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Book review: Pastoral Care in Practice: An introduction and guide by Michael Hopkins

by
01 March 2024

A welcome introduction to relational ministry, says Peter McGeary

MANY years ago, in the pastoral idyll that was theological college, we were treated to weekly sessions on “pastoral care”. As is so often true of so much church discourse, the twin emphases were on sex and pain, and, in what, I believe, is still called “role play”, we were paired off to act out imagined constructions of pain and grief, and asked to “solve” them. What would you say to this person if they knocked at the vicarage door? What would you do?

To go with all this was a growing library of studies in what was called “pastoral care”, almost as if it were another academic subject. Some of these, of course, were very helpful: the SPCK Library of Pastoral Care series especially so. But too often these volumes gave the impression that this thing called “pastoral care” was an entity to be measured and applied, a set of skills to be acquired rather than a human disposition to be formed and prayed and shared.

Some years later, Kenneth Leech identified the problem in one of his finest books when he referred to this as the “bogus professionalisation of the clergy” (chapter 10, The Sky is Red, Darton, Longman & Todd).

That is why this admirably small book is so welcome. Michael Hopkins has considerable experience of ministry in the United Reformed Church; and perhaps this distance from Anglican experience is helpful here, as there are no assumptions at play when it comes to what can often be our hubris at being the “National Church” (whatever that is). There is nothing but the person and the faith that they bring to the pastoral encounter.

This book is brief, which, I hope, means that more people are likely to read all of it. Each chapter deals with different aspects involved in the building up of pastoral relationships, with some crucial features:

  • the importance of acknowledging the mutuality of pastoral relationships: I continue to marvel after all these years as a priest how the person I am meant to be visiting in hospital is ministering to me;
  • you actually have to like people! — this ought to be obvious, but it needs to be said; and
  • the importance of prayer, scripture, and self-reflection in maintaining balance and perspective.

Each chapter ends with a series of questions and a prayer for reflection or discussion. Throughout the book is the implicit assumption that what we call “pastoral care” is not the preserve of the clergy, but, rather, of all Christians, and it is not some daunting set of things to learn. It can involve doing somebody’s shopping; or making them laugh with silly jokes to make them smile in their miserable care home; or listening to them when they say that they have just done something really stupid and might be homeless next Tuesday — and everything in between.

By a country mile, this is the best book on the subject which I have read in years.


The Revd Peter McGeary is the Vicar of St Mary’s, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest-Vicar of Westminster Abbey.

 

Pastoral Care in Practice: An introduction and guide
Michael Hopkins
Canterbury Press £14.99
(978-1-78622-500-9)
Church Times Bookshop £11.99

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