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The therapist’s ‘priestly’ task

18 October 2013

Jenny Francis reflects on a Christian who thought it through

Counselling and Spiritual Accompaniment: Bridging faith and person-centred therapy
Brian Thorne
Wiley-Blackwell £27.99
Church Times Bookshop £25.20 (Use code CT577 )

BRIAN THORNE left teaching for a career in person-centred psychotherapy. For more than 30 years, he has practised and taught, and written about his work. He is renowned for building a lasting bridge between psychotherapy and Christian belief, long deemed mutually incompatible.

It was an encounter with Carl Rogers which shaped Thorne's development as a person-centred therapist, and which also influenced his personal, long-held commitment to Christianity. Instead of seeing God as demanding, judgemental, and punitive, as many did, Thorne experienced him as loving, accepting, and affirming. This, in turn, formed his belief in man's potential for love and goodness, which would lead to a life-enhancing relationship between therapist and client.

That meant embarking on a spiritual pilgrimage that itself required spiritual discipline. Thus, unusually, he concluded, a therapist can be seen in a priestly capacity.

Writing a decade after that observation, Thorne remained comfortable with the analogy, and wryly noted that he was now asked to lecture on spiritual discipline most; this indicated just how much the therapeutic world had changed.

The four main parts of this book enable readers to trace the development of the author's thinking and practice, from being a lone voice to the world-renowned academic he became. While much of it has been previously published, the parts that date back to the late 1970s and '80s are valuable in showing how he reached his final conclusions.

It is Part 3 of which he is proudest, where "I explicitly elaborate my belief that person-centred therapy is at heart a spiritual undertaking. What is more, its essentially positive and hopeful view of the human person - and its openness to the transcendent - make it particularly relevant to those in the 21st century who have become disenchanted with institutionalised religion."

The final part, "Ceasing to be a Therapist", focuses on the bypass surgery that forced his retirement. As happens so often with significant illness, Thorne also took stock of his life's work and practice, and accepted that his personal odyssey was steering him along a different route, of one who travels alongside others on their spiritual journey. For him, this was a natural sequitur of the growth of spiritual awareness in an increasingly complex world; but, having made the move, he felt greater freedom and "a new form of mutuality in a common quest for the divine in the pursuit of humanness".

The book concludes with a discussion about the personal and the political in the future organisation of therapy and the protection of clients. He cannot accept the limits that formal structures to "protect" the client would bring. "These issues must be permeated by another dimension, the spiritual."

In Norwich, where he remains Emeritus Professor of Counselling at the University of East Anglia, and a lay canon of the cathedral, he and others have tried to grasp the significance of this shift in the spiritual landscape.

This book is a demanding read, on a very serious subject. It is well written: clearly, humorously, honestly, and empathically. We owe Thorne an enormous debt for courageously opening his heart, mind, and soul to share the truth about a loving God walking with his people. It has been a privilege to review a book that amounts to his magnum opus, and I hope I have done it justice.

His is a unique understanding of the person-centred approach to psychotherapy, and the interface between Christian spirituality and the challenging "secular" spirituality penetrating our caring professions.

The Revd Jenny Francis is a retired psychotherapist and a priest in the diocese of Exeter.

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