A Sacramental Community for All

In practising its sacraments the Christian Church finds its deepest purposes reflected.  In the sacrament of baptism a person is brought into relational union with named persons (Father, Son, Spirit) and he or she obtains belongingness with the Church.[1]  In participating thereafter in the sacrament of communion the Christian continues in fellowship,[2] re-membering again her or his entry into and full participation within the ecclesia holy, catholic, and apostolic.[3]  What makes a congregation a church, in other words a bearer of the identifying marks of “The Church”, is found in its participants utilising opportunities to learn and teach the Word, the Sacraments, and Discipleship.    It is to the question of access to giving and receiving ministry in each of the cognitive, emotional, physical, social and spiritual domains that I wish to direct the attention of this essay.

I begin with the question of what might be a positive, inclusive Christian view of disability regarding the Church, its ministry, and its sacraments, and what is discordant about other views.  While liberationist theologies proclaim that there is no such thing as common human experience,[4] I offer that human experience itself suggests the same.  In this way to speak of “the disabled” is to offer a disservice to a broad group of people who are each unique.  Conversely the Church has, at times, considered all disabilities as either the consequence or punishment of sin, or a trial of obedience to be endured and welcomed.[5]  “The disabled” were therefore to be avoided as sinners, or venerated as living saints, but there seemed no place for them to be welcomed as sister-brothers. John Foskett, a mental health chaplain in the United Kingdom, noted that meaning can be found in suffering only through faith, scientific views of suffering cannot address the topic of meaning[6], but that is not to say that the purpose of suffering is meaning-making.  Suffering has no intrinsic purpose.  It is true that pastoral care which speaks of the hope found in Christ, even in the suffering of Christ himself, conveys love that secular forms of advice cannot,[7] but the theological meaning which can be found in mental illness does not mean that madness (to use Foskett’s own term) is a positive trait.

I once heard the story of a young woman who, while she was on her honeymoon, suffered a nerve injury which paralysed one side of her face.  She became frightened that her new husband would not want her any more.  “Perhaps”, she is said to have thought, “if we’d been married for a lifetime he would have that history of love to look back on, but with only our courtship and a few days of marriage what history do we have?”  The story ends with the young husband coming to the hospital and twisting his mouth around so that when he kissed his bride their lips would meet.  The parallels between this story and our received traditions of Jesus are evident, Jesus is the only whole person and he makes everyone feel whole.  But it is not good ministry to say to a paraplegic or a schizophrenic that “all are broken anyway” and each person in need of the Great Physician’s healing.  To say to an amputee that “yes, you are missing a limb but we are all in the same spiritual boat,” is to miss both the possibility of learning from another’s lived experience of life without that limb, and the pertinent story of self-identity of that person who already believes him- or herself whole in Christ and therefore not requiring of condescension or understanding of his or her imperfection.  Rather than speaking to people with disabilities of how “we are all disabled in some way” regarding the perfection seen in Christ Jesus, it behoves practitioners of good ministry to speak of the wholeness of the person who is the fullest possible expression of the imago dei despite a personal insufficiency of serotonin, functioning neural-pathways, or fingers.

In The Disabled God Nancy Eiesland prescribes accessibility for all to the rites and sacraments of the congregation: those who have been disenfranchised through disability have a personal responsibility to access the socio-symbolic reality of faith.  Inversely the congregation is obliged to pursue access to the socio-symbolic reality of those of its members who live with a disability.[8]  Kate Swaffer, who was diagnosed with Young Onset Dementia at age 49 speaks of “prescribed disengagement”[9] and of how she was directed by her diagnosing doctor to retire from all forms of life including her job and her tertiary studies, to put her affairs in order, and to start attending sessions at her local high dependency aged care facility in preparation for a permanent move due to her immanent senility.  Kate rejected this advice as unsuitable for a woman of her age, and proceeded to do all that she could to remain active and alert, albeit with the help of her husband and the disability support service at her university.  Eight years later Kate has completed an undergraduate and a postgraduate degree, written two books about her lived experience of dementia, two further books of her poetry, and is a passionate speaker and advocate for the human rights of people with dementia.

In her essay “Enabling Participation” Ann Wansbrough writes of feeling alienated in church by prayers and messages which seem ignorant or denying of her lived experience of disability.[10]  This saddens me since, as Wansbrough has observed, the participation of all members of the congregation must matter to leaders of worship if collective worship is to be a worthwhile activity of the church.  Worship which is self-centred on the part of the worship leader,[11] or the majority, is disempowering to others and excludes their full participation in this central activity of the Church.  Wansbrough understands that the key to inclusive worship is engagement in real life between those who lead worship and the congregation;[12] I suggest that Kate Swaffer might agree with the sentiment.

Hallinan suggests that it is central that the local congregation defend its members with disabilities against the medicalisation of their spirituality[13].  My experience as a person with a mental illness was to value the medical treatment of my symptoms of depression and anxiety, but to match that with a personal desire to protect my capacity for spiritual ecstasy and my exercise of pastoral empathy from being pharmacologically dulled.  This is not quite the point that Hallahan was making (she’s more interested in the desire of some to add spiritualisation as a treatment) but her phrase rings true for me.  I am not “sick” just because I am an introverted mystic, but neither is Christian meditation and/or exorcism the whole solution to my physical lack of serotonin and my disequilibrium in gut flora.

The question might then be asked how a church can include people with disabilities as members.  A simple solution is to treat all Christians as brother-sisters and not as objects of mission.  Subjects of love yes, with consideration for their humanity (we don’t ignore their unique needs for accessibility), but never as “cripples” requiring only charity.

However, the unique experience of living with a disability must never be overlooked or assumed by the community seeking unity by inclusion.  As an example, I offer the story of one member of a congregation to which I belonged struggled with the language of the Eucharist.  She would decline the invitation to receive the elements if she heard the servers using language along the lines of “the body of Christ, broken for you” since she understood from scripture that Jesus died without any broken bones.  She confided tearfully to me one Sunday that to speak of a broken Christ was heretical to her.  Yet for others, including me in my emotional and cognitive disability, to speak of that which was whole, the living, functioning physical body of Jesus, as “broken for me” on the cross speaks of Christ’s redeeming all brokenness by adopting it.  The one who had healed the infirm and had restored sight, mobility, and even life by his touch, dies in the depth of despair of exsanguination and exhaustion.  The perichoretic Son of the Father dies alone and forsaken.  I understand that this is what the Eucharist can recall for somewhat permanently broken people.  For some the dis-abled, rendered-incapable Jesus is a necessity because he identifies with disabled people.  Because of my broken mind, I have no trouble speaking of a Jesus who dies with his bones intact, but his flesh pierced and torn and his heart broken (and ultimately impaled), even as I acknowledge my friend’s literal attention to scripture.

Stookey describes the sacraments as utilising the real stuff of the earth as a sign that all hope is not lost and redemption is possible.[14]  All that exists, and all who exist, are bound by existence to the purpose of Creation which is divine self-expression: Stookey observes that humankind was made by God to be shared with.[15]  This should involve all of humankind and include, without qualification, those members who are less able than the rest in some facet.  It is my opinion that such earthiness in our view of the sacraments speaks of universal belonging.

Hauerwas wrote that in baptism all Christians belong to each other, thereby all children belong to the congregation of parents[16] such that the burden of care is the vocation of all members, not just the biological parents.  I suggest that the same is true of the brother-sister relationship between adult believers.  In the work of the congregation to seek to include the disabled man or woman I must begin with the understanding that he is my brother, (she is my sister), my own.

