Cameron on his vicar: "I can’t think of anyone who was more loving or thoughtful or kind"
This is the Rev'd Mark Abrey, vicar of St. Nicholas' Church, Chadlington, Oxfordshire. He seems to be a quiet and unassuming sort of minister, so you won't find much written about him anywhere. Indeed, it took His Grace the best part of an hour to unearth a photograph. The Rev'd Mark happens to be David Cameron's local vicar in his constituency. And this is what the Prime Minister said of him at Wednesday's Downing Street Easter reception:
..it’s lovely to have here tonight the vicar from St Mary Abbots school, Gillean Craig, and also the vicar who looks after me spiritually in the constituency, Mark Abrey in Chadlington, who, when I often – anyone asks me about the pastoral care that many vicars carry out across the country, I remember 5 years ago when we had to mourn the loss and bury my son Ivan, I can’t think of anyone who was more loving or thoughtful or kind than Mark. And of course, Ivan would have been 12 yesterday, which has had me pause to think about that.Now, Mr Cameron said an awful lot more in his speech, which spanned politics, religion, the law of Christ, the Big Society and Dyno-Rod. And you may read all of that for yourselves and make up your own minds what you think about it. But His Grace is going to dwell on this single sentence of tribute to a single Church of England vicar, for this speech was extempore - not carefully crafted by some Downing Street hireling. And, clearly coming from the heart, it reveals rather more about the Prime Minister's spirituality and appreciation of the Church of England's ministry than anything he has previously disclosed.
You see, however the Rev'd Mark Abrey votes and whatever his personal political beliefs, he has pastoral responsibility for all those who live within his entire parish. The pastoral care, prayer and support he provides constitutes an applied theology, and clearly, in the case of David Cameron, the Rev'd Mark has brought the liberating power of the gospel to bear on the actual circumstances of the Prime Minister's life. There was no imposition and no prior condition: the trappings of state and political power presented no hurdle to the vicar's compassion to weep with those who weep. The love of God - agape - reaches down to create a new love - caritas - in which humans are able, regardless of their wretched state or inconsolable grief, to behold their creator in a joy for which they are destined.
Dramatic changes in social circumstances and upheaval in our personal lives create pastoral needs. If Christian theology is to maintain any credibility at all in this increasingly secular, post-Christian age, it cannot ignore those needs. And it must adapt to human experience and observation, for, as we have seen in the lives of St Paul, St Augustine, Luther, Barth, Bonhoeffer and many others, a pastoral crisis can call received theological wisdom into question, and a new integrity has to be sought which is resonant with contemporary insights into human need and suffering, as it is manifested not only in the lives of individuals, but also in the behaviour and needs of whole societies.
The pastoral nature of Christian theology - as embodied by the Rev'd Mark Abrey and thousands of other ministers all over the country and the world - is what makes its existence necessary in the first place. It is something done sacrificially and empathetically by human beings to human beings, which is why it speaks to them most profoundly and creatively when it addresses the actual circumstances of their lives., especially when they are threatened, insecure, desolate or inconsolable with grief. Consider this section of the Prime Minister's speech:
I often get my moment of greatest peace – not every week, I’m ashamed to say, but perhaps every other week I pop in to the Thursday morning sung Eucharist beautiful service in St Mary Abbots, and I find a little bit of peace and hopefully a little bit of guidance.Who are you to judge this simple insight? Who are you to condemn the search for navigation through stormy political waters? Who are you to be offended that David Cameron calls Christ "our Saviour"? He tells us that he went on a pilgrimage to Bethlehem and Jerusalem: "And it’s a very special moment the first time you go to the Church of the Holy Nativity; it’s a remarkable, extraordinary place, and I think something that will stay with me."
You may think he's a political chameleon and spiritual charlatan, spouting about this being a "Christian country" to try to dupe disaffected Christians into voting Tory. But is it not written that "all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags"? He says he wants to "do more to raise the profile of the persecution of Christians around the world", and we are still waiting to hear what this might be. But please don't think that one who has mourned the death of his own son cannot taste the grief of the many thousands of bereaved parents and orphaned children whose tears are unending.
Pray for the Prime Minister, as St Paul exhorts, "For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty." And pray for the Rev'd Mark Abrey, that his witness to the Cameron family may continue to be "loving, thoughtful (and) kind"; that he might be wise and compassionate, manifesting the love of God to them as each opportunity presents itself to challenge the ever-renewing secular knowledge that purports to hold so much promise for the amelioration of the human lot, but which, without Christ, is little more than self-sufficient, self-deluding hubris.