The politics of pastoral encounter

            I imagine most people will look askance at the title of this post.  What has politics got to do with pastoral care?  Isn’t pastoral care something intensely and essentially personal, so that politics shouldn’t get in the way of it?  Well yes…and no.

            Yes, because Christian ministry can’t be parcelled up into differential modes of care depending on people’s politics and even life situations.  It was always a rather cheap jibe at the liberation theologians that they didn’t seem to have a gospel for the rich – but of course they did!  It is easier for a camel…go and sell all you have…But it’s true that the love of God leaves out no one, and it would be a shocking thing to start denying people care and compassion simply because of their views and actions.  I’ve always thought the most startling example was John Robinson, at Westcott House during the war, praying for Hitler.  We pray for the souls of murderers, thieves, abusers, drug suppliers, and so on.  It might be uncomfortable for some people, but that’s what Christians do.

            But the other side of the matter came to my mind reading Hensley Henson’s Disestablishment (1929) the other day.  Henson had done a seemingly abrupt u-turn on his views on establishment after the House of Commons twice rejected the revised Prayer Book in 1927 and 1928, showing up the much-vaunted, new legislative independence of the Church of England as a fiction.  With the recent example of Welsh disestablishment as a background, Henson concluded that the traditional constitutional relationship of Church and State no longer worked to the Church’s (or even the State’s) good.  But he’s very fierce against the idea that disestablishment would turn the Church of England into merely a sect. 

And he goes on to chide his clergy – he was bishop of Durham, and part of the book is a ‘Charge’ to his clergy – for neglect of pastoral visiting.  I really warmed to that.  He doesn’t concede anything to the claim that the Church, if disestablished, should abandon its community outreach and its appeal to every person in one place.  This is where the idea of politics is relevant, surely.  First, Henson would have strongly rejected the idea of a specific political bias as a requirement of Christian commitment – he was quietly scathing about William Temple’s views – but he would absolutely not have disputed that in a broader sense the Church of England’s pastoral responsibilities were part of the landscape of England’s political history. 

Neglect of pastoral encounter was, then, a form of political statement.  If – by implication – it was a wilful, deliberate neglect, motivated for example by resentment or by disapproval of someone’s views or position in life, you could at least say that it was a neglect with political consequences.  And likewise, if Christians persist in trying to reach out in compassion and care to those whom others are telling us should be shunned, then that too is a political statement of sorts.

But second, there is obviously another sense in which a Christian theological anthropology requires more or less explicitly a specific understanding of human community, or human sociality.  Christians commit to building up the polis – the social life, the relationships, the values, and of course the structures by which human community is shaped and defined.  And they do bring a particular perspective to bear on that – that’s what faith and the moral life require of us.  Pastoral encounter is a political act.  That doesn’t make it any less spiritual or personal – on the contrary.

23 August 2021

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