At this point it is pertinent to ask how a church can best minister to people with disabilities.  I understand the Church to be a foreshadowing fellowship of the now and arriving Reign of God, especially within the New Creation, words borrowed from Volf.[17]  Volf went on to describe how the City of God is the people, not the place nor the infrastructure of the place.  The city is the people amongst whom God dwells: a local church is a body of neighbouring believers who practice the sacraments and are in community with other congregations.[18]  Indeed Volf has said that “where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, not only is Christ present among them but a Christian church is there as well”,[19] and this speaks to me of inclusion of all believers by their involvement.  Since the time of the first churches the mark of the Church has been participation in baptism and Eucharist:[20] a woman or man becomes a Christian through baptism[21] and practices his or her faith through publicly accessing the Lord’s table.[22] Volf offers that ecclesiality requires communion and that any church is only a part of The Church for as long as it is ecumenical.[23]  A church which excludes any Christian (someone professing faith in Jesus Christ) from the practices of the Church is no church and has no part in the Church.[24]  To minister to any believer, including the believer with a disability, is therefore to enable and encourage him or her to practice the faith by participating in the practices of the Church.

Cahalan describes practices as bodily acts, suggesting that they must be embodied to be enacted:[25] practices are only such if they are done,[26] and to be done they must be learned.[27]  Since it is the role of the minister (clergy) to teach the practices it is pertinent that these Christian leaders ask how the practices can be modified to fit modified bodily forms.  In the same way that a teacher must consider the needs of a child who cannot fully engage in PE so the leader of the congregation must look for creative ways of engaging and ensuring participation of all worshipping disciples.  How this might be orchestrated in any given circumstance is beyond the scope of this paper, other than to say that the consideration of the person with a disability as a complete brother-sister in faith is paramount.  The person with a disability is no less a Christian for his or her diminished capacity in one area or another.

Eiesland speaks of her own experiences of stigma and practical excommunication due to her physical incapacity to participate along with the congregation.[28]  Eucharist became for her a “ritual of exclusion and degradation” where she “felt like a trespasser among the whole-bodied”.[29]  I too have lived experience of  what Eiesland describes as “the default initiation for the disabled”,[30] the laying on of hands, and the stigma and exercising of coercive shame of not being healed of a disability.[31]  Yet she writes also of the great strength she has received and been able to offer at other times through this Charismatic offering; Eiesland and I have each been ministered to by being invited to minister to others.

When author John Swinton was asked how he would wish to be treated if he were diagnosed with a cognitive disability Swinton responded that he would want to be cared for and loved just for who he is, even if who he is had become difficult to handle.[32]  This is the nature of the gospel and the way in which God responds to us.  Swinton went on to say that when wellness is thought of within a theological framework it can be described as life in the presence of the relational God rather than the simple absence of illness.[33]  With his focus placed firmly upon the person rather than the person’s condition or behaviour I believe Swinton gets to the heart of the question of ministry.  More so in the situation of a person with a dementia, Swinton speaks of dementias as an erosion of the self,[34] and asks that if salvation is given freely to those who call on the LORD (Romans 10:10) what happens when the LORD is forgotten through cognitive diminution.[35]  I understand that to be ministered to is to be reminded of one’s value as imago Dei and as an integral constituent of the community of faith: even if all that one can bring is one’s self that is enough. (We are remembered by the LORD even if we forget God.) By faith we are brother-sisters alongside people who have disorders, not people who are each a disorder (or disordered persons).  In this regard the maintenance and development of relationships is central to the congregation’s work in conveying the message and reality of hope[36] which is the very centre of ministry.  Where Swinton has observed that the primary loss of people with a disability is not the loss of ability but the loss of value accorded to them by a society frightened by the presence of the disabled[37] it is the role of the local church to subvert this tendency.  The offer of friendship on equal, not patronising terms, is imperative.[38]

As a final investigation into the ministry of the church to people with disabilities it is requisite to ask how a congregation might empower those same people to minister to the Church.  LaCugna offers that to do what is true, (which is how she chooses to define “orthopraxis”), requires that each Christian engage meaningfully in relationships which serve God in word, action, and attitude.[39]  The question I would like answered is what this looks like in practice, and that if it is a true statement on the part of LaCugna then how might each Christian be made welcome and assisted to participate in ministry activity.

In Paragraph Seven of its Basis of Union the Uniting Church assumes responsibility for the discipling of its members, which is to say those it has baptised, and Cahalan believes that disciples have a communal and a personal relationship to Jesus and to each other.[40]  In agreeing with Cahalan and mindful of the Basis of Union the necessity of the (Uniting) Church offering opportunities for all members to act as ministers toward each other seems obvious.  This is the meaning I take from the Biblical understanding of a “priesthood of all believers”, not that there is no need for a paid clergy but that each Christian can be of help to his or her friends, neighbours, and encountered strangers.

From such an understanding I see two paths, the first of which is open to all disciples.  Christians as Christians, without prejudice to their uniqueness, are gifted in ministries by God through the Holy Spirit, and are accountable to God and the Church for the employ of those gifts.

The second path, which is not distinct from the first, is the recognition of the unique gifts provided within the lived experience of disability.  My experience of physical and mental illness[41] has provided me with an enhanced awareness of my kinaesthetic and emotional self, and Eiesland writes of a similar understanding suggesting that people with disabilities understand that they cannot take their being for granted.[42]  Where daily life is more challenging for the person with a specific disability than for people with a more complete ability the awareness of that specific element of personhood or existence is enhanced, not as simply as heroic overcoming but as a deep knowledge to be shared and taught.[43]  To use a Biblical example we might think of the greater insight of Job in the final chapter of his tale regarding what he knew of God and personhood in the first chapter.  Through his experience of loss and renewal it is fair to say that Job came to know God far more intimately: the sense that he came to know God “in the Biblical sense” does not seem inappropriate to me.

Those who have experienced disability are very often knowledgeable guides to the alternative pathways.  They (we) are the regular users of roads less travelled because of blockages on the expressway, we are the knowers of the alternative exits (which may be behind you) since our aeroplane really has crashed and there is fire outside the most obvious door.  As a one-time Londoner who hosted Australian tourist friends I know that anyone can read a Tube map, eventually, but I know the way so well that I can cross London in four different, instantaneously flexible ways, if required by line closures.  As a traveller of alternative pathways my experience of God and the Church is similarly broad and lithe, but no less orthodox for being so.

If the Christian Church is identified in any local place by its proclamation of the Word, its public celebration of the sacraments, and by its modelling and practising discipleship, then this can be no less the case if some of the Christians in any local place are people with disabilities.  There is no reason why people with disabilities should be excused or excluded from participation in ministry as practitioners or recipients simply because of their deficiency in one area.  To suggest otherwise is to subvert the meaning, and the purpose, of the Christian Church.


Cahalan, Kathleen A.  Introducing the Practice of Ministry. Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2010.

Eiesland, Nancy L. The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability. Nashville TN: Abingdon, 1994.

Foskett, John.  Meaning In Madness: The Pastor and the Mentally Ill. London: SPCK, 1984.

Hallahan, Lorna. “On Relationships Not Things: Exploring Disability and Spirituality” in Ageing, Disability & Spirituality: Addressing the Challenge of Disability in Later Life edited by Elizabeth MacKinlay. London: Jessica Kingsley, 2008.

Hauerwas, Stanley.  Dispatches From The Front: Theological Engagements With The Secular. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.

LaCugna, Catherine Mowry. God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.

Stookey, Laurence Hull. Eucharist: Christ’s Feast with The Church. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993.

Swaffer, Kate, Lee-Fay Low. Diagnosed With Alzheimer’s Or Another Dementia. London: New Holland, 2016.

Swinton, John. Dementia: Living In The Memories of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012.

Swinton, John. “The Importance of Being a Creature: Stanley Hauerwas on Disability” in Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader, edited by Brian Brock and John Swinton, 512-545.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012.

Volf, Miroslav. After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.

Wansbrough, Ann. “Enabling Participation” in Worship In The Wide Red Land edited by Douglas Galbraith, Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1985.

[1] Catherine Mowry LaCugna. God For Us: The Trinity and Christian Life, (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992) 404.

[2] ibid. 405.

[3] ibid. 406.

[4] Rebecca S. Chopp. “Forward” in Nancy L. Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville TN: Abingdon, 1994) 9.

