“IS FEAR holding you back?” This is the slogan chosen to promote this year’s Mental Health Foundation action week, which begins on Easter Day. In the context of parish life, the question is pertinent. No one is exempt: it has the potential of speaking to us all at different times in our lives.
When fear crosses a clinical threshold, the consequences can be debilitating and lasting. Anxiety can take several forms, ranging from specific phobias through to generalised anxiety, social anxiety, agoraphobia, and panic disorder.
Various churches have questioned their health in recent years through the Healthy Church initiative, sponsored by Springboard, in which faith communities are checked against various pastoral and missionary criteria. But probably few churches have considered how the ministry of a parish might be affected by the mental health of a congregation.
Within the nitty-gritty of lay and ordained discipleship, fear and anxiety have a part to play in the day-to-day functioning of a church community. When anxiety takes hold, individuals will tend to respond in one of two ways: fight or flight. This response is likely to express itself in different extremes: either over-
involvement and a tendency to control, or a general inertia and malaise.
A variety of triggers, including bereavement, a breakdown in a relationship, a physical or mental trauma, and work overload, combined with our individual make-up, are factors that contribute to our vulnerability to mental-health problems.
Too often, like so many forms of mental-health difficulties, anxiety can seem to present itself as something else: the disaffected person; the PCC member whose demands for perfection can never be satisfied; the person who withdraws from church life for no apparent reason; the one with poor social skills, or who perhaps just seems excessively shy; the character given to unpredictable emotional outbursts.
ANXIETY affects all aspects of our functioning — physical, mental, and emotional. Physical symptoms, such as dizziness, muscular tension, and heart palpitations tend to affect one’s underlying thoughts (“I’m going to faint,” “I can’t cope”).
Consequently, how an individual interprets these physical events in their body will increase their fear, leading the individual to avoid those situations that make them anxious. In the short term, the anxiety goes down, reinforcing the (false) belief that avoidance offers a solution.
In the long term, however, sufferers are likely to avoid more and more things, potentially increasing their social isolation, their difficulty in working, doing routine chores, or even with leaving the house. No wonder that anxiety is often described as a vicious cycle.
The Church has much to learn about mental health. The first practical step is to raise awareness of it. The importance of this should not be underestimated. Self-help literature is also available (for example, booklets on a number of websites, such as that of the Mental Health Foundation www.mentalhealth.org.uk).
A significant gap remains in the training of church workers to respond to many of the psychological issues presented by parish ministry. This gap need not, however, fall to the Church alone. At a local level, the pastoral dimension of a church is, one hopes, essential in terms of support and friendship, sensitively given, but the need for specialist referral must always be borne in mind. It will often be the task of church leaders to help activate this referral.
“IS FEAR holding you back?” This question does not have only psychological implications. There is also something deeply theological here, especially as we approach the Triduum and on into Easter.
The Passion narrative has much to say about individual stories of fear and anxiety. On Maundy Thursday, Simon Peter is anxious that Jesus’s authority and status will be compromised through the sacrificial task of foot-washing. Peter later attempts to circumvent Jesus’s sacrifice by capitulating to violence and cutting off the guard’s ear in Gethsemane. This “fight” response to fear later turns to “flight”, when he denies three times.
On Holy Saturday, when the vigil celebrates the Easter mystery, we hear the story of the women finding the tomb empty. The first words of the resurrection in Matthew’s Gospel, which provides the tenor of the other accounts, are: “Do not be afraid.” Fear is present, even at Easter.
The three holy days before Easter might, therefore, offer an understanding that fear and anxiety are rooted in the Christian story. Yet they are not the concluding words of the Gospel. The Passion narrative, like that of anxiety, is utterly cyclical. It speaks of crisis and recovery, not in any one isolated period, but time and time again, year in, year out.
Just as, from a psychological perspective, the sufferer needs to stay with the fear (and not avoid it) in order to overcome it, so, too, in the journey from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday, we, as Jesus’s disciples, are required to enter into the narrative of fear, in order to experience the full cycle of crisis and recovery.
As imitators of Christ, we are asked not only to consider our own patterns of vulnerability, but also to join others on their journeys of breakdown and recovery. This is the pastoral task of the Church. It enables us to grapple with the question, “Is fear holding you back?”
The question does not speak only of mental health; it allows us, as individuals and as communities of faith, to engage in the drama of the Triduum and the Easter mystery beyond.
The Revd Gavin Knight is Chaplain of Monmouth School. Dr Joanna Knight is a clinical psychologist. They are co-authors of Disturbed by Mind and Spirit: Mental health and healing in parish ministry, published by Continuum this week.