Tragedies and Christian Congregations

The Practical Theology of Trauma

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Editor(s): 
Christopher Southgate, Carla Grosch-Miller , Hilary Ison, Megan Warner
  • London: 
    Taylor and Francis Group
    , September
     2019.
     318 pages.
     $44.05.
     E-Book.
    ISBN
    9781351050791.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Tragedies and Christian Congregations: The Practical Theology of Trauma emerges from the work of the Tragedy and Congregations Project Team in the United Kingdom. The goal of the project—and by extension the book—is to “resource churches to respond in a healthy way to the impact of tragedies . . . through training both ministers-in-training and serving clergy, in good practice, careful reflection, and personal resilience.” While the team was originally formed in 2016, the work of the project became even more pressing with a series of public traumatic events in the UK in 2017, including the Grenfell Tower Fire, the attack on London Bridge and Borough Market, and the Manchester Arena Bombing. These incidents, along with a few more local events, feature prominently in multiple essays in the book. Constructed primarily for clergy, chaplains, and congregational leaders (alongside academics), this volume serves as a helpful resource for Christian faith leaders guiding their congregations through disaster and trauma as it focuses on “understanding the physiology of trauma response and applying that knowledge to the experience of Christian Congregation in the United Kingdom” (3).

Divided into six parts, the collection begins by addressing the reality of trauma and trauma response both theologically and physiologically and then moves to theological explorations and finally offers resources for faith leaders. Especially helpful as a foundation for the rest of the book is the “Practical Trauma and Theology” essay in part 1 by Carla A. Grosch-Miller, which considers how trauma experiences can shift and/or shatter foundational theological understandings and articulations by studying the journey of a congregation through the challenging reality of a teen’s suicide related, in part, to her sexuality. Like Grosch-Miller’s piece, Hilary Ison’s exploration in part 2 on the biological and physiological impact of trauma provides foundational language and concepts utilized by authors in subsequent essays. Part 3 offers a diverse and multivocal discussion of theology and theodicy around trauma, including a reflection by Deanne Gardner from the UK Afro-Caribbean context.

Parts 4 and 5 consider liturgical and pastoral responses to trauma. The essays in part 4 on liturgical responses are especially noteworthy as they provide practical, biblical, and theological guidance for faith leaders and academics. “Enabling the Work of the People” by Grosch-Miller with Megan Warner and Ison unpacks the power of liturgy to provide “liminal spaces and practices for people as they grieve and mourn and prepare to . . . adjust to a new normal that contains a great loss,” offer a “language of suffering” when trauma renders persons speechless, and gather communities (150). This essay further serves as a robust introduction to sermons and liturgies provided in the appendices. Also in this section are an essay by Warner offering practical invitations to utilize the biblical gift lament and a thought-provoking piece by Karen O’Donnell on the dangers and potential gifts of Eucharistic theology and liturgy for helping communities name and begin to process trauma. The most notable contribution of part 5 is Grosch-Miller’s essay on clergy sexual misconduct and its impact on whole congregations (not only victims/survivors). Part 6 of the book turns to clergy self-care with an edited interview of Sarah Horsman, the Warden of the Sheldon Community which runs a retreat center for those in Christian ministry encountering stress, crisis, or burnout. With topics ranging from advice for clergy care to emotional learning that might come from trauma work to the presence of God, this interview opens a series of much-needed conversations for clergy and congregations.

There is much to commend in this project, not the least of which is the curation, organization, and interconnections forged between the essays by the authors and editors. In addition to an orienting, self-reflective introduction and a conclusion that places essays in conversation with the Christchurch mosque shootings, the editors also provide a brief introduction to each group of essays that puts those essays in conversation with one another and concepts that have come before. As a result, the entire volume reads as a well-moderated roundtable conversation with each author contributing their unique experience, scholarship, and wisdom. This conversational orientation continues as essays reference and cite one another, building upon each other’s work. This dialogical interaction is especially compelling in part 3 where theological viewpoints on trauma, theology, and theodicy from diverse (and even disagreeing) voices are placed alongside and in dialogue with one another.

Along with presenting a multivocal, yet surprisingly cohesive conversation, this volume is an impressive resource for academics and practitioners as it utilizes a broad range of trauma-related literature, even providing reference lists at the end of essays for further study. Many of the authors rely on a shared bedrock bibliography (Judith Herman, Shelly Rambo, Peter Levine, Bessel van der Kolk, etc.) adding to the consistency and cohesiveness, even if the essays can grow a bit repetitive in places. Though many of the resources are American in origin, the authors show a noteworthy, sustained commitment to contextualizing this information for the UK context, highlighting voices and experiences of UK clergy and communities.

Seeking to address a broad variety of traumatic events and experiences, the volume can, admittedly, only scratch the surface of how clergy and faith communities may be impacted by and respond to trauma. With this breadth, there are times that the authors obfuscate the interacting, yet distinct realities of individual and collective trauma as described in Kate Wiebe’s essay “Towards a Faith-Based Approach to Healing after Collective Trauma.” Additionally, more essays on clergy care and support in the midst or immediate aftermath of the event (the “heroic phase”) would have been a valuable addition to the volume. While the interview with Horsman touches upon a smattering of relevant topics, the conversation was largely about clergy care six months or more after the event and did not provide any additional resources (unlike other essays).

Though this collection contains few novel insights in regard to trauma theory and theology, this volume is an outstanding contribution to the field as it brings into rich conversation a variety of scholars and trauma-responsive resources to provoke the academic conversation and meaningfully serve clergy and faith leaders (particularly in the UK context) accompanying congregations through trauma and tragedy.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kimberly R. Wagner is assistant professor of homiletics and the Axel Jacob and Gerda Maria (Swanson) Carlson Chair in Homiletics at Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

Date of Review: 
August 25, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher Southgate, Carla Grosch-Miller, Hilary Ison, and Megan Warner

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