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Angela Tilby: Pastors, not persuaders, are needed

25 June 2021

Canon Patience Purchas (Obituary, 20 December 2013)

Canon Patience Purchas (Obituary, 20 December 2013)

DURING the ordination season, I often think of Canon Patience Purchas, who was director of ordinands in St Albans diocese at the time I was exploring my vocation. Patience was a brisk but smiling presence, with just the right degree of scepticism to do the job. She said to me once that, while she welcomed the number of ordinands who saw themselves as teachers of the faith, she regretted the scarcity of pastors. (This was in the 1990s, long before the selection criteria moved away from pastoral care in favour of mission).

As a more natural teacher myself, I noted what she said, and tried to learn from the pastoral care that I had received, dwelling on what had made me feel valued and cared for. I realised that you can’t do pastoral ministry unless you have a heart. Even thinking types can get there in the end, if they work on it. Yet, if there was a scarcity of pastors 25 years ago, there is a famine today. Those preparing for ordination often make clear their zeal to do stuff, to enable change, to convert outsiders, or to convince those who appear merely to occupy pews to become activists for Jesus — plus equality, diversity, or, at least, climate change. All this essentially involves persuasion: talking at people (or making them do clever little exercises) until they come to agree with you.

The result, I fear, is that we have become a rather bossy Church, driven by a need to have our message heard and acted on. Pastoral ministry, in contrast, is quiet and grounded. Pastors listen before they speak. They enter others’ abandonment and grief. And, in this respect, they seem to me to imitate the ministry of Jesus, who so often began by asking those who came to him: “What do you want?” Like any skilled physician, he listened before he spoke; he made a diagnosis before he delivered the medicine. He did not rebuke the sick but the illnesses which oppressed them. Compassion was always more important than righteousness.

My ministry has taught me that it is no use showing that you are cleverer than your congregation, nor is it any help telling people what they should think, or calling out their prejudices. A deacon is a servant, a priest is a shepherd — and both need patience, resilience, and an ability to manage their own anxieties. Counting scalps has nothing to do with Christian love, nor does forced change, even when it is called “enabling”.

So, I hope that there are some wily pastors among those being ordained this year, who have managed to slip through a selection process designed to put them off or weed them out — and some contemplatives, poets, and steady, gentle people as well; ministers-to-be who may not always have answers, but are not afraid of questions.

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