[5] ibid. 11.

[6] John Foskett. Meaning In Madness: The Pastor and the Mentally Ill (London: SPCK, 1984) 163.

[7] ibid. 166.

[8] Nancy L. Eiesland. The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville TN: Abingdon, 1994) 20.

[9] Kate Swaffer and Lee-Fay Low. Diagnosed With Alzheimer’s Or Another Dementia (London: New Holland, 2016) 47.

[10] Ann Wansbrough. “Enabling Participation” in Worship In The Wide Red Land edited by Douglas Galbraith (Melbourne: Uniting Church Press, 1985) 38.

[11] ibid. 39.

[12] ibid.

[13] Lorna Hallahan. “On Relationships, Not Things: Exploring Disability and Spirituality” in Ageing, Disability & Spiritualty: Addressing the Challenge of Disability in Later Life, edited by Elizabeth MacKinlay (London: Jessica Kingsley, 2008) 98.

[14] Laurence Hull Stookey. Eucharist: Christ’s Feast with The Church (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1993) 15.

[15] ibid.

[16] Stanley Hauerwas.  Dispatches From The Front: Theological Engagements With The Secular. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994) 182.

[17] Miroslav Volf. After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998) 128.

[18] ibid.

[19] ibid. 136.

[20] ibid. 152.

[21] ibid.

[22] ibid. 153.

[23] ibid. 158.

[24] ibid.

[25] Kathleen A. Cahalan. Introducing the Practice of Ministry, (Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press, 2010) 108.

[26] ibid. 109.

[27] ibid. 110.

[28] Eiesland. The Disabled God. 112.

[29] ibid. 113.

[30] ibid. 116.

[31] ibid. 117.

[32] John Swinton. Dementia: Living In The Memories of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012) 2.

[33] ibid. 7.

[34] ibid. 9.

[35] ibid. 10.

[36] ibid. 139.

[37] John Swinton. “The Importance of Being a Creature: Stanley Hauerwas on Disability” in Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader, edited by Brian Brock and John Swinton (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012) 517.

[38] Swinton. Dementia. 141.

[39] LaCugna. God For Us. 383.

[40] Cahalan, Introducing the Practice of Ministry. 5.

[41] I have lived through Chronic Fatigue Immunodeficiency Syndrome and an Anxiety Disorder alongside Depression.

[42] Eiesland, The Disabled God. 31.

[43] ibid.c

Are there key features that characterise appropriate styles of leadership for rural congregations in South Australia?

This is the abstract of my coursework thesis for the degree of Master of Theological Studies, submitted to Flinders University (Adelaide, Australia) on Wednesday 7th September 2016.  I shall not be publishing the dissertation on this blog, but if you’re interested in what I’ve said here you’ll be able to access it via Flinders University or  Adelaide College of Divinity after assessment and review.

That life in a country town is different to life in a capital city’s suburbs is universally acknowledged, but the ways in which these differences manifest in the styles of leadership appropriate to local churches appears less well understood.  This study explores those differences and it seeks to present them in ways which might be helpful to placements committees within Uniting Church presbyteries and to ministers seeking to move from a suburban to a rural placement.  Such leaders in ministry must be willing to learn and embrace the specific ways in which life is different in rural areas and what the implications of those differences are on the ways in which ministry is gone about.  Interviews with former and current practitioners of rural and urban ministries in South Australia were undertaken alongside a literature review.  What was found was that whilst it is thought preferable to have ordained leaders in congregations it is actually better to have appropriately trained local lay members presiding than to bring in an accredited stranger.  Where an ordained minister is present he/she is most effective when he/she acts primarily in the mode of dialogue partner and facilitator of the congregation’s ministry rather than as a resident theologian or expert.  It is vital that local lay members are empowered to serve and lead their congregations, therefore a catalytic style of leadership is the best fit since rural placements often do not last long enough for ongoing mentorships to be effective.  The minister must enable and equip the local people such that that when he/she departs to take up a placement elsewhere the ministry is not left without direction or directors.  Ministers within rural communities are expected by their congregations to serve and comfort the community beyond the church; a rural minister, isolated from other ministers, may be the only person available to fill the many representative roles required, therefore he/she must have a preparedness and a willingness to do so.  It was also found that ministers in isolated placements need to take greater personal responsibility for their own and their family’s self-care and resilience than urban ministers who tend to have support networks closer-by.  Whilst the majority of people who live in rural areas are socially and theologically conservative this is by no means the case for everybody.  The minister must be able to lead the whole congregation in discipleship and learning with respect for every person’s theology and worldview whilst simultaneously upholding the distinctive flavour and form of the Uniting Church.

The Saints Aren’t Coming

The song The Saints are Coming, written in 1978 by Scottish musicians Stuart Jobson and Scott Adamson, and released in 1979 by their art-punk group Skids[1] takes the form of a Biblical Lament while at the same time critiquing the nature of Lament and the faith of those who employ such forms of address.

The Biblical understanding of lament, songs cried out to God by innocents in response to crisis, anguish and grief, is that these are not songs of hopelessness but are a form of prayer where the covenantal God is addressed directly by the suffering in a bold cry for help, explanation and restoration.  There is a “who” in lament and the prayer has a focus on God’s power to save and God’s covenantal responsibilities to do so.  In penning the lyrics “I cried to my daddy on the telephone how long now”, Jobson and Adamson describe this very activity since it is not “the skies” but “my daddy” who is addressed, one who has an evident duty of care and a responsibility to respond to the cry for help.  In a similar way the content of the cry itself, “how long”, is reminiscent of the words used in many Biblical laments[2].

In 2006 and 2008 two cover versions of the song were released, the first by Irish musicians U2 in collaboration with America’s Green Day, and the second by German electronic-martial, neofolk artists Von Thronstahl.  In both of these texts the theme of lament is continued.  The collaborative version was released as a single to raise money for flood relief and reconstruction in New Orleans, Louisiana following the devastation of that city by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005: alterations to the lyrics and images on the official music video[3] address the specific circumstances of that event such that the somewhat generic lament written in Dunfermline becomes an unambiguous cry for help for a specific people in a specific place.  In the 2008 version the music video appears to address the story of a woman mourning her beloved lost in battle[4].

Biblical teaching on faith is confronted by the lyrics of Jobson and Adamson; the prayers of the faithful are not answered in the time of greatest need.  Since “it seems no matter how [we] try…there’s no reply (at all[5])” from Heaven they conclude that the line is dead and God cannot hear us.  A second option offered, in direct contravention of scripture and contradiction of the lament form, that God either cannot or will not act to address the concern of the lament, be that the specific natural disaster of a flooded city or the loss of a much loved soldier on home soil.  In this instance the gap between God’s promises and the lived experience of God’s people has not been bridged by God’s activity, therefore if the covenant is not understood to have been broken it must be understood to be worthless.  In the absence of a prophetic, accusative voice directed at the people it is God who must have failed and therefore, in the absence of divine assistance, it is up to the saints to “come”.

In similar contrast with the Biblical themes of God’s everlasting interest in humankind and capacity to love and to save, Jobson and Adamson suggest, in lyrics removed by U2 and Green Day, that “[t]he stone says this paternal guide once had his day.”   In response to the observation that “[a] drowning sorrow floods the deepest grief” it is said that “a weather change condemns belief.”  God does not come through for Skids nor for Von Thronstahl who retains the original question “how long now”: the changing situation is seen as evidence that if God has acted at all God has only done so by stepping back further.  The deliverance once promised by the covenant relationship and endorsed by the salvation history of the People of God is not coming and the situation will only get more hopeless.  The paternal God has had his day and the theme that belief in such a God is worthy of condemnation as false and worthless is reiterated.  Thankfully the “saints” are coming because God is not; God cannot and will not.

