June 2012


Christian Theology in Practice


Discovering a Discipline


Bonnie J. Miller –McLemore


Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan 2012




I have had a rather frustrating time of late due, in part, to a paucity of stimulating reading in the area of the theory of pastoral and practical theology. Most of the books that pass across my desk seem to have a rather tired feel about them and lack real intellectual skill and practical interest. At last here is a book that has lived up to expectations and one which really does do what it claims on front and back covers.




Miller -McLemore is Professor of pastoral theology at Vanderbilt University Divinity School. The key qualities of this particular book are its careful organisation, the rigour and clarity of the writing and its constant ability to be able to open up key questions in the area of both the theory and practice of pastoral and practical theology. Put another way this book got me excited again about the field and led me to ask more questions about my own thinking and engagement in the areas of gerontology end of life care and narratology.




The book is organised into three parts. The first part (living web: a subject matter) offers us an overview of the terrain as the author explores the state of pastoral theology, the concept of living document and web, the nature of pastoral theology as public theology which neatly leads into a chapter which offers a definition of  Practical theology. The second part  (practical wisdom: a way of knowing) further explores issues of epistemology showing us that pastoral theology can be subversive if we expose it to some rigorous criticism especially in the area of the relationship between the clerical and academic paradigm. Throughout this section the author asks us to think about how we know what we think we know! Finally part three (gender: a key category of analysis) reminds men and women of the importance of feminist studies on the field. In particular to essays look at the relationship between psychology and religion. While it is important to note that some of these essays have been published elsewhere Miller- McLemore pays meticulous attention to the context within which these previous essays have been written and published and stimulates the reader further by offering a critique of each piece of work as they relate to the whole.




The other key feature of this book is that it is well researched and the author gives a clear outline of the field and areas that deserve a further examination.




There are two particular issues that this book raises that I want to explore in a little further depth.




In a section that is given the provocative title violating religious and theological decorum (page 153 and following) the author invites the reader to think about resistance, conflict and confrontation.it follows from this perspective that the context within which theology is ‘done’ shapes the content. Adequate theological method in practical theology must attend to the messy, dirty, earthy side of life! The Church must be present in places where it can be weather-beaten, where there is inevitable edginess and risk. With increasing numbers of people attracted to religion for reasons of stability and conservatism it is interesting to ask how our decorum might be violated for the sake of integrity, passion and change.




Once upon a time (as they say in all best storybooks) there was a sense in which the task of Ministry or discipleship for all of God’s people was seen to be an application of the theory of theology of the body of knowledge. This knowledge was built up in the tradition of the Church through its understanding of Scripture and the tradition. For many years pastoral and practical theology was simply a matter of applying knowledge through worship, pastoral care and the engagement with individuals and families at key moments in their lives.


In the last few years, several people have begun to question the cognitive or cerebral definition of practical theology’s task. The most far reaching conversations relate to the re-conceiving of practice. Miller McLemore suggests that there is an impoverished understanding of practice and this is a serious part of the problem in theological education. There is a failure to include practice in the areas of Bible, history, systematic theology and ethics and to see that such disciplines are themselves a form of practice.




Picking up the work of Farley we glimpsed something of a redefinition of his heady concept of habitus. This refers to the profound, life orienting, identity shaping participation in the constitutive practices of Christian life. Education therefore especially in pastoral practical theology must take place in close relationship to practice. Habitus moves away from technological and abstract knowledge towards knowledge gained in community, through history, as a result of concrete, complex, holistic engagement in Christian faith as a way of life.


It would be easy to underestimate the radical suggestion in this argument both for the way we learn theology but also in the progressive view that knowledge can indeed be shaped by practice. This is a view of religion and religious truth stands in sharp contrast to much of the culture of today’s church.




Bonnie Miller McLemore is a skilled guide through this interesting geography. A clear and informative map to be both read and practised.










The dawn light. A light rain.
I hear it on the treetop leaves.
Then, the mist. The morning wind
blows it and the clouds away.

Now colours deepen, and a sense of grace:
the presence of water.
And then, across the landscape
the smell of morning rain.


Du Fu (712-770 AD)

Sometimes life moves at such a busy pace that it’s easy to think of it as just one thing after another. I think we probably spend too little time processing things, though I was glad to be warned by a friend that too much self-introspection is not entirely healthy!


