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Shepherds turned into sheepdogs

21 July 2017

Pastoral care is not about rounding up an ever smaller flock, argues Nicholas Henshall


AMONG the many targets currently chosen to explain or excuse the Church of England’s decline over the past half-century, is it possible to hazard another?

The attempt by Professor Linda Woodhead and Andrew Brown, in That Was the Church That Was: How the Church of England lost the English people (Books, 29 July 2016), to explain it through the decisions of senior leaders since the 1980s seemed as unlikely as the evidence they supplied was slim. The Ven. Bob Jackson, who has argued that there is a realistic hope of growth, has been on much firmer ground in his analyses (Comment, 29 February 2014).

But changing assumptions about the part played by parochial clergy, and how they spend their time, suggest that pastoral practice is at least part of the story.

This is well captured by a recent interview process for a new vicar. It was suggested to the parish reps that they were appointing a vicar for their parish, not a chaplain for their congregation. They were baffled by the distinction, and the bishop remarked that no one thought like that any more. Apparently, we were there simply to appoint an ordained parish administrator. Providentially, the successful candidate saw it very differently, and is doing a great job as a parish priest.

On the Anglican model, if the Church ceases to be for and of its community, but is simply “in” it, then it loses its mission fields, and misses almost entirely the arena of God’s action to which God has called it. It is a missiological disaster, in which the

priest becomes sheepdog, not shepherd, rounding up an ever smaller flock, and serving the perceived pastoral needs of an entitled and increasingly inward-facing group who have reconstructed worship as the cultivation of an esoteric spirituality rather than a clarion call to community engagement.

That little word “pastoral” is the villain in the case. The so-called crisis of identity for clergy over the past half-century led denominations in different directions. Pope Paul VI’s novel introduction of the renewal of ordination vows on Maundy Thursday was emblematic of largely failed attempts to stem the tide and reassert episcopal authority (which might make us ask why this service has curiously become so popular in Anglican dioceses).


FOR Church of England Anglicans, the crisis demonstrated itself quietly, but in a much more deadly fashion: by redefining pastoral care.

In the Christian tradition, pastoral care is a big concept that holds together a range of hard and soft disciplines and practices, but with a fundamentally outward-facing, missional orientation based around Luke 4 and Matthew 25: engagement with society, with a particular concern for the poor and the marginalised, and with a prophetic emphasis on the transformation of unjust structures in society.

This is the magnificent biblical understanding of pastoral care which echoes down the centuries of the Church, from St Augustine of Hippo, St Gregory the Great, and St John Chrysostom to Octavia Hill, Josephine Butler, and William Temple.

Over the past half-century, it has become a caricature. Lost clergy, often unable to negotiate their changing social status or new theological challenges, fell back simply on running churches for the people who went to them, limiting the size and growth of congregations by the limits of their own ability to provide “pastoral care” for these people. On the way, they subverted pastoral care from being a prophetic leadership position in the wider community to the provision of afternoon chats for people with too much time on their hands. Shepherds turned into sheepdogs.

In the Anglo-Catholic mining-town church where I served my title 30 years ago, Eleanor Strang, the head flower-lady, said to me, three months in: “Father, it’s nice that you’ve been visiting members of the congregation — but you’re meant to be out there, aren’t you?”

Brilliant. She knew that the church was not a hospital ward for lonely people, but the training ground for disciples, and the priest was both prophetic leader of that community and at the sharp end of its visible, representative ministry in the wider world. She understood that the Church delivers most of its mission through the strength of its networks.

Karl Rahner classically defined pastoral care as a dynamic ecclesiology capable of illuminating what the Church must do, here and now, to fulfil faithfully and effectively its mission in the world.

For the Church of England, it means rediscovering that ministry is fundamentally outward-facing, and effective only in so far as it is community based; and reimagining the practice of pastoral care not as a series of soft inward-facing disciplines — which are the business of the congregation to provide, anyway — but as the foundation of the Church’s prophetic and evangelistic voice in and for the world. Now that sounds like a task worth doing.


The Very Revd Nicholas Henshall is the Dean of Chelmsford. He spent 14 years as an inner-city parish priest in Newcastle upon Tyne, six years on the staff of Derby Cathedral, and five years as a parish priest in North Yorkshire.

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