The version released by U2 and Green Day removes the reference to the paternal guide and essentially shifts the blame for the disaster to human weakness, complicity, and corruption.  It is when “the night watchman lets in the thief” we ask “what’s wrong now?”  This is much more in tune with the Biblical idea that it is humankind which gets itself into binds that God must fix.  Whether God allows natural disasters to occur, and in what form this “allowing” takes place is placed into secondary importance by the activities of the trusted men on the wall who enable the enemies to enter the sleeping, vulnerable city.  The coming saints then are not humankind suddenly without God and having to fend for themselves but are the soldiers of the city flooding the walls and gates to resist enemy incursion.  The cry is “hold on, the reserves are sprinting towards you in the power of good” rather than the cry of “we are abandoned and we are all who remain”.  It is the belief that we can trust the night watchmen that is condemned, and the trust that we had entrusted to others which is questioned.  In that ruinous house in New Orleans a place remains for crying out beyond humankind for justice, vindication, and rescue from without.

In taking a Biblical form, that of lament, and subverting it to portray faith as meaningless except for faith in the best of humanity Jobson and Adamson connect with the anti-establishment and questioning of authority explicit in popular punk culture of the late 1970s.  Von Thronstahl revisit the theme with connections to the futility of war and a fascist cause.  U2 and Green Day, in releasing a song in support of recovery efforts are themselves the embodiment of the saints who come, perhaps ahead of the recognised work of God, saints who question whether the motives of men and women always are honourable when disaster strikes.


All references to scripture are based on the New Revised Standard Version.

“The Saints are Coming” (n.d.) Retrieved 30th January 2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Saints_Are_Coming.

U2 and Green Day, “U2 and Green Day – The Saints Are Coming,” on Vimeo (n.d.).  Retrieved 30th January 2014 from http://vimeo.com/5431310

Von Thronstahl, “The Saints Are Coming: Official Video,” on Vimeo (n.d.).  Retrieved 30th January 2014 from http://vimeo.com/45844944

[1] “The Saints are Coming” in Wikipedia (n.d.).  Retrieved 30th January 2014 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Saints_Are_Coming

[2] For example Psalm 13:1. (NRSV)

[3] U2 and Green Day, “U2 and Green Day – The Saints Are Coming,” on Vimeo (n.d.).  Retrieved 30th January 2014 from http://vimeo.com/5431310

[4] Von Thronstahl, “The Saints Are Coming: Official Video,” on Vimeo (n.d.).  Retrieved 30th January 2014 from http://vimeo.com/45844944

[5] In Von Thronstahl’s version the words “at all” are added to the last line of the refrain as sung by Runa.

The Saints (Are Coming): Richard Jobson and Stuart Adamson (1978)


Skids (1979).  Punk.  Album: Scared To Dance.


Green Day and U2, (2006).  Rock/Pop. Album: U218.  This version incorporates additional lyrics and was released to raise money for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=seGhTWE98DU

Von Thronstahl (2008). Neofolk/Electronic.  “Thirtieth anniversary tribute” featuring Runa from V.A.M.P.  http://vimeo.com/45844944

The text appears at first to fit the Biblical pattern of a “Psalm of Lament”, a song in which innocents in crisis cry out to God for help and demand an explanation and a restoration.  Questions of theodicy and human culpability attach closest to the U2 and Green Day version whose added verses locate the cry within the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and the mismanagement of civic flood defences and levees around New Orleans.

A second reading raises a sense of confusion about the expectation that God will act: the “saints” might be coming, but there’s no reply from “daddy on the telephone”.  Is God so incapable or ambivalent that humankind must act to alleviate its sorrow and grief without divine help?  No specific context is provided by “Skids”, but in Von Thronstahl’s music video the story is one of a (uniformed Nazi) woman who has lost her beloved in the war.  If a closed or resistant Heaven in understood then the song becomes a dirge, a song of hopeless grievance, a song which is neither a Hosanna nor a “broken Hallelujah”.

A worship leader or preacher coming to the original song with thoughts of using it as a contemporary example of lament needs to take into consideration the second reading where God’s answer is not expected by the song writers.  The song might actually function as a critique of the hope found in Biblical lamentation; the understanding from a non-believer’s perspective that it’s up to “the saints”, men and women of compassion, to do the work of alleviating the cause of complaint rather than waiting in the (misguided) hope that the clouds will roll back for some random deity to descend in rescuing power.  In the 2008 version the saints are sung to be “calling” rather than “coming”, and there is “no reply at all” to their call.  Not even the prayers of the faithful are answered.

In the 2006 version the lines “the stone says/this paternal guide once had his day/once had his day” are replaced by “how long now/when the nightwatchman lets in the thief/what’s wrong now”.    In this the theme that God cannot be waited upon but that humankind must take the initiative, (even if that is in the form of local Christian “saints” getting involved), is joined by the Biblical theme of nightwatchmen and specifically those who are derelict or deceitful in duty.  The song points to the various facets of human responsibility seen in the causes, effects, and responses to disaster.

It is with supposedly unanswerable questions and criticism with which The Saints Are Coming engages the Bible’s twin themes of hope in despair and the faithfulness of the God of the covenant, ultimately making the observation that God cannot be trusted to answer.

A Feminist Hermeneutic

In Robert Lentz’s icon “Christ Sophia” the second person of the trinity is presented as a dark skinned woman holding a fertility goddess statue[1].  Lentz observes that the mystery of Christ cannot be fully described in masculine terms alone and that within the Eastern traditions of Christian art it was once common to see Christ presented as a somewhat androgynous figure.  S/he (Christ) delights to be among the people, teaching the ways of God and living among them as a source of vision[2].

Feminism is concerned with the liberation of women and men from the oppression of gender hierarchies and stereotypes, and with ensuring equal rights of access by women and men to social and economic resources.  To view Christ in a female shape is not the ends of a means called “feminism”, yet when a feminist hermeneutic incorporates the work of recovering the Sophia Wisdom of God a critique to patriarchal[3] forms of thought is expressed that leads to a renewed focus on the political, social and economic rights of women as imago Dei[4].  Feminist critique makes no claims to objectivity; it is more concerned with relevance than with declarations of an absolute truth[5].  Feminism is a revisionist ideology questioning the adequacy of conceptual structures of male universality[6] and malestream[7] views and seeks to reclaim the lost voices and values of women[8]

It is typical of any feminist perspective that it views gender as a matter of differentiation of power[9], and therefore of social construction, rather than physiology: it begins from the experiences of women and the analysis of those experiences to embrace alternative views and take action.  Feminist hermeneutics shares a paradigm with liberation hermeneutics[10] in that it holds a specific concern for the oppression of women; it is an ideology rather than a method[11].  (That is not to say that it is not methodical, Mujerista[12] Hermeneutics requires of the writer that she share her stories, and then analyse, liturgise (retell the Christian story), and strategise her response.)  The basis of feminist hermeneutics is the work of liberating women and men from malestream readings[13] rather than the delineation of a uniquely-feminine form of exegesis.    Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza observes that woman readers might continue to operate within malestream parameters of thought if those parameters are not questioned[14].   The engagement of feminist perspectives within Christian traditions should be troublemaking[15], change oriented and transformation seeking since it looks toward a liberating praxis[16] in the social, political, historical, domestic, familial and personal spheres of women.  A feminist theology will explore the full humanity of women[17] in an authentic and inclusive community based on just relationships; the integrity of creation; the feminine creative principle as life-giving and life-enhancing; the prophetic and alternative voice and action of women in liberation movements; and the solidarity of women among themselves and with others supporting each one’s struggle[18].

In But She Said[19], Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza examines the patriarchal nature of classical Greek democracy and she is credited with developing the concept of “kyriarchy” over against patriarchy: the headship of “lords and masters” in a graded system of subjugation[20] rather than simply of men over women[21].  Kyriarchal structures were the prevailing social forms during the life time of Jesus, the writing of the New Testament, and the formation of the first Christian ecclesia[22].  Schüssler Fiorenza presupposes that since social structures are formed within and shaped by history rather than by divine ordinance or natural anthropological evolution[23] they can be challenged and deconstructed[24] and she recognises that some New Testament writers demonstrated a move toward a better system even as they did not challenge the old one outright. 

