Arthur Middleton on the character of the pastoral office

Thomas Oden, an American Methodist theologian, in his Care of Souls in the Classical Tradition, claims that in the last fifty years or more the classical tradition of pastoral care has been steadily accommodated to a series of psychotherapies. ‘It has fallen deeply into an amnesia toward its own classical past, into a vague absent-mindedness about the great figures of this distinguished tradition, and into what can only be generously called a growing ignorance of classical pastoral care.’

Thoughtless mimicry

He chose ten key figures from Cyprian of Carthage to Jeremy Taylor, and checked seven nineteenth-century works of pastoral theology and found every one of his ten authors quoted. In seven modern works none of his ten classical writers were mentioned. He concluded that classical pastoral thought was ignored. References to modern psychologists numbered 330, with Freud, Jung and Rogers frequently quoted as authoritative pastoral guides.

He concluded that American pastoral theology was a thoughtless mimic of current psychological trends. A reversal of this trend is resulting from the surprising ineffectiveness of average psychotherapy, and the psychotherapists who are recalling pastors back to their traditional pastoral identity. Similar research in England is not apparent though there is a growing concern about the need to recover the classical model of the pastoral office.

Selling out

Today, the classical but essential attributes of the pastor are being eroded by the task-orientated, commodity-minded, acquisitive values of modern secular culture. Unconsciously, a priest and his people can suddenly discover that they have sold out to other gods. A priest can find himself, under the guise of pastoral ministry, filling his time with tasks that have no connection with what the pastors have done for twenty centuries. Too often they are shopkeeper’s concerns, how to keep the customers happy.

Around us countless people are concerned to eliminate prayer, Scripture and spiritual direction from our lives. Image has become the priority, a preoccupation with the measurable, successful church building and planting programmes, politically correct issues, sociological impact and economic viability. Timetables become cluttered with meetings, leaving little time for solitude before God, to ponder Scripture, to be unhurried with people.

Keble the pastor

We have seen how Keble’s conviction that he belonged to the apostolic order with its roots in Christ formed the very character of his priesthood. It was a sacramental character and any priest worth his salt must ‘stir up that gift from God that was in him.’ This consciousness and conviction affected also what he understood himself to be as a pastor.

In his Tracts he uses the word ‘pastor’ of Christian ministry more frequently than his fellow authors. This is not surprising, for Keble, like, Herbert is one of the great exemplars of the parish priest. He did not use his priesthood to seek preferment or to prove himself. He spent almost his entire ministry in small rural commu nities, first as a curate in Gloucestershire and then as vicar of Hursley in the diocese of Winchester. This setting of his ministry, rather than writings about parochial ministry and pastoral care, has coloured the tradition. In fact, Keble wrote no book on pastoral practice.

The running of his parish was based on church principles and exemplified Tractarian priorities. However, he did encourage others to write on pastoral matters and was concerned, like many Victo rians, with providing adequate and proper church buildings. He built new churches for his outlying villages at Ampfield and Otterbourne, and completely rebuilt Hursley church. In it he put a sequence of windows similar to the magnificent medieval sequence he had known as a boy in the parish church of Fairford.

Depth of holiness

Keble deplored the ostentatious and preferred a homely plainness in manner and in speech, in his demeanour and the practice of his religious life. But combined with this he was richly cultivated and imaginatively alive with the loftiest thoughts and an ever-present consciousness of the unseen. His horror was that he might display his gifts for his own advantage. Hence it was possible to misjudge him as being dry, hard, and awkward even – a contrast to all that spirit that is sensed in The Christian Year.

There was a depth of holiness and strength of character and integrity formed thereby that was not immediately apparent. It would be missed by anyone or anything superficial or unreal. He did not wear his deep and living religion on his sleeve – his appearance as a poet and saint were hidden with Christ in God. ND