Last weekend I spent two nights in Zürich at either end of a very full public day of lectures on conversations about assisted suicide. It was the gathering of world right to die societies in a place, of course, that has become rather famous for its liberal laws in this area of living and dying. I think that I had not quite anticipated the shape and culture of this gathering – committed, energetic, political and very sophisticated groups articulating with some force and clarity the absolute right of the individual for choice and self-determination.


Speaker after speaker celebrated the achievements of EXIT and put a consistent case for an assisted suicide. If there was any sense of there being a rather complicated set of arguments against assisted suicide these were not apparent. With an evangelical fervour the large assembled group delighted in the stories of a good death by way of this kind of assistance.


Here is my central dilemma. I have some instinctive sympathy with wanting to live in a liberal and progressive democracy that offers freedom and choice to citizens. Who would really want to turn the clock back and see the forces of homophobia, racial prejudice, misogynism run havoc with people’s lives? Is it possible to see communities and society as inclusive and wholly orientated around human flourishing? How much further to we need to go in order to see barriers broken down and achieve a deeper and more lasting practice of equality and dignity? The present law in the UK is a strange mixture of incoherence and steady maintenance of the status quo. The critique of the law is powerful and persuasive one but in the end I’m not convinced that it is right to implement a change which would shift so many relationships and realities in this area of care and support. I think quite simply that there needs to be more conversation and outside of the narrow constructing frameworks of medicine and the law. At the heart of all of this is our own relationship with death and whether in the end it is right to allow us to control our deaths as we sometimes have the right to control so many other aspects of our lives.


As I sat scribbling away listening to speaker after speaker in Zürich I experienced a significant amount of unease. There is something about this debate that is out of kilter with our inner spiritual selves. The problem for the church is   that if we keep on insisting that assisted suicide or dying is always wrong then we run the danger of closing down dialogue and allowing some creativity to urge as people consider what it means to be human and what place lost change and death have in our view of what we might need to do to be whole and indeed free.


As I rose to my feet to offer my reflections I sensed that the group, though polite, had no time for this philosophy which even felt, perhaps, like confused procrastination.


Here are a couple of the core messages of my presentation.


We cannot demand the freedom to choose at any cost. I understand that there are significant difficulties in with the current law in the United Kingdom. My visit to Switzerland with the Commission last year to learn something of the law and practice here raised many more questions about the way a culture views life, death, and the freedom to choose. Legislation does not resolve some of the profoundest of questions about human life and the conditions for its flourishing. It left me feeling that, however complex this area of human life is, it cannot be dealt with through the law or medicine alone. We need a broader and richer narrative within which to locate our experiences of death and dying.

Part of this exploration must take into consideration the intense poverty of language and the purpose and shape of our words. How do we find the language within which to give any sense of the meaning and shape of our lives beyond the superficially immediate and physical ? Has modernity for all its progression left us content?


I think that we need to support a wider cultural engagement with our relationship to death. All of us swim in the one sea of our lives, trying to stay afloat as best we can, clinging to such preservers as we might draw about us: reason and science, faith and religious practice, art, music and imagination. But in the end, we all sink; we all die. I doubt whether many of us have really come to terms with our mortality. Somehow our fears can still take hold. We may want to assert our right to control without attending to the hinterland of our inner world.  The map of dying and death remains foreign, an un-negotiable land. We should all attempt to humble ourselves before this reality. We need to engage in dialogue to own and perhaps even change the map of life and death — to enable people and systems to ensure that everyone is given the opportunity to live well and die well in the place and manner of their choosing.

There is a fundamental question about how and whether we own our death.


I doubt very much whether any of this made much difference but one of the things that I do need to think further about is how all we might be able to move this debate into the public arena so that a richer dialogue and narrative can take place.Is there any space between the two polarised views for wisdom?


The organisation that goes into Garter day here in Windsor Castle is quite extraordinary.There are the rehearsals, careful planning of time, consideration of the unpredictable nature of our English weather, organisation of security, music, military bands, processions, guards of honour, press, allocation of seats in the Chapel and the organisation of many hundreds of people who gather in the Castle to experience the event – the list could go on and on.

The day got off to a poor start with persistent rain.We gathered in Chapel early for matins followed by the Eucharist for are transferred St George’s Day at the HighAltar.  The silence and space of the Chapel continue to shape my own growth in the spiritual life. Somehow this building helps to put life into some measure of perspective mainly by reminding me (and I pray others) that so many of our preoccupations and concerns are so trivial in the light of the sheer vastness of the presence of God in time and beyond into eternity. I pray that both self preoccupation and selfishness might be transformed and transfigured by the mercy of God.

