Priesthood and pastoral care

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.

7 thoughts on “Priesthood and pastoral care

  1. I love your idea of seven years of training and I would go further and add a full one year in a monastery to give a full experience of faith and prayer for a curate, to then become a full priest who can put the faith foremost in daily life. Good post my friend! Keep up the good work!

  2. As someone who has just embarked on a new life as a ‘vicar’s wife in training’, with the associated uncertainty of finances, housing, prospects and the sheer choice of training options, I do echo and support your ideas. The mixed mode model offered by St Paul’s Theological Centre/St Mellitus that my other half is following is set up as a part time study (1 full day of lectures plus 7 weekends and 1 personal study day)plus part time (3 days a week) ‘apprenticeship’ system based in a parish or placement. However, the 2 partner dioceses for the college view the course differently and therefore pay for it/us differently. I know my husband would have no objection to seven years of training, although some would say by the time you’ve done the college bit (3 years) plus a curacy with the associated CME/D element you have done 7 years anyway. It’s just that you get let loose on a parish as incumbent at that stage. I’m sure for some, 7 years training would be off putting and discourage younger candidates to the priesthood.

  3. Hi Sam, thanks for being deliberately provocative and therefore thought provoking.

    I think a lot of this kind of debate actually derives from our shadow sides as priests, in that we look at the ministries of others, feel threatened by them because the approach of others seems to suggest that we are not doing what we should and we therefore respond by justifying our own approach to ministry more strongly.

    The categories of priests as ‘social workers’, ‘nice people’, ‘politicians’, ‘cruise liner entertainers’ (in yours and the linked post) are caricatures of the ministries of others. In most cases, those who seem to fit those caricatures would almost certainly agree wholeheartedly with your emphasis on the centrality of prayer, teaching and sacraments but would adopt a different model for their expression of those ministries.

    Again, I think our shadow side leads us to look at others and say that if they are spending their time doing that (whatever ‘that’ is) then they can’t be following my model for prayer, teaching and sacramental ministry and, because my model for these things is deep and rich, theirs must be shallow.

    I don’t think that the decline in the Church in the West is fundamentally to do with our models of priesthood. It is primarily to do with the development of secularisation and materialism which put ‘me’ and ‘my needs’ at the centre of universe, so that I have no need of God or Church.

    I think that responding to this challenge does require a diversity of models of priesthood and that we need to seek to understand and value the models that others are working with at the same time that our own model is also understood and valued, including and especially the way that prayer, teaching and sacraments are understood and utilised in these different models.

    Finally, I think the problem that many priests have with managerial practices is also related to our shadow side. One effect of managerial processes and practices is a greater emphasis on collegial working, including accountability (to other human beings, as well as God). I think this is often resisted and denigrated because priests essentially wish to protect their personal independence and individuality.

    I suggest all this as response because I find myself, from my own insecurities, doing these things and guess that others also do the same.

  4. Thanks for the comments one and all. Steve – the one year in a monastery is very attractive – for some – but I don’t think it would work for anyone with a family. Similarly, Alice, I suspect that the seven years would put off older candidates more than younger, not least because the younger candidates would be receiving a stipend from the start.

    Jon, thanks for the substantial reflection. I think the issues I am working through are somewhat different to what may have come across. I am not at all wanting to denigrate how other people are working out their priesthood; I am, if you like, wanting to exorcise some of my own demons. So my particular temptations are (i) the politician-priest, and (ii) the nice-person, both of which, especially the latter, have led me astray in recent years, at some personal cost. What I am trying to do here is reconnect with my own fundamental well-springs, precisely because that connection has become frayed. I am trying to put my ministry – that is, my sense of my self as a minister – back together.

    One other point – I don’t think the decline in the understanding of priesthood caused the collapse in faith (though I think there has been positive feedback) it is more that I see that as one of the symptoms of the loss of faith.

  5. This is part of my response to an e-mail comment, which might also help to clarify what I’m getting at: “I am not at all wanting to disconnect priesthood from the practice of love towards others. What I am saying is that the practice of love towards others is a universal obligation upon all Christians, including priests – and as such I don’t think it can describe the specific and particular vocation of the priest. (I have a little bit of ambiguity there – hinted at when I mention the ‘more so’ early on – because I think there may be a representative aspect to the priesthood, ie we are meant to model the practice of love towards others.) I think that the priest is called to have something more (or additional) to offer than what any individual Christian is called to offer – and that something more is the understanding of the faith, as embodied and expressed through the sacraments. That is what I am wanting to get back in proper touch with.

    As for putting this stuff on the blog where the congregation will read it – yes, they do, and I know that a number of people who most definitely don’t have my interests at heart read it. Several people have asked me whether it is sensible to be so open, and I have mulled it over a lot (certainly, the amount of material that I have put on the blog in the last two years is much less than there was before). But the answer I’ve come to is that I think it more important to be honest about my ministry, and how I understand it. Yes, it makes me vulnerable (to misunderstandings and criticisms) but it is the only way to get to a healthier place, for me personally and for the community as a whole. It means that we’ll have to wade through some sh!t first – I’m already in it (!) – but I think the end-point is so much healthier. It seems to me that – paradoxically – if I hide off my own personal struggles, I am that much less able to be alongside others in their own struggles. What I am finding is that a very real and genuine ministry is opening up to me precisely because people recognise me as someone walking alongside them on the way, as opposed to someone who has all the answers and has it all perfectly sorted.”

  6. I came to this post via your other one about happy incumbents. I don’t have the energy on a Friday to write a detailed response, though I’d love to and I might yet.
    But what I really wanted to say was how helpful I found your observation about the priest being the person in whom the conversation with God is ongoing, both in the negative sense as you contrast that with other models of ministry, but also in the positive sense of it being an inspirational vision of what we do.
    Sometimes it is the most obvious thoughts that are the best. This has really helped me over the last few days, and I suspect it will still help me over many years to come. Thanks.

  7. Pingback: Not just tea and sympathy – the priest as pastor | Elizaphanian

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