Not just tea and sympathy – the priest as pastor

Something I’ve written about before, but it cropped up on Twitter yesterday:


So here is a paper of mine, from a conference back in May, which is something of an update to that earlier post:

What does it mean for a priest to offer pastoral care? In this paper I would like to explore the nature of the specific duty of pastoral care laid upon a priest – the cure of souls – and touch on why a failure to understand the nature of that duty lies behind much that presently ails the Church of England.


There is a general duty of pastoral care laid upon every Christian, it is part of the ministry of all the baptised. Every Christian is called to obey the command to love their neighbour as themselves; to pray for their enemies and to practice forgiveness; to share the faith and proclaim the good news. Clearly the priest is not to be any less obedient to those commands than other Christians – indeed they are to be more so, patterning their life and that of their families upon that of the good shepherd – but is that ‘more so’ the distinctive nature of the pastoral care offered by a priest?

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 members of the church need to have the same assurance in their priests. However good at being conventionally ‘nice’ a priest may be – that is, in being generally kind, caring, solicitous and so on – that is not the defining feature of their priestly pastoral ministry.

This isn’t from the ordinal – and that is quite significant – but from the liturgy for the installation of a new incumbent into a parish: the presiding Bishop declares to the priest, “Receive the cure of souls, which is both yours and mine.” 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. 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?

It is not an accident that the formal understanding of the faith is called doctrine, and that this word shares a root with our word ‘doctor’, meaning a learned teacher. The core competency of a priest for their pastoral work is the ability to share the orthodox faith with the souls in their charge. That is, sound 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 the one who understands and takes seriously the nature of spiritual warfare, and who has the most effective tools with which to further that combat. The priest’s ministry is necessarily sacramental as the sacramental tools are the principal means of carrying on that spiritual combat. The proper use of sacramental ministry is the summation of pastoral doctrine, which achieves what it teaches. When the priest is carrying out their vocation fully, then they share in the nature of the sacrament themselves and become, in those immortal words, a walking sacrament of their own.

An example may help to spell out what I am describing. Consider all the ways in which an impoverished understanding of our bodies actively harms people in our society – from anorexic teenage girls, to the curse of pornography, to sports stars who injure themselves in pursuit of physical perfection. Christian doctrine has much to teach about the body, rooted in the doctrine of the incarnation, the revelation that the Word took on flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. Our human flesh is therefore capable of bearing the sacred, and this is an antidote to the discomfort with the flesh – a surreptitious gnosticism – which gives rise to those harms just mentioned. For any particular person struggling with such issues, the specific pastoral care of the priest involves the rooting out of the bad beliefs – the bad doctrine – which have governed and driven that damaging behaviour. Bringing the person back to a state of full health will then involve not just the correct diagnosis (the application of correct doctrine as tempered by the circumstances of the case) but doing so in the context of personal responsibility – that is, the traditional language of sin and repentance, confession and grace. For such a person to be made well, to be healed – to receive priestly pastoring – necessarily involves the sacramental means by which the reception of grace in a person’s life is accomplished: baptism, communion, reconciliation. This is the particular pastoral role of the priest, to be the person who does such things within a particular community.

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 small talk demonstrating their compassion – although one would hope and expect that to be a natural by-product – 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 someone 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 the priest’s own life?

Simply put, in order to be an effective pastor, the priest him or her-self has to be orthodox. 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. A person who has in their own life received and understood the gift of grace and the active working of the Holy Spirit. 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.

After all, one of the great challenges about ‘re-imagining ministry’ – that is, the emphasis of the last few decades upon learning how to make do with fewer clergy – is to make sure that we don’t re-imagine ministry away completely. The reason why Killing George Herbert has always resonated with me is simply because the George Herbert model of ministry is so tremendously attractive. To be a pastor and a teacher building up strong relationships with a group of disciples – and through that to enable each of them to live out their calling with joy and giving glory to God – what priest could possibly object to that? If we are to have a truly enabled and energised, inspired and inspiring laity – is there not a role there for those whose job it is to help such a thing come about? The answer to the problem of a shortage of clergy is not to do away with such clergy altogether. On the contrary, we need more such clergy and we need to have a much clearer idea of what clergy are for.

