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

Revisiting Anglican classics 1: W.H. Vanstone, Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense (1977)

            When I was at theological college in the early 1990s, Bill Vanstone’s book was spoken of with awe, as a profound essay on the risk of love.  I think because of that reputation, I held off from reading it for years, fearing I’d be disappointed.  But I needn’t have done.  It is an extraordinary tour de force of theological reflection, beginning with the most unpromising of material, the apparent trivia of parish life and his impatience with it, and going on to develop a penetrating analysis of the costliness of divine love, and its imbrication with all the seemingly minor endeavours and disappointments by which our lives are structured.

            Despite a brilliant academic background and predictions of a glittering career, Vanstone chose to spend much of his ministry working on a Lancashire housing estate, giving practical effect to the attentiveness and patience (his next book was called The Stature of Waiting) that is an important theme of this book.  He waited until his mid-50s to publish it, and the word is that it was turned down by a number of publishers, until it was taken up by DLT and became a prize-winner and best-seller. 

            It’s a bold argument.  Without conceding anything to theoretical challenges to divine impassibility, Vanstone supposes that the risks we see inherent in love as we know it in our own terms – its willingness to recognize its own limits, its renunciation of control, and its openness to unforeseen change – must also be characteristic of the love of God.  Whilst the love of God is an infinite outpouring, the endeavour of God’s love is itself fraught with risk, with self-limitation and the denial of coercive control.  We see this supremely in the tragedy of the cross (for those in the know, there are echoes of Donald Mackinnon), but also in the life of the Church.

            Vanstone’s God is a God of small things.  We are constantly tempted by the grand gesture in the Church today.  10,000 new congregations!  Don’t think small, think big!  Grand strategies are what we need, aren’t they?  Yet the skeletons of failed grand initiatives litter the historical landscape – the National Mission of Repentance and Hope in 1917, Towards the Conversion of England in 1945, the decade of Evangelism, Mission-Shaped Church, perhaps even Renewal and Reform?  Well, few of these were or are outright failures.  Perhaps they all have their place.  Perhaps they all have helped to slow decline.

            But for Vanstone, I suspect, they would all have been beside the point.  What he learnt in his years of serving the people of his parish was that there was no disjuncture between the significance of the little action or gesture, and that of the great.  Where God’s people are, whatever the seeming triviality of their concerns, each one of them is fully the preoccupation and end of God’s love.  God’s grace is alive and working in each of them, and he is to be encountered where they are.  For me, this is the touchstone of parish ministry. 

            The book ends with the poem – ‘Morning glory, starlit sky’ – which has become a well-known hymn, set to Orlando Gibbons’s ‘Song 13’.  All is good, but the verse that sums up the gist of Vanstone’s essay is the fifth:

Drained is love making full;

Bound in setting others free;

Poor in making many rich;

Weak in giving power to be.