Feminist thinking views experience as structural, the personal as political, and the experience of women unable to be restricted to the domestic sphere.  What happens for women in private affects the public sphere[25] such that where a woman is expected to be subservient at home she will be expected (and possibly expecting) to hold a lesser position in social relations[26].  God’s self-revelation to the poor is a gospel of women and girls since it is they more often than men or boys who are the disenfranchised, unemancipated and uneducated in societies[27].  For this reason the Sophia traditions, which value life, creativity, inclusivity and wellbeing in the presence of struggle, are pleasing not only to some feminist theologians but also to some liberationist theologians[28].  Jesus as prophet of Sophia offers a direct challenge towards, and a spur to action against kyriarchic preferences for the elite, the wealthy and the coloniser, however such preferences remain present in the andocentric language of some “racist, bourgeois[29]” feminist discourses according to Schüssler Fiorenza.  The Sophia traditions offer a new language to rearticulate the symbols and names associated with the divine in the context of the reader’s own theologies and experiences[30]

If women have no public voice it is because the voice of women is silenced; it is not correct to suggest that women are or were not speaking[31].  Yet it must be remembered that experience is plural and not all women have the same experience.  Schüssler Fiorenza offers that the placing of a woman according to her differing colour, caste, (lesbian) sexuality, generation, indigeneity, motherhood, education, health, geographical location, and nationality[32] necessarily affects her experience of gender[33].  In the words of Alexander Jensen, feminist hermeneutics has become atomised[34] such that readers must always ask “which women are we talking about” and whether the writers of feminist critique acknowledge their own cultural background and social location if they presume to speak for “all” women[35].  Schüssler Fiorenza is particularly concerned with confronting the andocentric language used for God[36] and humanity[37],[38] in the Biblical text, patriarchal constructs encountered in the text[39] and misogynistic content of the text[40] which leads to the normativity and authority of male forms[41].    Feminist hermeneutics also critiques the definition of the canon and the history of textual interpretation[42], and the denial of access to women as readers[43] and their position as contributors towards the production[44] and interpretation[45] of texts.  Women have always interpreted the Bible, but since they have often done so within the theological and spiritual frameworks set forth by leading male theologians[46] therefore the reading of women cannot be said to be identical with feminist interpretations. 

Feminist hermeneutics points toward the vast cast of women in the Bible who are relatively unknown to many modern readers[47] even though in the period following Pentecost the Church attracted women in great numbers[48].  In taking on a feminist hermeneutic a twenty-first century reader might choose to seek out these women’s stories as material for preaching, and to reconstruct new histories[49] around the stories of women active within the first Christian centuries[50] and among the generic crowds attendant at Biblical events[51].  A hermeneutic of suspicion might lead to a hermeneutic of reclamation and new ways of reading in spite of the patriarchal biases of writers, redactors, interpreters and commentators throughout the history of the text[52].  The reader might seek interpretations from which to preach that release texts from their captivity to misogynist readings and making them applicable for women and men today[53].  Such a Hermeneutic of Remembrance acts to reclaim the subversive memory of oppressive texts[54] and highlight liberating texts.  In looking to recover a different picture of Jesus from beneath layers of patriarchal tradition and reinvention[55] feminist writers acknowledge that what is assumed by many as going without saying must be challenged if women are to be released from the need to meet unattainable and repressive expectations upon them as disciples and ministers of Christ.  Only when such a theological interest in the liberation of women and men is implemented across all intellectual and shared structures can the kyriocentric mindset and structures of domination be transformed.

A word of caution must be inserted here.  Feminist Christology must resist any form of “over-and-against model” of Jesus the feminist since there is a danger of coming across as decidedly anti-Jewish[56], and supersessionist[57].  The earliest followers of Jesus were Jewish women and men following a dream of liberation for every man and woman of Israel[58].  They were not at all “Christian” in the modern sense but were a new form of the basileia (empire, domain, commonwealth) of God over-and-against Roman imperialism and systemic kyriarchy[59], not temple worship or the theology of the Pharisees.  The emancipatory[60] Jesus movement was one among several[61] movements within the variant forms of contiguous Jewish consciousness, and never posted a concerted challenge to the fundamentals of a holistic, orthodox Judaism[62].  Schüssler Fiorenza suggests that it was Jesus’ challenge to the exploitative kyriarchy which saw him executed, not any perceived blasphemy against Jewish theology[63].  In his being crucified Jesus was silenced by the State, not punished by the priesthood, for daring to gather a low caste, discarded, crowd around the idea of a new way of being empire[64].  At the same time the kyriarchal focus on the spiritual or visionary appearances of the resurrected Jesus should be measured against a theology of the empty tomb which releases women and men from the sense that to be Christ-following is to be meek in the face of injustice and oppression.  That Jesus was not found in the tomb is evidence that Jesus lives among the people, not that Jesus is ascended and removed from all but the select few of (male) visionary chief apostles[65].  The Easter message is liberation for the oppressed, not a new form of kyriarchy where male apostles replace male governors.

One key area of agreement amongst feminist theologians is found in their criticism of patriarchal Mariology[66].  In “the Blessed Virgin Mary” Christian women are presented with a model to aspire to of selfless obedience, subordination, dependency and inferiority.  The femininity of “Our Lady” as asexual eternal virgin, truly woman revealed only in motherhood, and her example of passivity as a cardinal virtue is a model that ordinary women could never hope[67] or want[68] to imitate.  The real Mary was herself certainly quite different from the ideal[69].

In conclusion I acknowledge Elizabeth Johnson’s reading the story of Jesus-Sophia, in support of the views of Schüssler Fiorenza and Lentz, as compassionate and liberating[70].  In Sophia-Christ God “pitches her tent among people to teach the ways of justice”[71], engages fully with human life and suffering, participates in feasts, and includes the marginalised at her table while she is herself marginalised by the powers of her day.  In Sophia the Church is presented with the idea of God as the hostess[72] sovereign in whose realm all people are valued.  Where feminism is rightly perceived as a struggle against unjust forms of power, rather than an angry struggle to wrest power for the sole use of women and girls, it provides a liberating message to all people of faith.  Disparate views gather under the wings of feminist hermeneutics, perhaps representing different levels of engagement with the various areas of struggle, but above all the work any hermeneutic is the work of removing obstacles to understanding the historical presuppositions of text[73].  Much that has been unhelpful with regard to the place of women in the community of faith is being explained, analysed, and in many cases done away with by the work of the feminist hermeneutic.  This can only be a positive thing for the Church, the men in the Church included.


Cixous, Hélène. “Sorties.” in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Edited by David Lodge, 287-93. Harlow: Longman, 1988.

Fewell, Danna Nolan. “Reading the Bible ideologically: Feminist Criticism.” in To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and their Application. Rev and exp. ed. Edited by Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Haynes, 268-82. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999.

Jensen, Alexander S. Theological Hermeneutics. London: SCM Press, 2007.

Johnson, Elizabeth. She Who Is.  New York, NY: Crossroad, 1993.

Lentz, Robert, and Edwina Gateley. Christ In The Margins. Maryknoll NY: Orbis, 2003.

Mitchell, Juliet. “Femininity, Narrative and Psychoanalysis.” in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Edited by David Lodge, 426-430. Harlow: Longman, 1988.

Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York, NY: Crossroad, 1983.

Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. But She Said: Feminist practices of biblical interpretation. Boston, MT: Beacon Press, 1992.

Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet: Critical Issues in Feminist Christology. New York, NY: Continuum, 1994.

Showalter, Elaine. “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness.” in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Edited by David Lodge, 331-353. Harlow: Longman, 1988


[1] Robert Lentz, and Edwina Gateley. Christ In The Margins. (Maryknoll NY: Orbis, 2003). 112.

[2] Ibid. 113.

[3]Danna Nolan Fewell, “Reading the Bible ideologically: Feminist Criticism.” in To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and their Application. Rev and exp. ed. Edited by Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Haynes, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 280.