In the secular world, to provide resources for training and development is straightforward and obvious. It is an investment in the future. The Church of England doesn’t do this – perhaps there is something in our ecclesiology that says we are only allowed to take the bad bits of management practice and have to ignore the good. If we were serious about priestly ministry then we would invest a much greater proportion of our resources in training and developing priests – and we would then set those priests free to do the work that they have been called and trained to do. There are many ways in which this might be done, yet all will count for nothing if the core vision of priesthood within the Church of England remains staggeringly deficient. We have forgotten what priesthood is for, which is simply the logical consequence of losing confidence in the faith more generally. If we take the faith seriously, then we take the ability to teach the faith – and share the fruits of the faith – very seriously. When the church no longer has confidence in the faith then it scratches around for more or less acceptable substitutes – priest as social worker; priest as nice person; priest as politician; priest as the entertainment package on a 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. 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.

More crucially, we need to make a decision about what we expect priestly ministry to look like. This is a long conversation but one key element of it, surely, has to do with the size of the congregation – that is, to how many people is one priest expected to pastor? Bob Jackson’s research pertains to this and suggests a ball-park figure of around 100 as the limit for what one person can effectively minister to. Beyond that number the possibility of genuine relationships with each member of a congregation – and therefore of prayerful and discerning pastoring – diminishes exponentially. If something like this is accepted, then it has a direct implication for the recruitment and training of clergy. If we have 10,000 people needing to be pastored, then we will need 100 clergy, and we will need to ask each of those 10,000 people to give 1% of their income in order to pay for them. All that is happening now is that we are such a long way into the spiral of decline that we suffer from spreading butter over too much bread. Put another way, we need to abandon the use of the Sheffield formula and its equivalents in working out how to deploy clergy.

This challenge is unlikely to be met without at the same time addressing the folly of the parish share system. That is, without some sense of direct relationship between what parishioners give, and what they receive, there will be no chance of increasing – that is, financing – the necessary numbers of clergy. This immediately runs up against some of the principal taboos of church culture – taboos which are, sadly, principally twentieth century in origin. After all, one of the roots of the blight of management culture across the different areas of our lives is the huge growth in centralised state control – and the parish share system is simply one aspect of that, as applied to the church. The sort of system that might enable a growth in clergy numbers – benefices tithing their income, then paying for the costs of their own ministers – is a massively decentralising process. However, this was the norm in the early church and may well be the form that the Spirit prefers. It is also in profound harmony with the way that the world is developing at the moment. Yet like all release of centralised power, those who hold such power are unlikely to release it voluntarily, they may have to be persuaded by non-rational means.

For someone who considers themselves profoundly Anglican – as I do – the naturally desirable course of action is to stay and try and change things for the better. Yet I cannot escape Leonard Cohen’s mordant commentary, “they sentenced me to twenty years of boredom… for trying to change the system from within”. It occurs to me that if it was possible to change the system from within – through incremental shifts – then it would have been done already. After all, the spiritual root of our present predicament was accurately diagnosed by Evelyn Underhill more than eighty years ago. In a letter to Archbishop Lang in around 1931 she wrote to complain about the way in which the complications and demands of running the institution had compromised the capacity of priests to maintain their prayer life: “The real failures, difficulties and weaknesses of the Church are spiritual and can only be remedied by spiritual effort and sacrifice […] her deepest need is a renewal, first in the clergy and through them in the laity; of the great Christian tradition of the inner life.”

More recently, the generation of priests ordained in the sixties and seventies were, I suspect, not given any more or less grace than the present generation – and there were many more of them – so why the tacit assumption that ‘one more heave’ might make any difference? In other words, the spiritual rot has gone so much deeper than any possible structural reform can address. We no longer have the capacity to make the right decisions, because our spiritual strength has been exhausted – and it is that spiritual strength which is my principal concern, for building up the spiritual strength of any Christian community is precisely the priestly task, the cure of souls.

Which leads to a more troubling and possibly terminal question – is it actually possible to be a priest in the Church of England any more? If the generating and nurturing of spiritual strength is indeed the core role of the priest; if this is a distinct and important (most important!) task; if this is what priests continue to be called to by the living God – is it at all realistic to consider the role of an incumbent within the Church of England as a context that enables such a vocation to be expressed? Or is it the case that the hours of an incumbent are filled with the need to satisfy the demands of a second rate managerialism, keeping the wheels of the institution turning, and where the worst sin is not a failure of spiritual cure but bringing the institution into disrepute. Incumbency drives out priesthood, and the future that we are staring it is the exaltation of incumbency. The deep understanding of what a priest is for – that which inspires so many people still to present themselves for the task – seems to be structurally forgotten, and only referenced in rhetoric at ordinations.

