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From Feeling to Meaning - the doctrinal foundations of worship as the context for pastoral care

By Simon Reynolds.

During the past decade, there has been a growing interest in the relationship between liturgy and pastoral care. Much recent writing has highlighted the value of incorporating insights from the human sciences into the content and presentation of liturgy. This development, it could be argued, has contributed to a loss of recognition that, in many Christian traditions, worship is the primary embodiment of doctrine. If worship is to function effectively, both as the context for pastoral care, and as a starting point for mission, it requires a bold and creative reaffirmation of this doctrinal foundation.

The Church's worship is one of the defining characteristics of its own self-identity. In the dynamic inter-play of language heard and prayed, the character and identity of the ecclesial community is shaped.1 The liturgy is the environment where the hopes and hurts of human beings are caught up in the salvific action of God, where personal and public stories are brought together and made sense of within a framework of theology and history. It is the arena for envisioning growth and mission. In worship, the fundamental realities of divine, ecclesial and personal identity are held together in creative tension and exchange.

Worship ... is the place in which God makes himself known to humanity in a saving encounter. The human words and acts used in worship are a doctrinal locus insofar as either God makes them the vehicle of his self-communication or they are filling responses to God's presence and action.2

However, this exchange does not take place within a vacuum. Individuals are brought into the orbit of worship from a wider cultural context. They feed off, and feed into, the formation of public values and policies. Worship and society are both "moral contexts"3 in which values and expectations are shaped. If worship is to function as an effective means of pastoral care, the worshipping community must acknowledge that the values articulated in worship will often sharply conflict with those of its wider social and cultural setting. For, whilst worship exists for no other reason than the praise of the living God, it is nonetheless the place where worshippers are able to understand themselves and their social context in an explicitly theological perspective. If the celebration of the liturgy is to be the paradigmatic act of pastoral care4 it is so precisely because the liturgy embodies Scripture, prayer and theological tradition. Divested of these elements, both liturgy and pastoral care are incomplete.5

Theology, Liturgy and the Human Sciences

Throughout history, it is possible to see how worship has functioned as the primary act of pastoral care, as the Church's role in relationship to its context has developed and changed.6 For much of the twentieth century, however, the relationship between pastoral care and worship (such as it existed) was undergirded by the assumptions and values of the post-Enlightenment. The Church found itself competing in an ever larger market place, where clinical models of pastoral care were provided by others, including the medical profession. The Church, increasingly aware of the influence of these models, began to adopt them in isolation from its mainstream worshipping life. The insights of psychology were particularly pronounced, with very little attempt to relate them to the accumulated, corporate theological and ecclesiological tradition. Worship was sidelined as a context for pastoral care in the face of the growing influence of clinical models of pastoral care. Carl Rogers is, perhaps, the celebrated exponent of this 'value free' model of counselling, and his influence can still be keenly felt in much of the Church's pastoral practice.

The obvious difficulties with Rogers' approach are that, in order to provide a 'client' with the resources of psychology and other human sciences, the necessary theological perspective is marginalised or lost. In his critique of Rogers' work, Don Browning affirms the necessary rooting of pastoral care in an ecclesial context, undergirded by the resources of theological tradition. This has explicit consequences for the place of worship:

The minister has a clear duty to counsel the ill and the dying, but he should first have helped create a community with a religio-cultural view of the meaning of illness and death... The difficulty with much of pastoral counselling today is that more time is spent in discussing the tools of counselling than in the more challenging process of developing the structures of meanings that should constitute the context for counselling.7

The 'context' for counselling is much wider than individual experience, and effective pastoral care takes place in a dynamic interaction between community and uniqueness.8 People are cared for from a context of social networks, and worship provides a corresponding context of sociability in which people can both belong and express their individual identity:

Liturgy .. creates an environment in which human beings confront those sides of themselves which under normal circumstances they dare not face.9

Perhaps the late Cardinal Basil Hume's decision to announce that he was dying of cancer, the manner in which the announcement was made, and its content, provide an example of how this can happen effectively. The statement clearly placed the Cardinal's personal predicament within a firm theological framework, and sought to show how terminal illness can be understood within an eschatological framework. The media reaction at least suggested that his approach resonated with many people.