[4] Ibid. 268.

[5] Ibid. 269.

[6] Elaine Showalter. “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness.” in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Edited by David Lodge. (Harlow: Longman, 1988), 333-4.

[7] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet: Critical Issues in Feminist Christology. (New York, NY: Continuum, 1994). 3

[8] Fewell, “Reading the Bible ideologically: Feminist Criticism.” 270.

[9] Hélène Cixous. “Sorties.” in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Edited by David Lodge. (Harlow: Longman, 1988), 289.

[10] Schüssler Fiorenza. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet. 7-8.

[11] Ibid. 4.

[12] Hispanic, Latina.

[13] Schüssler Fiorenza. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet. 5.

[14] Ibid. 189.

[15] Ibid. 10.

[16] Ibid. 12.

[17] Ibid. 27.

[18] Ibid.11.

[19] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said: Feminist practices of biblical interpretation. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.)

[20] Although the male members of each level of dominance were considered superior to their female counterparts.

[21] Schüssler Fiorenza. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet. 14.

[22] Ibid. 14.

[23] Ibid. 36.

[24] Ibid. 16.

[25] Ibid. 36.

[26] Ibid. 37.

[27] Ibid. 156.

[28] Ibid. 157.

[29] Ibid. 162.

[30] Ibid. 162.

[31] Cixous. “Sorties.” 288.

[32] Schüssler Fiorenza. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet. 102.

[33] Ibid. 13, 24.

[34] Alexander S. Jensen, Theological Hermeneutics. (London: SCM Press, 2007.), 201.

[35] Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said. 38.

[36] Schüssler Fiorenza. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet. 44.

[37] Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said. 25.

[38] Schüssler Fiorenza. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet. 41.

[39] Ibid. 39.

[40] Ibid. 42.

[41] Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said. 41-2.

[42] Schüssler Fiorenza. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet. 44.

[43] Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said. 35.

[44] Ibid. 29.

[45] Ibid. 28.

[46] Schüssler Fiorenza. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet. 38.

[47] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. (New York, NY: Crossroad, 1983.), xiii.

[48] Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said. 22.

[49] Juliet Mitchell. “Femininity, Narrative and Psychoanalysis.” in Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. Edited by David Lodge. (Harlow: Longman, 1988), 430.

[50] Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said. 22, 28-9.

[51] Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said. 26, 32.

[52] Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said. 24.

[53] Ibid. 45.

[54] Ibid. 37.

[55] Schüssler Fiorenza. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet. 46.

[56] Ibid. 89.

[57] Ibid. 92.

[58] Ibid. 90.

[59] Ibid. 91.

[60] Ibid. 92.

[61] ibid. 92.

[62] It can be argued that there was no “holistic, orthodox Judaism” at the time of Christ but that the cohesion of Jewish worship and praxis occurred after the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersion of the Jewish nation into Diaspora communities.

[63] Schüssler Fiorenza. Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet. 93.

[64] Ibid. 94.

[65] Ibid. 126.

[66] Ibid. 164.

[67] Ibid. 165.

[68] Ibid. 164.

[69] Ibid. 187.

[70] Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is, (New York: Crossroad, 1993), 191.

[71] Ibid. 213.

[72] Ibid. 217.

[73] Jensen, Theological Hermeneutics, 2.

Understanding Biblical Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics can be described simply, if somewhat insufficiently, as the art of understanding[1].  More fully it is the identification, analysis and removal of obstacles to understanding the historical presuppositions of a text[2].  Alexander Jensen argues that if a culture does not reflect on its presuppositions then it can too easily take for granted theories that were discredited long before the contiguous generation came about[3].  In its theological sense hermeneutics is the field of study which deals with the theoretical interpretation of scripture[4]: practical application of scripture is left to the work of exegesis[5].  Hermeneutics is about communication, meaning, and understanding, all of which require varying degrees of adaptation to the culture of the reader[6].

One of the key understandings of hermeneutics as it has been practiced in the last two centuries is that different people will see different things in the one text.  It is worth acknowledging from the outset of any examination of what Biblical Hermeneutics might be that what is seen (acknowledged) and understood (interpreted) by any reader depends upon his or her social location.  In my case I am an English-Australian man, first generation and fifth, of the Reformed Evangelical tradition within the Uniting Church.  I am of Generation-X and have an Arts degree in Sociolinguistics, a post-graduate diploma in Primary Education, and a VET diploma in Youth Work.  I live on Kangaroo Island.  I read as a tertiary educated, Bible-based, Christ-focussed, mission-minded, forty-something Aussie from the bush.  I have experienced Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Generalised Anxiety Disorder in the past so I also read toward compassion and justice for those participants in society who are marginalised on account of their health.

The hermeneutical journey began in antiquity when the authoritative myths of ancient Greece were reinterpreted in centuries later than those in which they were composed.  Questions were asked as to how an authoritative text might remain authoritative when the worldview of its recipients had changed[7].  They asked what old texts, upon which their culture was established, could continue to say to them when their culture had progressed through the centuries to new forms of understanding the world around them.  Later the trail of previous interpretations began to be examined as each new age, (century, generation), reinterpreted not only the original text but the series of intervening reinterpretations.  One of the key forms favoured by Jewish and Christian writers and interpreters in the first four centuries of the Common Era was the use of allegory and typology or “prefiguring”[8].  The old story foreshadowed the new; for example the stories of the Exodus and the passing through the sea were used by Paul as a typology of baptism, connecting a particular story of Jesus to the whole story of the Hebrew people.

In the ongoing Jewish tradition the midrash method of interpretation was used when a particular text was chosen as the basis for telling a new story: the text was interpreted in such a way as to make it apply to the current situation, giving the new story the added weight of the old.  As the Jewish-Christian story moved out of Israel and into the Greco-Roman world in Asia and then Europe the story was reshaped by its retelling in the new context.  The imagery and metaphors of the story’s own worldview were no longer those of the receiving culture.  The Christian story also began to divide between the Platonic school of Antioch and the Aristotelian school of Alexandria.

The Alexandrines were readers in allegory and questioned the literal historicity of text.  Where chronological inconsistencies arose these could be left behind when the text was interpreted symbolically.  There was an attempt to explain away the exclusiveness of Israel and the apparent anthropomorphism of Hebrew understanding; Philo saw the revelation of God to the Greeks as not different to the revelation to Israel[9].   In contrast the Antiochenes were readers in rhetorical analysis: they were text-grounded and the intention of the author and editor was considered vital.  Original meanings were important, as were literary contexts, historical references, chronology and principles of translation.  Their taking a literal-historical approach meant that the scholars of Antioch had to try to explain discrepancies in the text.

Historical biblical criticism tends to focus on the world behind the text and its author.  Who composed this text, who later edited it, why and when?  It is diachronic and looks at the history of the text itself and how it has been edited and changed across time.  The authors’ and redactors’ intention is vital, what matters is how the text was used initially and at discrete moments in the history of its readers. Literary biblical criticism tends to focus on the world of the text and its readers. What does this say about the writer and readers?  What is the text’s meaning for us in its final form? The authors’ intention is irredeemable and irrelevant, what matters is how the text is used today. Everyone interprets the Bible in her or his own way, yet there is a great deal of common ground in how people go about the processes of interpreting the Bible[10].  Oftentimes a combination of historical and literary means are used in a reader’s interpretation; sometimes traditional (historical) critical forms are used in non-traditional ways.

