by Barbara Glasson.
I have been pondering the notion of pastoral care. ‘That’s good’, I might hear you mutter, ‘she does teach Pastoral theology after all!’. But the pondering has taken me on a slightly different path, provoked by a lively moment in the classroom last year and remembering my aunties.
The classroom moment came when we were making our way neatly through the curriculum about the human lifecycle when a number of students of African heritage began to tell stories that began to re-configure our understanding. We had been working with the notion that pastoral care within church communities was the responsibility of individuals pastors – Presbyters, Deacons, pastoral visitors – but what these students were describing was the role of the community as a whole. They told stories of their villages, their extended families, their churches that showed clearly how pastoral care is the role of everyone, not simply individuals.
Then I began to think of aunties. In my growing up there were various categories of aunt. There were those aunts that were part of the family and rocked up at Christmas bearing gifts that could be anything from a dress you’d always wanted but your mother said was frivolous, to a scratchy embroidered handkerchief in a flat box smelling of mothballs. These aunts were unnegotiable relatives whose wet kisses needed to be endured or could be a source of endless mischief. Then there were the ‘aunties’ that were women who were around the neighbourhood, no blood relation but kept an eye out for you. Some of this category of aunty were known by their first name, ‘Aunty Ethel’ but the posh ones were only known by their surname ‘Aunty Crosswell-Jones’. These aunties at best would give you jammy doughnuts or free reign of their gardens whilst they chatted with your Mum. But then, in my case anyway, there were the church aunties, who had mysterious and sometimes tragic stories and it was those aunties that more often than not offered pastoral care.
Last time I encountered a whole cohort of aunties was when I was in Pakistan. In the extended families those women hold a great deal of influence. They arrived in bunches to organise weddings, gossip over chai or have opinions on how people were behaving. They commanded both respect and fear but are also a source of solace and wisdom.
These seemingly random musings caused me to Google ‘aunty’ in the Bible and I have to say I drew a bit of a blank – references to the household of faith or what not to do with your brother’s sister soon defaulted to discussing ‘ants’ which it has to be said feature much more prominently than aunts! It’s not that the aunts aren’t there, it’s rather that they are not described as such, they are simply part of the family group.
Maybe the phenomenon of ‘the aunt’ was a Western construct where we individualised relationships within a nuclear family and gave each other specific roles? Maybe the aunties of my generation were those whose marriage prospects had been blown apart by war or whose sexuality remained hidden? However, whatever those untold stories, I would like to say a rather belated ‘thank you’ to that random group of women.
Meanwhile, I wonder how we might learn from those of different cultural heritages as to how pastoral care could be re-configured so that all care for all? How could the church embody a place of sufficient safety for all to flourish, not simply as individuals but as and for the community? And what more do we need to learn from the aunties?