If there is to be any future for the Church of England it will involve ‘giving up’ – giving up an illusion of centralised control, that if only we get in the right leaders doing the right programs then all shall be well. It will involve setting parishes free, and it will involve setting priests free – free to actually be priests, and not establishment functionaries. What we really need is a way of handing over all ‘incumbency’ rights and responsibilities to local laity – to revive lay incumbencies no less (which is not the same as lay presidency!) – and to only have ‘mission priests’ – people whose responsibility it is to feed the faithful by word and sacrament – and nothing else. The institution keeps loading on other options onto the creaking shoulders of the clergy and they are almost all distractions from that core task; they make clergy miserable and simply generate stress and burn-out. It is because we no longer know what a priest is for that we have devised an institution that makes it impossible to actually be a priest within it.

Is it, in fact, time to consider abandoning the institutional ship? I want to deploy my favourite quotation from Alasdair MacIntyre in this context, his conclusion to After Virtue, as it seems appropriate: “A crucial turning point in history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium. What they set themselves to achieve instead — often not recognizing fully what they were doing — was the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained so that both morality and civility might survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness… This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time.”

Is it time for priests of good will to turn aside from shoring up the established Church of England and start constructing new forms of Anglican community – places within which they can actually become the priests that God has called them to be?

7 thoughts on “Not just tea and sympathy – the priest as pastor

  1. A couple of observations Sam.

    Of course it’s not “just” about tea and sympathy – who could ever make that mistake. This is your straw-man here 😉

    But to risk dismissing the tea and sympathy as not valuable – as in a medical doctor’s bedside manner not being valuable – if the objective outcome is right – is a step too far. Have you read James Willis ? (Experienced GP writing about evidence-based medical management.) I find it fascinating (ironic, and a little scary) that you as a theologian-activist continue the drift towards objective scientism.

    Any anyway – surely the “cure” in accepting the cure of souls, is used in the sense of curate, as in curation or curator, not to do with cure (of ills) – so not sure the analogy is good. (Had an interesting dialogue with Tiff Jenkins recently on misplaced objectives in librarianship and museum curation – which may be relevant)

    Changing, whether from the inside or outside however is only ever by steps – even if some of the steps are “revolutionary”. Remember the Irishman – If I wanted to get there. I wouldn’t start from here.

    Keep up the good work – of constructing a better community. Whilst avoid Scylla, don’t forget Charybdis.

    • Where do I ‘dismiss tea and sympathy as not valuable’? My point is in wanting to distinguish the specific form of care from the general (and priests are called to do the general as well, as all Christians)

      • I said “risk dismissing” – risk suggesting it is less valuable. I’m not suggesting you do dismiss it. But you change this to “specific and general” here – what I’m saying some of the specific stuff can be too objectified – which gives it the “appearance” of greater value than the general less objectifiable elements.

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  3. Fascinating paper… I think I completely agree. The Evelyn Underhill quote says it all perfectly. If only more vicars had the inner life of monks and nuns!

    I wonder though, is the management of a church something that should be fundamentally outside a vicar’s remit, or is it perhaps an important or necessary part of the role that would not be such a difficulty if the inner spiritual lives of our incumbents were all they could be?

    In other words, what is the main problem, that vicars are forced to focus too much on being managers, or that they have lost (or never developed) the spiritual resources to do so?

    • Interesting you pick up the management angle as significant problem. If I may link my “curation” point to yours ?

      I think your take on management here is the bureuacratic aspects which you see as distraction from “the real job”. I’m sure most managers – in the church or anywhere else – would agree with you. The real job is “curation” or maybe governance. Taking care of business, taking care of what is valuable to that business – not just those the accountants can count.”Caring” for what is valuable.

  4. Sam, thanks so much for this article. One of the challenges to us as Anglican vicars is we HAVE to do a certain amount of management.

    But the bigger problem is, I think, the one you’ve identified – we’ve forgotten the core business and the key processes of ‘pastoring’. I’ve suggested elsewhere that one of our key problems is we don’t know much about the work of a shepherd. We think ‘Jesus carrying a cuddly lamb’, but a real shepherd would have a very different image. If, when we thought of pastoring, we had in mind ‘dagging’ rather than cuddling (look it up), we might be more determined in our approach.

    A test of our attitude is surely whether we regard all our congregation in need of pastoral support or only those in trouble.

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