One of the things I am most grateful for as one who grew up and first did his theological training as an Anglican, is the robust and fundamentally sympathetic pastoral tradition I was exposed to. From the pastoral vision of the Caroline Divines, to the Oxford Fathers, to the lectures of Bishop Edward King, to the more recent contributions of Martin Thornton and Michael Ramsey, there is a fundamental recognition among these pastors and teachers of the existential needs of the soul, and a singular absence of applied dogma or easy platitudes. It is my experience, by contrast, especially in the world of certain confessionally-orientated internet sites, that there are a good many representatives of other traditions who appear to expect the faithful to wedge their grief and their struggles into one box or another, and then to apply the pastor’s advice lest they should imperil their soul.
Now, it seems to me that there can be little good behind this. Albeit initially benign in form, it is reminiscent of all that went wrong by way of prelude to various Church-related abuse scandals. After all, where mere authority is the grounds for what an institution has to offer – be it political, dogmatic, or hierarchical authority – there remains little room for question, and even less for respect towards a person’s individual integrity. Indeed, when ministers of the Church assert anything on the basis of authority alone, they really only end up asserting the bankruptcy of their position. This is not to say that what the Church has to offer is devoid of value; it is to say, rather, that if what the Church has to offer is as immensely valuable and inherently true as we understand it to be, then we can confidently offer it with a good deal more personal engagement and meekness than I currently see in some fora.
As a seminarian in Canada, it was a requirement to undertake Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE): an intensive course in pastoral practice that included (in my case at least) time spent assigned to three hospital wards, and numerous supervisory sessions based on my (and my fellow students’) experiences and observations. While I initially balked at this requirement, in the end, it proved more valuable than I could possibly have expected, and it is something I would recommend to anyone undergoing training for ministry.
I am well aware that there are many who would criticise the programme on the basis that it is not sufficiently academic, and that it is too given to post-, para-, or non-theological methods of contending with the profound personal questions that arise over the course of a unit, but frankly, I no longer care. If a would-be theologian is well-grounded in tradition and is being well-directed by a wise superior, then any ostensible weaknesses in a programme such as CPE can easily be resolved. I mention this, though, because what the experience ultimately taught me is that every single human being is individually created, with individual capacities for understanding, for choosing (for good or ill), and for accepting faith. This means that no one-size-fits-all pastoral response or directive could possibly address every human being’s issues, and therefore that it is incumbent on any minister seeking to faithfully represent Christ at the bedside – or anywhere else for that matter – to do so as an authentic human being himself, and in full recognition of the other’s subjective nature.
Thomas Aquinas, in describing God’s unity and the role of creation in representing that unity, says that it is only in multiplicity that we can faithfully do so.
Hence we must say that the distinction and multitude of things come from the intention of the first agent, who is God. For He brought things into being in order that His goodness might be communicated to creatures, and be represented by them; and because His goodness could not be adequately represented by one creature alone, He produced many and diverse creatures, that what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another. For goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifold and divided and hence the whole universe together participates in the divine goodness more perfectly, and represents it better than any single creature whatever. (Summa, 1.47.1)
This, together with everything else the Doctor says about the diversity of creatures, including the notion of ‘invincible ignorance’, only underscores the significance of an individual’s integrity and our need to meet it where it is.
Ultimately, there is nothing of human experience and thought that God cannot contend with; there is nothing of human struggle that the Church is not equipped to handle. This being the case, there is no reason why the Church’s ministers should be dismissive, glib, or trite in the face of a person in need, whatever their complaint or issue. Rather, it is the absolute prerogative of Christ’s minister to encounter that person where they are, to recognise their subjective identity and individual need, and to engage empathetically with their experience so that the most appropriate remedy can be applied. It is, after all what our Lord did, and it is what the most admirable in Christian tradition have advocated through the centuries. It is, in fact, the only appropriate response to the human condition. After all, we may be ministers in Christ’s Church, but we are also human beings, and as such cannot possibly have the answers to all life’s questions. Surely the best practice would be to stop pretending that we do, and just go on the walk together.