Theological Reflection for Human Flourishing: Pastoral Practice and Public Theology: Helen Cameron, John Reader, Victoria Slater with Chris Rowland (SCM Press, 2012).
Back in the mists of time (2005 to be exact), I came up with the rather enigmatic title “Blurred Encounters” for a book which contained a mixture of direct practical parochial experience and somewhat obscure philosophy (“Blurred Encounters: A Reasoned Practice of Faith”, Aureus Publishing 2005). The title was always meant to be tongue in cheek and a reference to the famous wartime film “Brief Encounter”. It was my way of describing the nature and demands of crossing boundaries, both geographical and ideological in the course of ordinary parish ministry. Fortunately, other colleagues latched onto this idea and have found it helpful in characterising their experiences of ministry in other settings. An immediate consequence of this was a conference held atRiponCollege, Cuddesdon (OxfordUK) in 2008 and a subsequent book “Entering the New Theological Space: Blurred Encounters of Faith, Politics and Community” edited by Chris Baker and myself (Ashgate, 2009). A further response to both books was that they were both still somewhat top heavy with theory (although not to me of course!) and that what was required was something slightly more intellectually and financially accessible.
So in the spring of 2010 another conference was held at the same venue, but with rather more practical intent, inviting colleagues who regularly crossed the boundary between church and world, and using their own stories to produce a book which could present the value of describing ministry in this way. “Blurred encounters” was originally to feature in the subtitle, but publishing expediency has meant that it appears in the chapter titles and text instead. All of this is simply to say that “Theological Reflection for Human Flourishing” is “Son/Grandson of Blurred Encounters” and – thanks to my colleagues who have worked with the concept and taken the risk of showing how others might operationalise it – offers ways into the subject that require a much reduced acquaintance (none in fact) with obscure French philosophy.
The end product contains both some theoretical comments on the nature of theological reflection; thoughts on the context in which public theology is currently operating; powerful case studies emerging from the conference itself and the accounts of the participants; a fascinating chapter on the difficulties and challenges of bringing biblical work into the process of theological reflection based on the contribution of Chris Rowland; plus reference to the original ideas behind the blurred encounters approach. This is a book to be used and worked with as well as to be read and offers lived examples of the reality of the crossing of boundaries which is now such a feature of both pastoral practice and public theology. I personally find the case studies particularly powerful as they all avoid the temptation to present easy answers to the often intractable problems faced in front-line ministry. Our collective hope is that the book will be a resource and a support to others in the day to day situations we encounter and an encouragement to take risks in the relationships with others that form the heart of pastoral ministry. If I may refer back to one of my favourite sections of French philosophy, Derrida talks about the need to be “eaten well”. In other words, we have to be prepared to risk our integrity, tradition and identity (to be “eaten” or appropriated) if we are to engage effectively and lovingly where our Christian commitment demands it, so the task must be to ensure that “we are eaten well”. We hope and believe that the example of Jesus is that he was prepared to go beyond the confines of both culture and religious tradition in order to reach out to and encounter those who were “across the boundary” in some way. There was a cost to this as we know, but remaining within the confines and comfort of the known and familiar was not an option for him and should not be for us. As we follow this path, we suggest that to remain faithful we need to exercise the theological reflection which can equip us to respond appropriately to changed and confusing circumstances. Hence we offer some stories and some resources which we hope others will find of value.