In the 1980’s people responsible for pastoral care in churches were increasingly aware of the insights coming from counselling and psychotherapy but they were struggling to relate these to Christian faith. The pastoral counselling movement in America were happy to use the language of emotional ‘healing’ and point out its close connection with ‘salvation’ in the Bible. A sharp counterblast was circulating in some churches. A popular book claimed that, apart from physical damage to the brain, all mental distress is spiritual and should be approached by pastoral carers in a moral and behaviourist way. Bible texts from Proverbs were often recommended as rules to live by.
Among those teaching counselling skills to Anglican clergy at that time were Frank Lake and Roger Hurding. Lake focussed on Jesus’ sense of identity and worth as expressed in John’s gospel and he related this closely to the model he used in counselling. Hurding was taking his starting point in the creation story: human beings are made in the image of God but the image is damaged and needs restoring. Differences of practice emerged, as Lake’s methods tended to have an element of Gestalt or primal therapy whereas Hurding more typically taught empathetic listening skills.
Interest in charismatic gifts in many churches was bringing to light the powerful effect of pictures and images to open up emotional wounds and bring to light long-standing patterns in people’s lives. Groups and organisations focussing on prayer for healing were developing, and some of their members could see the need to consult experienced counsellors about safe practice. Also in the 80’s there was a similar growth of interest in spiritual direction and retreats. Gerard Hughes’ book, God of Surprises encouraged many people to explore Ignatian approaches to reflecting on biblical passages in relation to the journey of our lives.
Churches began setting up Christian counselling agencies and those involved felt the need for a forum to explore these issues. In London, the organisation Care and Counsel held a private conference in 1983 with the theme: Towards a Theology of Counselling. The papers were given by a theologian, two counsellors, a social worker and a spiritual director and they invited John Gladwin from the Church of England’s Board of Social Responsibility to chair.
In 1986 Care and Counsel linked up with a number of other organisations, including the newly formed Oxford Christian Institute for Counselling and Network Bristol, to hold a more open conference in Bristol. Interested people were enabled to have face to face conversations about therapeutic and theological understandings. The response of those taking part was positive. Another conference was arranged two years later and so the biennial pattern became established, with The Hayes Conference Centre, more or less in the middle of England, as a well-equipped and increasingly comfortable venue.
Robust disagreements and rumbling suspicions between the participants were inevitable but the conference aimed to promote a model that was inclusive and gave permission for various emphases. Roger Hurding in his writings in the late 1980s suggested that there are different pathways leading to the goal of promoting wholeness. He characterized them using five biblical images for ministry: prophet, healer, wise counsellor, shepherd or priest. People within the different groups may not have agreed with the way they were being labelled. We all like to think we represent the perfect balance of all these qualities. But conference participants valued the rich mixture of counsellors, spiritual directors and people involved in various ministries of pastoral care or spiritual healing who were being attracted to the conference. For a while it was known as the Pathways Conference, and a broadsheet Pathways News was produced to keep people informed about what was coming. The 1994 theme expressed this thinking and Hurding, though far from well, laid it out in an opening address. He later wrote up his reflections in Pathways to Wholeness, Hodder & Stoughton, 1998.
By the mid 1990s needs had changed. Counselling had now become a more clearly defined profession. Church-based groups had had to decide whether they were offering counselling with its appropriate boundaries and standards of training. There was a greater understanding of the alternative category pastoral care, where listening and counselling skills are important but where care takes place in more diverse, less boundaried setting. Much more theological reflection had taken place about what it means to offer counselling or pastoral care in Christian contexts or in other contexts. A new generation of conference goers were coming along who stood on the shoulders of their predecessors and no longer fitted the Pathways typology. The 1996 conference decided to focus less on the path and more on the journey. Its theme, Continuing the Journey has become the conference name.
The conference continues to attract a mixture of practising counsellors and people who use counselling insights in pastoral care or spiritual direction.