Is ‘person centred’ the most dangerous phrase in Spiritual Direction?

For many years I have been claiming that “child centred education” has been the most damaging slogan in schools in the latter part of the twentieth century. When I do so to a group of older teachers there are usually gasps and twice members of the audience have walked out without waiting to hear more.

The phrase has its origins, I think, in the Plowden Report (1967), but is drawn, ultimately, from Carl Rogers and his work on ‘person centred’ counselling.

This weekend I had the pleasure of spending time with a wise and holy person who is a practitioner of Spiritual Direction and who believes profoundly in a ‘person centred’ approach. He introduced me to the work of Brian Thorne and even lent me some of his books:

My objection to ‘child centred education’ is that it is theologically poor (I have talked a good deal about needing to be a God-centred school), and creates an anthropology that places human beings as the centre of attention. When we place God at the centre of our universe we human beings fall into our natural place (worship); when we place children at the centre of the universe we end up with monsters. It has also fostered a knowledge-light curriculum in which children led their own learning and teachers abrogated responsibility. (See a previous blog post on this here).

Similar objections are possible to person-centred spiritual direction (accompaniment, or whatever other phrase is used). There is an additional problem around Carl Rogers famous phrase ‘unconditional positive regard’, which, it seems to me, is an impossible thing for a Christian Spiritual Director to offer. In fact, when I see someone for the first time I explain that I will call sin just that when they bring it to the table, just as my own Spiritual Director does in my life – usually the most important part of my own Direction; our sins reveal far more about us than our spiritual ‘experiences’ (Discuss.)

I need to do a lot more reading on the relationship between Rogerian counselling and Spiritual Direction. But many of the elements of the mini-industry that has become Spiritual Direction (diocesan courses, lists of Directors, paying for Direction, even as ‘donations’) and the expectations this accumulates have created a model of therapeutic counselling that may well be very important and much needed but which is light years away from the traditional Christian ministry of Directing souls. The wholesale adoption of Rogerian techniques by Christians in this manner also needs questioning because of the widespread caution which qualified therapists hold for Carl Rogers. Rogers, as is well known, began training for Christian ministry but lost his faith. Is Rogerian counselling actually a position for those who are nearly post-Christian but want to hold on to something? The Sea of Faith?

I would be grateful for any more suggestions for reading and for conversation partners in this area.

11 Comments

  1. This is really interesting and I would like to know more myself. I wonder where Ignatian discernment fits within this? I have recently been on two silent retreats at St Beuno’s, the Jesuit retreat house in Wales, which were very much centred on scripture and Christ, whilst also looking at where I was as a person, my own physical tiredness, my recent bereavements, and my emotions. I haven’t done the full Spiritual exercises, but I understand them to very much focus on scripture and grace and sin, whilst working with the individual person’s history and emotions.

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  2. Thanks for this, Richard – of course my Why Rousseau was Wrong covered some of this ground, particularly about child-centred education. Have you read Full of Character yet? It too challenges child-centred autonomy …

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    1. Yes, I love WRWW, haven’t got to FoC yet my Julian reading and prep for Ordination retreat rather taken over!

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  3. Dear Richard, I came across your recent blog at the prompting of a mutual friend. You needn’t be fearful of the person-centred approach. Since I have begun to be interested and influenced by it, it has done me only good. Brian Thorne, like the friend who pointed out his writings to you, is also a wise and holy man – plus a life-long Anglo-Catholic, a most distinguished therapist, the trainer of many therapists and spiritual companions, and the prolific author of many highly-regarded books and articles. It is not for nothing that he is a Lay Canon of Norwich Cathedral and an Emeritus Professor of East Anglia University. He has been possibly the most eminent proponent of the school of Carl Rogers in this country over the last fifty years, and as such was well-placed to supervise the doctoral thesis of Jeff Leonardi, formerly of the Lichfield Diocese, in his doctoral thesis, ‘Partners or Adversaries: Christianity and the Person-Centred Approach’ for the UEA. Leonardi, who was until his retirement, the Bishop of Lichfield’s Adviser for Pastoral Carr and Counselling, grounds his work in the theological and spiritual milieu of the Eastern Fathers. Hope this helps. Michael Kirkham

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    1. Michael, thank you. I have a qualification in counselling from the Westminster Pastoral Foundation and quite a lot of experience. I haven’t read Rogers for a number of years. My questions are not from ignorance but from knowledge. It seems to me that Rogerian SD is something new between therapeutic counselling and SD, but not quite the latter, and not faithful to the tradition. The new discovery for me is the negative reaction from clinical pyschologists to the Rogerian model and I would like to read more about that. I will comment more when reading time allows …

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    2. Michael, I seen to have deleted your follow up comment by accident, I really want to post it and reply to it; I am terribly sorry! If you were able to repost that would be great. I will see if I can find it in the depths of WordPress ….