As the prayer for St George is offered with its theme of courage the military bands are to be heard practising outside within the castle walls. Perhaps in 21st-century England there is a struggle and even battle for the integrity and truth of the Christian voice.In this secular world so many dismiss who we are and what we stand for.

There are many people moving around the castle each with their allotted tasks.for those of us who live here there is an opportunity to offer hospitality to friends and College guests.So much of the morning is taken up with the preparation for lunch prior to the service at three o’clock.An air of anticipation and preparation fills the cloisters.


I spend most of the earlier part of the morning preparing the table and always enjoy gathering people around it. I have 16 guests for lunch, including some old friends who I haven’t seen for a while.it will be a simple cold lunch of Salmon, Coronation Chicken and Quiche. Champagne and some very decent white burgundy I hope will help us along our way.

As 12 o’clock strikes first guests arrive at the party gets underway – lots of conversation and laughter and goodwill throughout the house.
the food is appreciated and I enjoy the connecting people with each other – careful consideration of the seating plan helps renew old friendships and perhaps even forge new ones.

So we moved to Pudding and then some space to brush down, put on hats on and then we move to the Chapel. There is a tangible sense of excitement as I see my guests to their seats. The Chapel is filling up and I then moved to the Galilee porch where the canons are required to meet and greet. There is a sound of music and a great deal of noise from the guests standing and seated on the grass below the military Knights houses in Lower Ward. Soldiers take their place at the band marches past and slowly the guests emerge .

We then take our place for the procession.We join the Garter Knights as they come through the horseshoe cloister ready to ascend the steps the West End of St Georges Chapel. There is a fanfare of trumpeters heralding the arrival of the sovereign and the service begins. It is always very good to see the Chapel so packed and the worship unfolds with majestic music, hymns , prayers and Scripture.

Finally at the end we take our place in the procession out of the Chapel and moved towards some tea to sustain travellers on their way.gradually the castle empties and we are left – some of us to do a great deal of washing up – but there is a quiet and empty space of the Chapel where a few of us gather to say evening prayer at six o’clock. The noise and activity at the grandeur of the day take their proper place within the discipline of our regular prayer.There is of course much to be thankful for as we ask God’s blessing the ministry and mission of this place.

A small glimpse of Garter day 20 12.

May God save our gracious sovereign, and all the companions living and departed of the most honourable and Noble order of the Garter.


the day is remarkable
luminous, joyful
so easy, to live
with the taste of colour
love makes me laugh
and, at the last
moment, I open
my eyes.


  Paul Eluard, Serie

Table laid and now to the kitchen!

I think that some of you know that for much of last year I was involved in the Falconer Commission on assisted dying.Itwas a fascinating year and one  not without its measure of controversy.Much is made about my dissension from the main recommendations to change the law to allow  a very restricted group individuals in certain circumstances to seek assistance in ending their lives. I see from the editorial of today’s British medical Journal that there is a strong plea for medical organisations to stop their organised resistance to any shift in UK law.

So I’m just about to pack a bag and to fly off to Zürich to speak tomorrow at the International Convention of rights to die societies! Quite a gig as some might say… I’m not quite sure what I want to share with this large group will go down terribly well but I shall be fascinated to see the shape and culture of these groups gathered from across the world.

I’ll report back – if you are at all interested – but in the meantime in an airport terminal and exit take on quite a different shape and meaning…

Back on Saturday – I hope in one piece!




Lay me on an anvil, O God.
Beat me and hammer me into a crowbar.
Let me pry loose old walls.
Let me lift and loosen old foundations.

Lay me on an anvil, O God.
Beat me and hammer me into a steel spike.
Drive me into the girders that hold a skyscraper together.
Take red-hot rivets and fasten me into the central girders.
Let me be the great nail holding a skyscraper through blue nights into white stars.


Carl Sandburg – Prayers of Steel


I’ve tried the new moon tilted in the air
Above a hazy tree-and-farmhouse cluster
As you might try a jewel in your hair.
I’ve tried it fine with little breadth of luster,
Alone, or in one ornament combining
With one first-water start almost shining.

I put it shining anywhere I please.
By walking slowly on some evening later,
I’ve pulled it from a crate of crooked trees,
And brought it over glossy water, greater,
And dropped it in, and seen the image wallow,
The color run, all sorts of wonder follow.


Robert Frost, The Freedom of the Moon


Blossoms will run away,
Cakes reign but a Day,
But Memory like Melody
Is pink Eternally.


Emily Dickinson, Blossoms will run away

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