THE word “tragedy” is too often trivialised. Relatively commonplace events are routinely described as tragic, so that the word ceases to convey the profound intensity of shock, suffering, and psychological disorientation which it should properly convey.
So, the first thing to be said in welcoming this important book of essays is that it takes tragedy seriously. Individuals and communities, traumatised by tragedy, need to be understood and supported by dedicated professionals, but also by those with whom they share on a daily basis their dis-ease of body, mind and spirit.
Trauma is defined as that which overwhelms our capacity to cope with our experience and which breaks connections — to ourselves, to others, to resources, to our frames of reference.
Christian congregations are not immune to the changes and challenges caused by traumatic events occurring in the communities where they live and work and worship: Aberfan, Grenfell Tower, the London Bridge attacks, and now coronavirus confront us all with challenges unprecedented in modern times.
But events in a congregation can also cause profound disturbance and disorientation. The suicide of a church member, financial impropriety, and sexual scandals confront congregants, and especially religious leaders, with consequences for which they are all too often ill prepared.
That is why this collection of clear and compassionate essays, sponsored by the Tragedies and Congregations Project at the University of Exeter, matters so much. It helps to prepare Christian individuals and congregations to respond appropriately, and to be resilient in the face of such sudden devastating events.
It does so, first of all, by identifying the characteristics of trauma in individuals and communities. Psychological and biological factors influencing responses to traumatic occurrences are classified in the interests of simply understanding what is going on with people’s minds and bodies at such times.
This ensures that the book is a study in practical theology, telling it as it is before mining seams of biblical and theological wisdom to inform pastorally sensitive ministry in adversity. Such theological explorations, encompassing a wide range of congregational manifestations, are followed by a rich account of liturgical responses, many of which have been used in real-life situations, and are reproduced here in appendices.
The next series of essays describe the kinds of pastoral resources applicable to a range of contexts and eventualities. Ruth Layzell’s contribution is particularly helpful in equipping responders to identify who needs pastoral care, of what kind, and by whom. This chapter should be required reading for all those in congregational leadership positions, or in training for them.
This leads appropriately into implications for the care and self-care of ministers. An extended annotated interview with Dr Sarah Horsman draws on her unrivalled experience as Warden of the Sheldon (Mary and Martha) Community in Devon.
This book is not an easy or comfortable read, nor should it be. Perhaps it is somewhat repetitious and a trifle patronising at times, and could benefit from greater theological coherence. But Bishop James Jones, whose deeply moving and thoughtful foreword is itself worth the asking price, sums up its importance perfectly:
“If only people of faith would connect more with the issues of tragedy and trauma in which ordinary people are immersed then there would be a broader bridge between the Church and the world over which we could travel. This book broadens that bridge. I wish I had been able to read it at the outset of my ministry.”
The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.
Tragedies and Christian Congregations: The practical theology of trauma
Megan Warner, Christopher Southgate, Carla A. Grosch-Miller and Hilary Ison, editors
Church Times Bookshop £103.50