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Learning from extreme cases

11 July 2014

This helps in pastoral care more generally, Anne Holmes finds

The Bloomsbury Guide to Pastoral Care
Bernadette Flanagan and Sharon Thornton, editors
Bloomsbury £35
Church Times Bookshop £31.50 (Use code CT954 )

THIS important collection of essays engages with frontier issues in pastoral care both in Europe and North America. It gives a central place to narrative knowledge, privileging autoethnographic narrative, and encourages the reader's participatory imagination. It seeks to reduce the gap "between the theory and practice of trust in Divine providence on life's journey".

The guide comprises two parts focusing on European and North American trends and themes respectively. Overview essays on Europe by Kevin Egan and on North America by Sharon Thornton and Brita Gill-Austern are masterly in their summary of historical and current trends in pastoral care and provide a framework and context for the ensuing specialist essays. Each part is self-standing, and, apart from a brief introduction, it is left to the reader to draw any comparisons between pastoral-care practice in Europe and North America.

This interdisciplinary study seeks to move beyond the traditional emphasis on theology and psychology. It engages with issues of power, and prefers a more participatory to the usual professional model of care, and eschews short-cut binary thinking or "cognitive economy".

Inter-cultural thinking is enhanced by a recognition of common ground among the texts of major faiths (Benny McCabe). Poetry is drawn on to illustrate identity issues across cultural boundaries (Julia Prinz).

Many of the chapters record the experience of those offering pastoral care in extreme situations, such as those of cult-leavers, war veterans, and adolescents suffering cyber-bullying, and the particular danger of vicarious traumatisation when working with asylum-seekers and other victims of torture.

It would be tempting to assume that most readers cannot learn from such specific contexts. One thing that I learnt from mental-health chaplaincy, however, was that an understanding of extreme situations is essential for discerning where any of us might be on a particular spectrum. An example from this book would be John Butler's pointers to those working with cult-leavers, and subsequent warnings to such non-cult groups as conservative Evangelicals.

One of the most moving chapters is the one by Susan Suchocki Brown on pastoral care offered in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This is compelling in a world in which unpredictable and random events can leave any community traumatised.

Certain themes emerge: the need to move from an individual to a community focus; the need to think beyond our particular cultural and historical context; the subtle nature of identity formation; the danger of burnout and need for self-care; the essential part played by supervision; and the place of groups in facilitating healing.

Those structures that allow un-conscious if not conscious prejudice to continue are appropriately challenged. The reader is invited to think about power differentials, and to consider through a close reading of certain Gospel texts the meaning of forgiveness. Various references to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission show that the book's scope is wider than its Western focus would imply.

It is hard to do justice to this rich mosaic of different essays from many contexts, except to indicate that it is, indeed, a most useful reference book for those engaged in the practice and teaching of pastoral care.

The Revd Anne Holmes, a former NHS mental-health chaplain, is a psychotherapist and self-supporting minister in Oxford diocese.

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