The origin of biblical texts was in the life-experiences of communities, a situation that asks questions of whether experience has meaning before thought and word are constructed around it.  The Bible is of central importance to the faith community of Christians[11]; it is not one “word” but an intelligible divine discourse; yet Schneiders observed that this discourse is figurative since God cannot be said to have vocal organs to make sounds[12].  Language is limited in its capacity to express the ineffable being and the thoughts of God.  All words fall short even as they express the logos in graphemes. “The Word of God” is a root metaphor where speech fills the place of divine self-revelation[13]: inspiration and infallibility are faith affirmations, not objective statements, of the way in which God interacted with the various writers of scripture through the agency of Holy Spirit and human talents in writing and editing[14].  Authority vested in God is conferred on the Bible, but the words hold no intrinsic value without them being the revelation of an active God.  With particular regard to a hermeneutic of the Bible it must be remembered that scripture is God’s self-revelation carried by language: the words tell of ways beyond themselves of communication, for example prayer, sacrifice, fellowship, and a life of obedience.  The scriptures are a living metaphor, moving with the development of language through reinterpretation, re-presentation, and recognition of the movement of God’s Holy Spirit upon writers, redactors, and readers.

In the Middle Ages authority was vested in the Roman Church and the rule of faith and exegesis was subordinated to doctrine[15].  The scriptures could mean only what the Roman bishops said they could mean, yet mediaeval scholars had a thousand years of Christian historical and traditional interpretations.  The text began to be used for teaching and therefore interpretation had a purpose; the message of the scriptures was used as a basis for teaching rather than interpretation.  By the time of Thomas (Aquinas) interpretation was being moved aside in favour of theology, and the Bible began to be read as a proof text for philosophical ideas rather than being the defining reality itself.

During the Enlightenment it was discovered that the Bible could be read as an historical document distinct from its theology and that a hermeneutic for historical criticism might be employed[16].  Enlightenment scholars placed more authority on Reason than on tradition and their interpretative methods sought scientific bases for their authority.  It was at that time that the historical critical methods emerged and the search for the Jesus of history began.  Each of the historical critical methods seek to reconstruct the historical context in which individual Biblical texts had their origin.  The methods set out to reconstruct the historical meaning of the text, the meaning the text had for the audience, for which it was intended, placing central importance upon source material and reconstructing, where possible, the initial form of the text.  The key outcome of reading with an eye to hermeneutics is that the way in which a text is structured determines the way in which its meaning is perceived.  If a text is seen as myth it will be read very differently to if the same text were perceived as being a “true history”.  Scholarship is never value free and the claim of the historical critical forms of hermeneutics value-neutrality is unfounded.

What then can be done then to make meaning clear, or indeed to simply make meaning mean something?  The Hermeneutic Cycle offers three elements in response to this question: consider each of sender, receiver, and text.  The reader must reflect upon the world where the sender or writer is situated, the text may or may not give him or her clues to this world so this would be looked for in wider study.  Text itself creates a world; but what world is created?  Certain codes or symbols are found in texts which point toward the intention of the text; this is one way of reading for meaning.  Receivers or readers belong to a world which has an effect on the meaning of the messages received; invariably there is interaction between the reader’s worldview and his or her circumstance, his or her ideology leads the reader to receive texts in a particular way.  Christians see the Bible as “Word of God” and bring that level of appreciation to it; others see the Bible without this faith stance and read it as literature or cultural artefact.  With regard to understanding Biblical Hermeneutics it must be remembered that for Jewish and Christian believers in God interpretation of the Bible is essentially a work of discerning the will of God[17], whereas for literary or cultural seekers it is not the understanding of God which is sought but that of the people who inhabit the book and faith communities it informs.  What is come to be understood after the hermeneutic process is engaged with depends upon the questions asked of the text in the first place.


Goldsworthy, Graeme. Gospel-Centred Hermeneutics: Biblical-theological foundations and principles. Nottingham: Apollos, 2006.

Grant, Robert, and David Tracy. “The School of Alexandria.” in A Short History of Interpretation of the Bible 2ed. London: SCM Press, 1984

Holladay, Carl R. “Hermeneutics.” in The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition. edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, 415. New York, NY: HarperOne, 1996.

Jensen, Alexander S. Theological Hermeneutics. London: SCM Press, 2007

Lategan, Bernard C. “Hermeneutics.” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary volume 3.  edited by David Noel Freedman. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992.

McKenzie, Steven L. And Stephen R. Haynes. “Introduction.” In To Each Its Own Meaning, Revised and Expanded.   Louisville KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999.

Schneiders, Sandra M. “The New Testament as Word of God.” in The revelatory text: interpreting the New Testament as sacred scripture. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1991.

Thiselton, A.C. “Hermeneutics.” in New Dictionary of Theology. edited by Sinclair B. Ferguson et al., 293-297. Leicester: IVP, 1988.

[1] Bernard C. Lategan, “Hermeneutics.” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary volume 3.  edited by David Noel Freedman. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992), 149.

[2] Alexander S. Jensen, Theological Hermeneutics, (London: SCM, 2007), 2.

[3] Jensen, Theological Hermeneutics, 1.

[4] Carl R. Holladay, “Hermeneutics.” in The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition. edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1996), 415.

[5] Lategan, Hermeneutics, 149.

[6] Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centred Hermeneutics: Biblical-theological foundations and principles. (Nottingham: Apollos, 2006), 24, 26.

[7] Jensen, Theological Hermeneutics, 9.

[8] ibid 11, 24.

[9] Grant, Robert, and David Tracy. “The School of Alexandria.” in A Short History of Interpretation of the Bible 2ed. (London: SCM Press, 1984), .54.

[10] Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Haynes. “Introduction.” In To Each Its Own Meaning, Revised and Expanded.   (Louisville KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999), 5.

[11] Sandra M. Schneiders. “The New Testament as Word of God.” in The revelatory text: interpreting the New Testament as sacred scripture. (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1991), 27.

[12] ibid, 27-28.

[13] ibid, 32.

[14] Ibid, 53.

[15] Lategan, Hermeneutics, 150.

[16] Ibid, 150.

[17] Ibid, 150.

Christian Pastoral Support of People with Mental Illness

Four key characteristics typify the presenting features of depressive illnesses: mood, behaviour, physiology and cognition[1].  Depression can be said to affect the whole person; body, mind, emotions, spirit, soul, imagination and relationships.  With specific reference to people of religious faith experiences characterised by feelings of spiritual despair are often followed by periods of a sense of indifference.  Thoughts concerning the things of God follow general thinking into a downward place[2] and God might cease to exist as an extant, relational being for some religious people who experience a depressive illness.  Statistics indicate that the suicide rate for people experiencing depressive illnesses is thirty-six times higher than for the general population, and at least three times higher than for either people experiencing psychotic illnesses[3] or for people misusing alcohol[4].  Suicidal thinking occurs in approximately three in four people experiencing a depressive illness; around one in seven attempts to end their life[5].

Mental illnesses are primarily physiological rather than spiritual in nature and they are not generally “caused by demons”[6].  It is likely that King Saul experienced bipolar disorder and the prophet Jonah speaks of helplessness and darkness distinct from his physical predicament inside a giant fish[7].  The Psalmist[8] variously describes states of anguish and depression.


On the Threshold of Eternity

On the Threshold of Eternity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


The treatment of depressive disorders in history is associated with the Church’s wider ministry of “soul care” and the mediaeval church used the term accidie, a term akin to sluggishness, to describe staleness in religious practices and in one’s relationship with God, especially among ascetics[9]Accidie can be thought of as depression in association with The Absolute, a “dryness of spirit” that affects the whole being.   As is evidenced better by the Psalmist than the disobedient Saul and Jonah, accidie is primarily a disorder of the faithful religious, not of the spiritually recalcitrant, recidivist, or indifferent.  Depressive illnesses have the capacity to overcome anyone.

In addition to spiritual dryness, the awareness of personal sin is a reality in the thinking of many depressed Christians; therefore pastors must be able to work with people feeling individual guilt or blame behind their feelings of unworthiness.  Glib grace helps no one and leads only to greater isolation[10].   The key theological themes of depressive illnesses are of loneliness and hopelessness and persons who experience most forms of mental disorder are often segregated from their social networks by their emotions and feelings, their symptoms, or by the (sometimes inadvertent) isolating tendencies of these same networks[11].   In this way appropriate pastoral care must take the form of remembering[12], encouragement, and spiritual direction[13], where comfort is offered through listening, attention and presence.  A community approach to pastoral care is vital to overcoming the stigma which might accompany depression in a person of faith.

