By Cole Hartin
I wish I had read Martin Thornton’s Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation eight years ago, before I started working in parish ministry. Thornton (1915-86) was a priest of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd serving in the Diocese of Truro. He wrote extensively on the spiritual life. I stumbled upon a copy of his Pastoral Theology in the discards from our local university. I am glad that I did.
Long held in esteem by Anglo-Catholics, Thornton’s theology has had less sway in the parts of the Anglican Communion heir to the Evangelical movement. But Pastoral Theology, despite language that will be more familiar to those with more catholic tendencies, is a profound and significant work of theology that deserves a much wider readership across the churches, and especially in the Anglican Communion. I should note too that I am writing from the perspective of a priest who is serving in a formal but Low Church congregation, and I have found this work to be deeply meaningful, especially when coming to terms with parish life on this side of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the most important ideas in this book is Thornton’s “Remnant hypothesis.” This is his solution to the problem of pastoral theology he sees in the Church of England. Though first published in 1956, when church attendance was much more normative, and the state of the Anglican Church in the West was much more influential than it is today, Thornton struggled with how the pastor ought to respond to general disengagement from parish life.
What does the priest do with all the folks who only show up at church sporadically? Does she care for those within the parish bounds who are only nominally Christians? Thornton put it this way: “When a priest is instituted to a parish he is said to acquire a ‘cure of’ or ‘care for’ souls, he accepts a stewardship and he undertakes a responsibility. The first difficulty arises when, assuming a responsibility to God, we ask precisely whom the priest is responsible for” (14).
The two normative answers to this question, according to Thornton, is that the priest is responsible for everyone in the parish, or she is responsible for only the active members of the parish church at a given time.
This first possibility, which Thornton calls “multitudinism,” is unsatisfactory because not all those living within the parish bounds might want spiritual care. The reality is that many people in a parish might not be Christians at all. And those who are nominally Christians, if they are treated as if they are committed disciples, will only contribute to the impression that the standard for the Christian life is immeasurably low. This is to say nothing of the logistical impossibility of the priest being present to so many people.
The second possibility, that the priest ought only to care for active church members, while it takes seriously the fact that a priest is limited, and only a minority of people are engaged in parish life, creates a kind elitism wherein pastoral care is reserved only for those who have rolled up their sleeves in the work of the parish.
So Thornton suggests a third possibility. He writes, “The one hope of solving our problem appears to lie in the elimination of numerical thinking altogether, and in seeing parish-plus-cure-of-souls as a sacramental whole — that is, as an integrated organism” (18). He goes on to say that
the Catholic Church is the body, not the sum, of all the faithful; an organic whole comprising parishes as organic wholes comprising souls as organic wholes: which is only saying that the vine consists of branches which consist of cells. And the relation between the Catholic and parochial organism is seen to be one of recapitulation or microcosm: ideas constantly recurring in Christian theology. (19)
The idea here is that it is not the crowd nor the elite group of parishioners that are most important. Rather — if the parish is a microcosm of the Church Catholic — a small group of parishioners worshiping actually instantiates the body of Christ in a particular time and place so that worship is vicariously offered on behalf of the whole of the Church.
Therefore, numbers don’t matter.
So, when the priest gathers with the remnant — a handful of parishioners — to say the daily office or to share in the Eucharist, it is not for their own sake (“the rest of the slackers in the parish be damned!”) nor is it diminished by the absence of those families who only seem to make it to the midnight Mass on Christmas Eve (“It’s too bad church can’t always be so full of life”). But when the gathering is nothing more than the priest plus the remnant — whether two or three, or two or three hundred — the same work of prayer is being offered, and thus God’s blessing and benediction are being given not just to the gathered faithful, but to the whole Catholic Church, multitudinous as it is.
Thornton roots the Remnant hypothesis in Jesus’ own ministry, which was very parochial, and focused primarily on the pastoral care of his closest disciples. Furthermore, Jesus’ attention was given almost exclusively to Israel. But the scope of Jesus’ earthly ministry, though it remained extremely narrow, was not for the purpose of excluding everyone else from the kingdom of God, but the very means by which he brought the kingdom to all of humanity.
Thornton’s theology is elegant, and I find it rings true to my experiences of pastoral ministry. It takes seriously human finitude, but also seeks to articulate a theological vision of what is possible, even given these limits. I can’t visit everyone in my parish. But visiting and praying with one has reverberation through the whole. Not everyone is gathered in the sanctuary on Sunday, and they miss some benefit from this, but still the gifts of God have a means of blessing the whole people of God through the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving that we 70 or 80 people do offer.
Especially as our congregational gatherings have diminished over the pandemic, Thornton’s outlook — if he is correct — makes it possible to see the deep value in our worship and prayer, even if we have a lower Average Sunday Attendance than we did two years ago.
While this might be a helpful way of making sense of what is going on in the church theologically, it does not address the reality of waning tithes and increasingly disengaged families. These practical realities do have a material effect on the parish and the priest. And it is all too tempting to apply Thornton’s theology here as a means of self-deception. It’s well and good that one can gather with two people to share Communion and say that they are experiencing the fullness of the Eucharist in microcosm. But it may be that one is simply avoiding the reality of pastoring a declining church.
Thornton’s theology should not serve as a smokescreen for such practical problems, nor is it a solution to them. However, I believe its value remains as a theological scaffolding to make sense of what we give and receive in worship, even as we sort out longer-term plans and address difficult problems.