Theology and ecclesiology are the foundations for the life of the worshipping community in which pastoral care takes place. It is what Don Browning calls the "place of meaning". It is the place to which people come to be cared for from other places of meaning, where differing political and social values are formed. Worship then becomes the place where many meanings are brought together into the perspective of the triune God and human self-understanding. For, as Robin Greene maintains, in liturgy it is possible to transcend the givenness of 'ordinary' human relationships, and the status that either bonds or separates people outside a worshipping environment. I discovered an example of how this has been attempted during a recent period spent with the chaplains at Whitemoor Prison. Here, all the inmates who want to attend chapel are brought together for one act of worship, regardless of status. This means that segregated sex offenders worship alongside others. There is also a fundamental understanding that, whilst in the chapel complex, prison officers will show respect and understanding towards inmates; and that inmates will behave similarly towards prison officers. It struck me that, at the heart of this arrangement, was an attempt to live-out the theology of the Sabbath. For, at heart, the Sabbath is a desire to see relationships of domination and subservience suspended for a period of time.10 In the context of a prison, where relationships outside the environment of worship are markedly different, the liturgy provides a 'place of meaning' in which pastoral care is informed by theological tradition and an attempt to interpret the tradition for a particular context.

Self and Social

Liturgy is a corporate activity which forges identity and the characteristics of belonging. The worship of the triune God, coupled to an experience of mutuality, provides an environment into which people can come from an increasingly rootless and individualistic society and find a place of belonging. Recent writing11 highlights how worship is able to communicate at a variety of levels in such an environment. It meets the basic human need to make sense of experience, where words and symbols nourish both the analytical as well as the unconscious. Worship is able to communicate at depth, and to touch parts of the human psyche that more obviously rational forms of communication cannot. Elaine Ramshaw acknowledges the importance of the symbolic in situations which "threaten meaning and coherence". This is amply borne out by the way in which communities (and nations) respond to events of tragedy or transition. The whole 'Diana' phenomenon epitomises the way in which people were bound together by corporate symbolic acts, whether in the lighting of candles, the placing of flowers or similar gestures. Yet this also raises immediate questions for other dimensions of worship and pastoral care. As was evident at the time of Diana's death, when people were seeking to express themselves in the face of tragedy, there was little evidence that the Church as a whole made any conscious effort to connect their grief to the Christian metanarrative. If people only want to worship at times of crisis, the relationship between worship and pastoral care is undermined. When pastoral care is understood purely in terms of a response to a situation of crisis, it becomes deeply dysfunctional. This is why there is also a basic need for integrity, both in the content of worship and in the way in which it is interpreted. The form and content of liturgy, as well as the manner in which it is celebrated, demand that we are explicit about what values, and what theological and ecclesial assumptions, are being articulated. Otherwise, the end result will be the coercion of those who come to worship, and an undermining of Christian tradition and practice.

If worship provides an environment of integrity, space needs to be given for people to come with the dissonance and fragility which punctuates their lives. In this way liturgy provides "a passage from feeling to meaning".12 Because worship is wider than the particularities of a person's individual experience, it is able to embrace the polarities of light and darkness which are present both in the life of an individual, and in the life of the community and the world. Echoing C.G. Jung, Robin Greene suggests that, through words and symbols, worship not only enables us to touch the depths of human experience, but it also protects us from being overwhelmed by them precisely because they are contained within a framework of patterned ritual.13 It is in this respect that the anamnetic quality of worship becomes important for pastoral care. People come, with their own memories of the past, in the hope of being sustained, healed and restored. In the encountering of the words and symbols of the tradition, they discover that people in the past have come with similar needs and experiences. It is a way of enabling the past to be acknowledged, so that people are liberated to embrace the future. It is in this respect that the healing and sustaining power of symbolism becomes vital, both as a way of helping people to make sense of their own past and present fragility, and in enabling them to embrace the promise of new life. This is a significant issue, both for pastoral care and mission, if the Church is to minister effectively in a culture where the visual (in the form of television, video and computer) is the prevailing mode of communication, and language is increasingly pictorial and concrete:

Liturgy, as divine drama, tells again the old, old story ... [it] demands words and images of wisdom and power, theologically significant body language, lights, colours, smells and food. If we are asking contemporary culture to 'come and see', we must have something to show them as well as something to say.14

Liturgy and Pastoral Care as Mission

Sometimes, good liturgy attracts enquirers into the life of the Church. More significantly, it almost always plays an influential part in enabling people to grow and become rooted in the Christian community after initiation.15 A growing interest in the catechumenate as a model of Christian nurture has endorsed this, whilst also highlighting the need for churches which welcome new enquirers to respect their background and experience, and to acknowledge their pre-Church life as a valid part of their pilgrimage.16 There is a challenge here to the Church to be attentive; and, from the perspective of its corporate liturgical pattern, to be sensitive to individual needs. This is rooted in the claim that, in Jesus Christ, there is a unique and individual moment of disclosure, where it is possible to see the totality of human life in a new and transformed way.17 This is a necessary prerequisite, particularly because people are often prompted to embrace the Christian faith at times of crisis. Times of crisis are often linked to a sense of sin, and it is vital that the ethical dimensions of Christian theological tradition are linked to a clear sense of healing and forgiveness. This is further emphasised by the value, both liturgically and psychologically, of touch (linked to the healing action of Jesus in the gospels), especially if a person feels isolated by their sense of sin. This can become integral to the functions of blessing or the proclamation of forgiveness:

What needs to be renewed is the confidence in God's intention to come to us through human symbols of words and gesture. When God's invitation is understood as the basis of ritual authority .. a lively sense of grace will put the authority where it belongs and produce some surprises.18

The physical dimension of the rites of initiation highlight this, through the combination of the laying on of hands, signing with the cross, pouring of water and anointing with oil. These actions, however, are not simply isolated, therapeutic acts which exist for their own sake. They link those who receive and participate in them to the accumulated experience of Christian faith, and are a potent expression of a person's belonging within the bonds of Christian community.

Presence and Proclamation

Geoffrey Wainright has noted that liturgy is the most concrete means of proclamation, in which Scripture and theological identity are made explicit.19 Similarly, pastoral care is a proclamation of the presence of God among his people. The relationship between the sources and data of Christian tradition, and the concrete presence of God among his people, is of the esse of worship and pastoral care. It is a relationship which is also located in the preaching office.

Neville Clark has stated that preaching is "tradition in motion".20 Both worshipping community and Scripture are in dynamic relationship to each other within the wider context of the human condition and the prevailing cultural milieu. Both the proclamation of the word, and the proclamation of God's presence among his people demand an attentive obedience to the totality of Scripture, and an echoing of its pattern in ecclesial community and mission to the wider culture. Preaching highlights the extent to which 'moral contexts' meet. The relationship between preaching and pastoral care is made explicit by Robin Greene's identification of a four-fold structure to sermon and pastoral counselling.21 Both consist of an identification of an issue; a reconstruction of the issue; theological reflection and diagnosis; pastoral interventions and initiatives resulting from the reflection. Around this structure, Greene suggests, there is the issue of integrity in the presentation of accurate empathy. For, when listeners lose touch with what is preached, they lose touch with themselves.