The fear of encountering those who are different can be overcome through acts of encounter[14], both for providers and consumers of appropriate Christian forms of pastoral care.  One cannot form friendships with someone one has never met and carers and patients must meet before they can begin a relationship.  One reason why pastoral care of people with depressive disorders is a neglected area is because of the significant stress such care places upon individual carers.  Bearing with someone who is expressing his emotions deeply takes a heavy toll on the carer therefore appropriate pastoral responses to persons affected by depressive illnesses must incorporate the care of their carers.  Those within the Church who find themselves afflicted by depressive disorders must seek to understand the depth of pain and social isolation sufferers experience, and seek to reach out to them in appropriate ways to connect them with a fellowship of people who care.  The Christian community must be the initiator of a process of bridge building.

It is worthy of note that for some people the experience of depression can be turned around simply by expressing and discussing their experience with an attuned person; oftentimes the pastoral carer will fill this role through being a patient, supportive, non-judgemental listener[15] even if they are not a mental health professional.  Some people find it helpful to vent their anger and again the pastor can be the sounding board.  But in many cases only being a listener is not enough and the minister must say “okay, but now let’s talk about some action to help you to move on[16].”   This is only appropriate in the case of acute depression; to insist upon rapid change in the case of chronic and endogenous depression is extremely inappropriate.

As one who is both provider and consumer of mental health services I note that pastors must be careful not to expect their clients to provide care to them: that is the job of the pastor’s own family, friends, and carers.  People who are managing their mental health conditions are eminently suitable to be leaders within this ministry, in that they lack the fear of strange behaviours or depth and intensity of negative emotions, but attuned listening should be offered only in one direction in any pastoral relationship.  One reason for this is that care must be tailored to the person herself and not to her perceived needs.  “I know what works for me” is useful, but expecting the recipient to return care based on the carer’s own pastoral needs or wants is not.  It must also be remembered that people managing their own health are still susceptible to low points and the need to withdraw themselves from caring for others in the interests of self-care.

In responding to a person with a depressive disorder the pastoral carer can be said to enter into a tension which cannot be resolved by human effort but only by the work of the Holy Spirit.  It is vital that the role of the pastoral carer does not extend into diagnoses or causes of depression as that is within the remit of the mental health profession.  The primary offering of Christian pastoral carers is the ministry of support; befriending and helping persons cope with living with their mental disorder and sharing the Church’s unique way of supporting people by offering friendship in the name of Christ.  In this way pastoral care focuses on meaning and understanding rather than explanation and treatment[17].

Depression may be an indicator that something is wrong which needs changing, thus it can be of benefit in providing an impetus to change[18]; however any individual with more than a mild depression must be referred to a GP for a thorough check-up to rule out physical or clinical disorders[19].    Ministers and pastoral carers should always work in collaboration with mental health professionals: any case of depression or anxiety in Christian patients should be both/and rather than either/or[20].   Pastoral counselling based on suitable training is an appropriate course of action for people who experience depression, whether they are on medication or not[21], and the pastor’s checklist might include questions concerning difficulties impeding functioning[22], the person’s strengths[23], the nature of the symptoms (behavioural, physiological, cognitive, or affective)[24], and practical first steps, such as looking for positives in life, which might be taken to help turn this depression around[25].

For Christians, disidentification techniques can be useful in challenging negative identities and replacing them with new ones.  “I do not (or “I no longer”) see myself as scum but see myself as Christ sees me,” “I have an emotional life, but I am not my emotions,” and “sometimes I am lonely but I am not loneliness personified” are all worthy mantras[26]. Melancholic individuals have a tendency to see themselves as ineffective therefore it is important to gently assist them in getting active[27]. The pastoral nature of this is vital as many melancholic people don’t wish to be pushed into activity and can become quite resentful at being bullied into “just doing something”[28].   The purpose of such activities should be for the person to be able to make sense out of her existence and to rediscover her sense of meaningfulness in life yet it is also of use in teaching specific social skills to enable her reengagement with community[29].  This should be offered only by a trained counsellor or when explicitly asked for.

In concluding let me address how the specifically religious condition of accidie might be cared for.  Stigma is a barrier to many people engaging in pastoral care and mental health support[30], and the expectations upon Christians that they demonstrate strength in their faith may contribute to such feelings among church attendees.  Do I acknowledge an experience of hope in accidie, or only despair?  Do I believe such despair to be a sin (akin to sloth) or tantamount to a lack of faith?  Is this merely a spiritual dryness which might be treated with prayer and meditation, or is there a physiological undercurrent which requires professional and medical help, a condition which only a doctor can safely diagnose?  The Church must care for its own in how it supports those experiencing dryness to respond to the message of faith, hope and love when they feel distant from God and others, annoyed by their closest friends, and down on themselves.  If this dryness is the experience of the preacher how might the community of faith support the man within accidie to speak of, and re-experience, faith and hope?[31]  For the mystic the relationship with God is changed during the dark night of the soul when God seems absent and life seems empty and uninviting[32].   Not all people of faith who experience depression and anxiety experience spiritual listlessness, especially when their depression and anxiety is physiological in cause, but as a pastoral issue within the local congregation accidie remains noteworthy.  In all things understanding which refuses to ostracise, demonstrates compassion, and offers regular prayer for the person experiencing symptoms, her family and carers, and the pastoral support team is of the essence.


beyondblue, “Stigma and discrimination associated with depression and anxiety position statement Draft for Consultation June 2012”, beyondblue, 2012.

Patton, John. Pastoral care in Context: An Introduction to Pastoral Care. Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press. 1993.

Stone, H.W. and W.M. Clements. (eds.) Handbook for Basic Types of Pastoral Care and Counselling. Nashville TN: Abingdon Press. 1991.

Swinton, John. Resurrecting The Person: Friendship and the Care of People with Mental Health Problems. Nashville TN: Abingdon Press. 2000.

[1] H.W. Stone and W.M. Clements, Handbook for Basic Types of Pastoral Care and Counselling (Nashville TN: Abingdon, 1991), 178.

[2] Ibid., 181.

[3] Such as schizophrenia

[4] Stone and Clements, Handbook, 185.

[5] Ibid., 185.

[6] Jesus claimed in Mark 9:29 that manifestations of demons can be seen in people, but this cannot be understood as establishing a theology explaining the causes of all disorders in mental health.

[7] See Jonah 2:2-7. The hope of God’s response is seen in the verses following.

[8] Examples might be found in Psalm 6:6-7 and Psalm 13:1-3.  The hope of God’s response is seen in the verses following.

[9] Stone and Clements, Handbook, 174.

[10] Ibid., 206.

[11] Including, sadly, the local church.

[12] John Patton, Pastoral Care in Context: an introduction to pastoral care (Louisville KY: Westminster. 1993), 15.

[13] Stone and Clements, Handbook, 207.

[14] John Swinton, Resurrecting the Person (Nashville TN: Abingdon. 2000), 146.

[15] Stone and Clements, Handbook, 187.

[16] Ibid., 188.

[17] Swinton, Resurrecting The Person, 150.

[18] Stone and Clements, Handbook, 176.

[19] Ibid., 178.

[20] In this I disagree with Stone’s rule of thumb which sees ministers able to see depressives until a cut-off at “moderate” at which point medical intervention is preferred.   Ibid., 183.

[21] Ibid., 177.

[22] Ibid., 184.

[23] Ibid., 184.

[24] Ibid., 184.

[25] Ibid., 185.

[26] Ibid., 189.

[27] Ibid., 191.

[28] This is certainly true of me: negotiation is the key.

[29] Ibid., 196.

[30] beyondblue “Stigma and discrimination associated with depression and anxiety position statement Draft for Consultation June 2012”, (beyondblue, 2012) 1.

[31] Stone and Clements, Handbook, 175.

[32] Ibid., 174.