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  4. Hello Richard. May I say that your remark about “The negative reaction from clinical psychologists to the Rogerian model” is a very sweeping statement? How many? Representing which alternative models? And for what possibly covert reasons are these psychologists hostile? People who like to be in a position of power, whether we are talking about psychiatry, counselling or spiritual direction, probably won’t like the Rogerian approach because it gives responsibility for healing and personal growth over to the patient, the client, the directee. It is empowering to them – and conversely the ‘expert’ has humbly to renounce their theoretical constructs and ‘knowledge is power’ orientation to become instead the facilitator, the companion, the wise and caring friend, to serve the instinct for growth that the other may need some level of support to access. Not all ‘experts’ are ready for this self-emptying! It’s all there in the title really: do you want to be a spiritual director or a spiritual companion?

    The person centred approach is moreover simply an approach to relating with a view to promoting personal/spiritual growth rather than to imparting an external body of knowledge or instilling a uniformity of practice. Therefore it is one that can be applied in many contexts, not only to the area of mental health, but also (among others) to that of being a spiritual friend. It can be of assistance to people of many different faith perspectives, or none. As such it can also be helpful within the world of Christian spirituality. When I was a young Anglican, for example, I was helped a great deal by the Mirfield Fathers. There was no one model they operated by – but one Father in particular was really quite directive, others simply offered warm encouragement in what I would now recognise as a person-centred way. I was helped more by the latter than the former.

    There is also not just one tradition of spirituality within the Church, but many. Spiritual directors/companions must be attentive to the needs of those who come to them for accompaniment. New converts will probably need some guidance if that is what they wish in becoming grounded within the tradition of the Church as they seek to develop a spiritual practice, but beyond that we should be attentive to what the Holy Spirit is stirring within them. On my own journey over the years I have gained much of value from both Anglo-Catholicism and Franciscanism, but mostly it has been the personal relationship with my spiritual director or companion that has counted for most. My own conviction is that truly taking on board the core conditions of the person-centred approach (empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard) can offer those called to the ministry of spiritual accompaniment an orientation that for those they accompany can be life-giving.

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    1. Michael, found your comment! Thank you for taking the time to reply.
      I stress that my ideas are still tentative at this stage and as I say in the post I want to read much more about this.
      My suspicion at the moment I that Rogerian methodology is rather similar to Myers-Briggs in being immensely popular among Christians but lacking and scientific research base. I just can’y answer the questions about how widespread that is but it seems to be very common. I think your final question “do you want to be a spiritual director or spiritual companion?’ is very telling. When I see people for the first time I always say that I like the term spiritual director and that is what I offer. It is very much part of the Christian tradition over many centuries. the debate about this prattles precisely the influence on Rogerian models in teaching in which ‘didactic’ or instructional became a dirty word. I now want to see didactic teachers delivering direct instruction.
      The fact that you use the word ‘knowledge’ is also deeply relevant. I have moved from wanting to see education in schools being discover, or learning of skills to seeing that all learning is really about knowledge. Could it be the same in the spiritual life?
      Of course there is not one tradition of spirituality. But all forms of spirituality are Christian, all are Jesus-centred, all emerge from lifetimes of reflection on the Scriptures under the influence of the Holy Spirit. They emerge from a context in which they are profoundly shaped by the liturgy and the Christian year. Rogerian counselling has come from an individual who rejected the Christian faith. I have a fundamental concern about the anthropology which is not sufficiently Christian and which takes no account of original sin, the fall and redemption.
      those, like ,e, who were brought up in child-centred education, loved it, children were Hppy, we fostered ‘creativity’, we were geared to the individual; it is not that we were unhappy but that we didn’t know what we were missing.
      Interestingly, I suspect there is some danger in the Rogerian model of the counsellor being an ‘expert’, the calm listener in the corner. When I begin direction with individuals I stress that I am not a guru, I expect them to make adult decisions about what I say which may be to reject 90% or even all of it. That is OK. When people need counselling, I sometimes say that I won’t see them for direction until after they have received counselling and sometimes suggest they see a counsellor alongside seeing me. It is a different thing. I am not offering therapy, I am offering spiritual direction.
      I am also interested in that in working with children and young adults I have seen the gradual end of pyscho-dynamic and Rogerian models being used with them. It just doesn’t work. Children don’t have sufficient narrative ti engage in the process. CBT, NLP even TA are much more effective. Behaviour rather than narrative counts. perhaps that is, in fact true of adults too?
      Frances Ward who has commented here has written brilliant book Why Rousea Was Wrong which is well worth reading. Is Rogerian counselling a fruit of the romantic movement? I don’t know. But I value interaction on this.
      In practice I think in the Church of England there are two streams of practice going on. The diocesan lists, training, SpiDir courses (which I did in 1992) and Rogerian type accompaniment; but actually many people are offering and receiving much more traditional Spiritual Direction, because there is no infrastructure around this it doesn’t appear above the parapet, but it is probably more widespread than we realise.
      I would value further conversation nd will post this exchange separately. I am grateful for your engaging with me. Although I did intend to prove conversation it was only in order to think more deeply and have my views challenged, for which I am grateful.

