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What can dreams tell us?

12 February 2016

Anne Holmes queries letting the clergy loose on them


Dreams and Spirituality: A handbook for ministry, spiritual direction and counselling
Kate Adams, Bart J. Koet, and Barbara Koning, editors
Canterbury Press £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50


I AM in two minds about this book. The authors have identified a gap in the literature as they offer a double challenge. On the one hand, they draw on the importance of dreams in biblical literature, and in most non-Western cultures, to question Western resistance to dream interpretation outside a psychotherapeutic setting. On the other hand, they seek, self-consciously, to challenge the 20th-century claim of psychologists in general, and psychoanalysts in particular, to be expert in the interpretation of dreams.

While taking care not to dismiss the importance of the ground-breaking work of Freud and Jung, the authors encourage all pastors to include dreams in their conversations with those who seek their help.

This handbook is divided into three parts: the first offers tools for the understanding of dreams from theological, psychological, and cultural-anthropological disciplines. The second uses empirical data, theories, and reflection to explore the themes of dreams and religion. Finally, the third part explores dreams and pastoral-care practice for various contexts and situations. At the end of each part are two dream narratives.

The stated aim of the editors is to provide “an original, broad, systematic, research-informed, theoretical and practical guide for ministers, spiritual directors and counsellors across a range of caring professions which enables them to understand the nature of dreams and the roles they play in the lives of those in their pastoral care”.

As an ordained group-analyst, I have three concerns: first, although I work routinely with dreams in my clinical work with individuals and groups, I have not so far introduced them into my work as a supervisor or spiritual director. This may reflect my concern to work within the separate structures and boundaries of different professional frameworks. It does not mean that if someone asks me to listen to a dream in a non-clinical meeting that I would not do so. It simply doesn’t usually come up, and it would seem intrusive to suggest otherwise.

My second concern is that, in the Church of England, training in pastoral care is patchy and, I suspect, less rigorous than the Clinical Pastoral Education background of many of the authors of this handbook. While self-awareness is encouraged, there are no real checks and balances on the tendency of many clergy to expect to be able to do everything themselves. Some training beyond a careful reading of this handbook would, in my view, be essential.

Third, while pastoral supervision and referral to specialists are encouraged in some chapters, I believe that the case for supervision should be made much more robustly. The culture in ministry is changing, as evidenced by recent excellent books on pastoral supervision, but it is still seen as optional, and is rarely financed by the church authorities.

This fascinating collection of texts offers an enriched understanding of the value of dreams for people with appropriate training in and experience of dream-work. I welcome it as a lively contribution to pastoral theology. Readers new to the idea of working with dreams should begin by considering their own dreams, however, preferably with help, and not regard this handbook as the only training that they need in order to listen and respond to the dreams of others.


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

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