops’ Advisory Panels full-time employees, based in a parish, from the start, with all the housing and other benefits that a curate would normally receive. This curacy would be for a period of seven years, and during those seven years the candidate would pursue a rigorous course of theological study on a part-time (50%) basis. I would provide that theological education from a non-University setting, to avoid the Babylonian captivity of atheist academia. This would give much greater economic security to candidates – and probably to the various colleges – and would enable a much more rooted form of training.
Yet none of this would be of any benefit if the core vision of priesthood remains deficient. Until and unless we regain a sense of the nature of our faith we shall continue in our managed decline, and repeatedly sacrifice ministers and vocations to the domestic gods of the English middle class.