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      1. I feel I shouldn’t trespass on your blog much more, Richard, but some further thoughts come to mind. Carl Rogers prided himself on the abundant clinical evidence which demonstrated the success of his person-centred (originally termed client-centred) approach in therapy. Recent studies have confirmed both its continued success and its value for money compared with other approaches currently in vogue, such as CBT.

        It seems that your animus against the person-centred approach arises from your experiences of poorly-delivered attempts at child-centred education at schools in run-down, socially deprived inner city areas. I do understand how challenging it must be to teach in such circumstances. My own daughters have all worked in nurseries where biting and screaming are problematic even among disturbed children of the youngest ages. However to me that does not invalidate attempts at child-centred education in appropriate conditions by good teachers. It is unfortunate that it is no longer the school but home-based education which perhaps offers the most promising environment for it in today’s world.

        My wife’s grandfathers both worked down the pits, but she was fortunate enough to be educated from the ages of 4 to 16 at a child-centred Steiner School located in a working class town in Derbyshire. She still keeps in touch with many of her school friends, none of whom were little monsters. Most of them are now interesting, individual and somewhat non-conformist adults; some are also very actively involved in social issues. The kindly-remembered teacher she had from the age of 8 to 14 had definitely not abrogated responsibility, and my wife continued to exchange cards and letters with her until the end of her life on a regular basis. It is the only school I have known where traditional medieval Mystery Plays (The Creation/Fall of Adam and Eve, and the Annunciation/Nativity of Christ) were performed annually (and had been since the 1920s), and the children of her class put on a number of self-produced Shakespeare plays without any input from the teaching staff. I think Ofsted should have been very proud of this school, but sadly not. It had not kept up with times, didn’t ‘teach to the test’, make exam results the be-all and end-all of education or strongly promote modern technology. The school had received a number of damning reports over the years which parents saw for what they were, but the last report was one too many. Sadly the decision was made that it should close. It will leave a gap. No other school in Derbyshire was remotely like it. In its own way it was God-centred, though not in a confessional sense.

        For the possibilities that child-centred education offers, you might like to read Victoria Axline’s ‘Dibs in Search of Self’, tributes to George Lyward by Michael Burn in ‘Mr Lyward’s Answer’ and by Brian Thorne in several of his books (including ‘Love’s Embrace’ and ‘Counselling and Spiritual Accompaniment’); or turn to Netflix, put up your feet and consider the manner of education of Gerald Durrell (later awarded the OBE for his contribution to conservation) in ‘The Durrells’.

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  5. I’m afraid I’m no expert but my experience of Person Centred Therapy has been entirely positive (for myself) allowing me to retain my faith in God and my humanity. Interestingly whilst in therapy it was impossible to make my confession – something that Thorne points out in his books – as my understanding of who I was, my responsibility and the God against whom I was sinning were all in flux. A practise I’ve returned to happily now no longer in therapy. I wouldn’t understand being Person Centred as making being God Centred impossible – I think it’s just a matter of perspective. Jesus didn’t need therapy not because he was God but because he was fully human!

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  6. I read another post you wrote where you expressed your reservations about Carl Rogers. Carl Rogers does not offer theology, and so any Christian spiritual direction based on Rogerian principles will also need Christian theology. But on the other hand, Rogers consistently offers such human warmth (in my reading of him), which is, to my mind, at least a taste of Christian “agape”. So I think Rogers leads me in the right direction of love and sensitivity to another human being. But without Christian theology, Rogers would ultimately not lead anyone to God (which is not to say that God could not use Rogerian principles to take someone to God, as a previous comment your post suggests). I think this is what makes Rogers’ work and writing remarkable – that he thought so much about love, in a world where so many (including many Christians) think so much about power.

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