URC :: Spirituality

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United Reformed Church Spirituality articles:

“Pastoral care” or “Spiritual direction”?

Mark Argent
5 August 2018

What does spiritual direction look like in a Reformed context?

It’s usually thought of as an ecumenical activity, and it is often seen as good for someone to go for direction to someone of another tradition, but there are nevertheless profound denominational accents. Both as director and directee there will be influences of heritage in play: the stories of those who have influenced us personally, and the bigger picture of the churches where those stories have been nourished.

The actual term “spiritual direction” tends to be heard most often in Roman Catholic and Anglican contexts. In that sense it will sound as if it is something being imported from elsewhere. Astute historians might want to question that. On the one hand, I remember an elderly Jesuit — now a very respected spiritual director — remembering the days when “If someone was no good at anything else they made him a spiritual director” and “you went to see your director once a month, and talked about the football”. He was thinking of the 1950s, before the second Vatican Council. One of the consequences of that revolution was the re-exploring of the individually-guided retreat in and beyond Roman Catholic circles since the 1970s. By that stage the worlds of psychoanalysis and counselling were well-established so it’s no great surprise that they should have had an impact on the one-to-one engagement of spiritual direction — with directors indebted to analysts, and analysts to directors.

But that is far from being the whole story. There’s a much older tradition of spiritual nurturing, whether that is John Henry Newman helping the young Gerald Manley Hopkins along his path into Catholicism, or the individual experiences of Anglican journeys during the Oxford movement, or the George Herbert model of an Anglican with the “cure of souls”. It seems quite natural to add to that list the territory explored by Richard Baxter in The Reformed Pastor. Baxter’s language belongs to another age, and its earnest tone might sit less easily on modern lips, but it is clearly espousing a model of pastoral care which is about deepening people’s spiritual lives — or perhaps it is about being with people in the deepest parts of their humanity, and enabling the spirtual to be nourished there.

I wonder: how far is pastoral care, notably by ministers and elders, where the place of spiritual direction is held in the URC? The addressing of specific problems in a person’s life clearly is part of the story in these engagements, but the underlying narrative is of listening, engaging and nurturing. I remember a wise minister saying “How can I preach to people on Sunday morning if I am not willing to sit down with them and listen on Monday?” In terms of “clergy time management” I suspect that URC ministers spend less time actually leading public worship than their Anglican or Catholic counterparts — who live with the expectation of a more set pattern of services and daily prayers — but without a prayer book to fall back on, there is significantly more work to be done in preparing worship.

Surely that too is a spiritual process: instead of imposing a prayer book, it’s seeking to engage people where they are — which happens to be a classic phrase to describe the spiritual direction encounter.

The one-to-one conversation which is part of Baxter’s bread-and-butter and is in the story of pastoral visiting seems also to be about engaging with people where they are — engaging with them as people with real stories, and facilitating the encounter with the divine. It’s less grand than the term “spiritual direction”, but I wonder how big the difference is. People in the URC who have undertaken in-depth training in spiritual direction are relatively few, but I don’t struggle to think of people with whom I’ve had conversations which have enriched me and my journey.

This has interesting implications for training in spiritual direction. It seems important to recognise the value of what the Reformed world brings: that is not to say that it is better or worse than other models, but in the ecumenical context, we short-change others if we don’t bring our contribution.

Sadly, spiritual direction training can bring a sense that the model and the denominational context of those offering it have a particular value, creating some crashings of gears for people from a URC background: perhaps there is something for being unashamed to bring a Reformed understanding of pastoral care to the process.