91 Modern Church Conference

This week I am on yet another conference, but this time in Britain.  It is a gathering of around 80 people who are supporters of an approach to theology which is broad, liberal and inclusive.  I have not been to the conference before but I decided to come because the organisation has graciously over the past couple of years published four articles by me so I felt it important to meet them.  As is typical of conferences of this kind, the conversations are the key part of what brings one to these sort of gatherings.  I make a rule never to sit with the same person twice at meals so that I have met up with a wide range of people as a result.  There are also two or three individuals who I knew from college days 40+ years ago and it is good to meet up with them again.

Among the talks we have listened to over the past three days on a variety of topics, there was one that stood out as being good to share with the blog.  It was a discussion on a little known passage in I Thessalonians 2.7-8 where Paul likens his ministry to that of a nursing mother.  Emma Percy, the speaker,  sees the nursing mother as a paradigm for pastoral ministry.  This surprising metaphor seems to work at various levels.  It points to a relationship of tenderness and care between the pastor and congregant.  Although there is an obvious mismatch of power between mother and child, there is no way that a mother would ever abuse that power and harm the infant in any way.  In the context of our concern to see that power is not abused in the pastoral relationship, it is of interest to ponder the nature of a  relationship where the ’leader’ cannot abuse the relationship.  I place the word leader in inverted commas, because the nursing mother metaphor makes it a decidedly inappropriate word to capture the nuance of Paul’s metaphor.

A further way in which the metaphor of nursing mother works as a description for the relationship of pastoral care, is the way that the supply of milk is (normally) experienced as inexhaustible.  Emma pointed to the way that  infant’s milk is something that flows through the mother.   It is as though the mother just has to put the child to the breast for the miracle to begin again.  This she likened to the experience of the Holy Spirit filling the pastor with the words of comfort and consolation that appear apt to each occasion.  That is indeed my own experience of pastoral care working properly.  Meeting people at times of need, does seem to draw on a fountain of wisdom and grace which flows through one in a most extraordinary way.  Once again power abuse is ruled out of any pastoral encounter of this kind.

There were other points made in the talk but it was refreshing to have set out a model of care that ruled out the possibility of power manipulation.  The New Testament is full of metaphors of this kind.  Each one can form a bulwark against the possibility of a ‘leader’ harming a congregant in order to satisfy a craving for domination.  Let us all be sensitised more and more against this sad andtragic feature of church life.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

7 thoughts on “91 Modern Church Conference

  1. Thank you for this attractive post exploring the value of the maternal and feminine metaphor for leadership. Such metaphors have been underemphasised in our culture. However, a note of caution is also appropriate, since there is a danger of idolising the maternal sometimes. It is simply not true that there is “no way” a human mother would ever abuse her power or harm her infant. In the context of human sinfulness, it would be more true to say that this will inevitably happen occasionally, but in functioning relationships the mother will repent and correct herself if she sees the child suffering, which she will feel as suffering in herself. More sinister from the point of view of this blog though, there are mothers who are willing to actively harm their children – Rosemary West would be an extreme example – and for some people who have suffered abuse at their mother’s hands, the mother metaphor can be as fraught with difficulty as the father metaphor is for many people.

  2. I too take the point. I heard Emma’s talk, and unlike Stephen I don’t read her as suggesting that a mothering model is some kind of protection from abuse. In fact, moved by her talk, I started reading her book “What clergy do – especially when it looks like nothing” which takes up many of the same themes. About a third of the way through, I discovered that her own mother had walked out on the family when she was quite young. As somone who at 70 is still wrestling with the effects of my own early family dynamics, I was so gobsmacked – that someone who has experienced THAT could still be so clearly a gifted mother, a gifted priest and so positive about the mother image – that I have had to put the book aside for a while. She sure knows about the besetting inadequacy and sin which afflicts mothers, fathers, friends, lovers and all the rest of us. But that does not invalidate what is good in her approach – and there is a great deal.

  3. I grant that Emma did not actually spell out such a claim about a freedom from abuse within the metaphor. I was reflecting on this metaphor in the light of the concerns of this blog. What she did say was that her book had been criticised for suggesting that the person being pastored was being infantilised by the relationship. Infantilisation is a form of abuse as the person concerned cannot grow up. The caring ‘good-enough’ mother will hopefully not commit this particular failing in rearing the child. Welcome Anthony. I hope you will moved to enter our conversations.

  4. Sad that you’re still living with the consequences, Anthony. Of course, I, in my 60s am still living with my upbringing, too. The sense of inadequacy, the inclination to assume it’s always your fault. It’s tough. There’s a lot in this genetics stuff, though! My son was not brought up as I was. But he is very like me, and has grown up with many of the same insecurities. The other one hasn’t! He is confident like his Dad!

  5. Anthony

    “What clergy do especially when it looks like nothing”? I’m not a time and motion man (More up the workers!) but that statement interests me, please explain more. Chris

  6. I find the metaphor to be lovely. And the mother must rest and replenish through self-care and nourishment, and that is provided for her by God. Jesus did tell Peter to feed His sheep. 😉

    As Steve Eichel and I discussed not too long ago, “The map is not the territory” and “the metaphor is not the map.” (It’s from Albert Korbyzki’s interest in semantics and how we can easily mistake them when we translate from reality into our understanding.) Analogies are helpful but are often imperfect.

    But I like the implication of beneficence and love between mother and child, too. There is a holy trust there that one would hope that a minister carries into their work.

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