Henry's brother Pete considers the value of being 'feral' from his perspective, drawing on his practice as a social worker
As Henry’s brother, my “back story” is very similar to his, namely treading the academic treadmill of grammar school with “O” followed by “A” Levels followed by university – terminology that shows my age if nothing else! – in a family where we and our Mum were regular C of E worshippers and our Dad was a regular member of the local Quaker Meeting...
Henry went to university to read Theology, having already felt he had a calling to be ordained, I went to read Theology and Philosophy, being less convinced but still feeling a similar calling. At the end of my first year at university, I switched to the single honours Philosophy course on the basis of a stronger calling and the possibility of completing a Theology degree while at theological college.
At the beginning of my third year at university, I obtained the sponsorship of the diocese where Henry was a curate, places at two theological colleges and attended an Advisory Council for the Church’s Ministry (ACCM) Conference for acceptance for training for ordination. As I recall, an ACCM Conference could either accept you for training, reject you or decide it wasn’t sure and suggest you go away and think about it and possibly reapply after at least two years– it my case, they chose the latter! The reason I was given for this was my lack of any involvement or commitment to a congregation. My parents had moved from London to the Sussex coast as I went to university so I lost contact with the congregation I’d grown up with, university terms meant I wasn’t able to form real links with the church either in Sussex or where Henry was a curate and I wasn’t comfortable in the Anglican community at university. Perhaps I’d gone “feral” at an early age!
Having thought about it, for less than two years if I’m honest, I concluded the decision to question my calling was the correct one; I didn’t have one, or at least not to be ordained. While at university, I’d been introduced by a friend of Henry’s to the Richmond Fellowship and became interested in social work, an interest I pursued on graduating, initially as a residential worker with adolescent boys. This felt more in tune with what I felt called to do, and I qualified as a social worker and moved into generic field work.
Although I wouldn’t have expressed it in these terms at the time, looking back at it, the reasons social work enabled me to do what I felt God wanted me to do were threefold:
Social Workers can sometimes fail to recognise that their role can require them to be agents of personal change and societal change but can also require them to be agents of social control, imposing actions on people against their wishes – compulsory admissions to psychiatric hospital or the removal of children from abusive situations for example. Keeping an awareness of those three drivers behind my “vocation” help me to balance those three different roles. They also enable me to be “feral” as a social worker, not constrained by the organisation that I work for, be that a local authority as it used to be, or Safeguarding Adults Boards or Support and Housing providers as it is now, but supported by a professional ethos and professional standards. That “feral” approach also enables me to maintain a personal relationship with God without feeling restricted by membership of an organised church or group.
I do have one problem with the concept of being “feral” however. The term has several definitions, but common to them all is the notion of a return from a state of domestication, yet domestication, in the sense of being adapted to living with human beings, is exactly what I need to be in order to function as a social worker. Empathy, being able to get alongside those I work with is key, in my view, to good quality social work. The same applies, again in my view, to the lives of theists – not just Christians - in manifesting their beliefs in the existence and love of God; and if those beliefs aren’t manifested in their interaction with their fellow human beings and the rest of this glorious creation, then I would have to question the validity and reality of those beliefs.
That is the nub of my issue with the concept of “feral spirituality”; social work does have a specific ethos and a code of practice, perhaps “feral spirituality” needs to develop something similar, not to define and restrict spiritual belief and activity but to set parameters within which it can be practised.