Second, the terrain of presenting issues that Agony Aunts engage with is entirely cognisant with the open and ambivalent texture of pastoral counselling and conversation. Feelings of shame, guilt, inadequacy, grief, anger, confusion, resentment, bitterness and more besides are engaged with in a manner that is undoubtedly receptive, succinct, yet belies the wisdom offered. If Problem Pages are, effectively, a confessional, the respondent speaks over the head of the correspondent to the wider readership. We are offered a pulpit of intimacy; altars of transformational communion; an exchange of peace; conditional or fulsome absolution for the sin and shame that seems to cling so closely; and yet, received, heard and resolved, leads to healing and liberation.
Third, as John Hardy reflects (‘Overheard in Passing: Talking Weather, Funerals and Implicit Religion’, Theology, July/August 2017, Volume 120, no. 2, pp. 271- 278), even our ordinary weather-related discourse takes on a form of sublimated spirituality, hinting at the calming liturgical-like chant of the shipping forecast on BBC Radio 4, every midnight. It soothes us. Agony Aunts seem adept at comforting the afflicted, and occasionally afflicting the comfortable – the smug and self-righteous. Here, I am very struck by Emma Percy’s readings of the transformations captured in the Queer Eye TV series – kindness, care, attentive listening and discernment in the detail matter to those who are bound by social, moral or religious constraints that oppress. [See: Emma Percy’s essay in Fearful Times; Living Faith, (eds) Robert Boak Slocum and Martyn Percy, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2021)].
Can it really be the case that Agony Aunts offer us something that can be ascribed to Implicit Religion? I think so, since their counsel constitutes a form of pastoral-chaplaincy in public space – be that the family home, workplace, bedroom or other arena. I think of the Doonesbury cartoon (by Trudeau, published in June 1993), where a soldier wounded in hospital after the first Gulf War and struggling with PTSD unburdens himself to another officer who is clearly a skilled listener and reflector. The wounded soldier asks if the officer is a Chaplain? The confidant replies that he is not, but instead should be regardedas the “Morale Officer” for those recovering from the trauma of war, and those made to witness this in their roles. Concepts such as morale, counsel, kindness and compassion may seem like common fare for the caring professions, but I hold them to have an intrinsic religious quality that offers an entirely different perspective on the ‘priesthood of all believers’. In the Problem Pages, we frequently find an almost ritualistic confession-counsel-absolution sequencing, not even lacking the gospel punchline “go, and sin no more”. What comes through the office of Agony Aunt is a delicate and reticulate blend of feminine, maternal, caring, listening, compassion, kindness and counsel. Agony Aunts are there to guide us – spiritually, morally, emotionally and pastorally – and they do so with an attentiveness that lends itself to an interpretative framework that would not be unfamiliar to those engaged in reading Implicit Religion. Implicit Religion as an Interpretative Lens.