When my father died from cancer a couple of years ago, the funeral was arranged during the course of a twenty-minute meeting (chiefly to agree hymns and readings!) with the local Roman Catholic priest. The Requiem Mass was dominated by the language and imagery of rest. It did not reflect the determination displayed by my father to fight for life. It failed to connect immediately with the experience of those mourning him, and the truth of the circumstances leading up to his death. The sermon was preached by an Anglican priest and friend of the family. In contrast to the rest of the liturgy, it was dominated by the language of resurrection, and echoed my father's determination to live. It reflected an attentiveness to the context and a concern to accurately empathise. It invested the event with meaning when meaning was in danger of being lost. The Christian metanarrative and the experience of the worshipping community were able to be brought together. There was a movement from feeling to meaning.

The celebration of the liturgy enables such a meeting of narrative and experience. It constitutes a relationship between human identity and theological disclosure.22 It defines the shape of the community and helps to locate individual meaning and identity within the ecclesial community and the broad sweep of theological tradition. It makes sense of the value commitment of the individual in relation to the ecclesial community, and the ecclesial community's relationship to its wider, surrounding cultural context. The celebration of the liturgy is the place where humanity is taken up into the life of the triune God:

What matters most is that there is the encompassing knowledge that, from the cradle to the grave, the pastoral responsibility to humankind, breathtaking, simple and impossible, is to enfold them within the humanity of Christ by enclosing them within his cross and resurrection, and thus to prepare them in life for death and in death for life.23

Footnotes: 1. See W Taylor Stevenson "Lex Ordandi Lex Credendi" in ed. Sykes, Booty and Knight, The Study of Anglicanism, London, SPCK 1988 (Rev 1998) p.188.  Return 2. Geoffrey Wainright Doxology, quoted in Maxwell Johnson "Liturgy and Theology" in Liturgy in Dialogue, Paul F Bradshaw and Bryan D Spinks (eds), London, SPCK, 1993, p.202.  Return 3. This expression was first used in Don Browning, 1he Moral Context of Pastoral Care, Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1976.  Return 4. This assertion is made in Elaine Ramshaw, Ritual and Pastoral Care, Philadelphia, Fortress, 1987.  Return 5. See William H Willimon, Worship as Pastoral Care, Philadelphia, Abingdon, 1979, p.41.  Return 6. See William A Clebsch and Charles A Jaeckle, Pastoral Care in Historical Perspective, Englewood Cliffs, Prentice, 1964.  Return 7. Don Browning, The Moral Context of Pastoral Care, Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1976. pp.108-9.  Return 8. See Robin Greene, Only Connect: Worship and Liturgy from the Perspective of Pastoral Care, London, Darton, Longman & Todd, 1987, p 8.  Return 9. Greene op cit p 8.  Return 10. see Exodus 20:8-11.  Return 11. see Greene op cit p.13; also Ramshaw op cit p.25.  Return 12. Greene op cit p.43.  Return 13. Greene op cit p.76.  Return 14. Andrew Walker, Telling the Story: Gospel Mission & Culture, London, SPCK, 1996, p.99.  Return 15. John Finney, Finding Faith Today, Swindon, Bible Society, 1994, p.9.  Return 16. See for example Peter Ball, The Adult Way to Faith, London, Mowbray, 1996.  Return 17. See Greene op cit p.15.  Return 18. Ramshaw op cit p.61ff.  Return 19. Geoffrey Wainright, Doxology: Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine and Life, New York, CUP, 1980, p 175.  Return 20. Neville Clark, Preaching in Context: Word, Worship & the People of God, Rattlesden, Kevin Mayhew.1991, p.16.  Return 21. Greene op cit p.112.  Return 22. See Elaine L Graham, Transforming Practice: Pastoral Theology in an Age of Uncertainty, London, Cassell, 1996, p.116.  Return 23. Neville Clark, Pastoral Care in Context, Rattlesden, Kevin Mayhew, 1992, p.108.  Return

Simon Reynolds is an Anglican ordinand studying at Westcott House, Cambridge

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You are reading From Feeling to Meaning - the doctrinal foundations of worship as the context for pastoral care by Simon Reynolds, part of Issue 18 of Ministry Today, published in February 2000.

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