Understanding the Encounter between Christianity, Psychotherapy, and Spirituality in Scotland

Project Details


Religion and Society Programme Grant

Layman's description

The project investigated the coalescence of psychotherapy and Christianity in post-war Scotland. Post-war Scotland exported substantial psychotherapeutic and pastoral expertise to New Zealand, the USA, and Australia, but less is known about what happened on the domestic scene. The project brought together senior and junior academics in an interdisciplinary investigation whcih combined theology, the theory of psychotherapy, cultural history, and history of ideas. The project compiled an oral history archive comprising interviews with 16 key practitioners from the period under investigation. Other outputs include a website and a succession of scholarly articles from the research team. A wide range of seminars, lectures and two day conferences for scholars and practitioners were also organised. The project has spawned a further sub-project to maximise impact amongst user-groups through the medium of readers' theatre.

Key findings

This project aimed to explore the interconnections between psychotherapy, Christianity and new discourses of spirituality between 1945 and 2000, focusing primarily on Scotland. A wide range of interconnections have been identified, and we have followed some of these threads temporally and geographically.

We have traced the close convergence between core themes of Scottish philosophy (represented for example by John Macmurray’s work) and Scottish formulations of psychoanalysis (associated for example with Ian Suttie, Ronald Fairbairn and John Sutherland). We have also shown how a period of rich engagement between those working in the fields of theology and psychotherapy in the post-war period waned but did not vanish during the last two decades of the twentieth century . The influence of Scottish religious thought in the writings of the Scottish-born psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Ronald Laing have been explored. We have also offered critical readings of the interweaving of Scottish theological and psychotherapeutic thought in relation to ideas about the rise of “self-spirituality” towards the end of the twentieth century. All this has prompted critical reflection on the relationship between theology and psychotherapy, and offered readings of psychotherapy that reformulate and reframe theological ideas.

Alongside our engagement with the history of ideas, we have explored institutional developments and the roles of key individuals in the creation of new ways of offering pastoral care and psychotherapy. We have traced the intertwining of religious, spiritual and psychotherapeutic ideas in Winfred Rushforth’s work, including through the Davidson Clinic in Edinburgh, which operated from 1940 to 1973, fostering “Christian psychotherapy” and later serving as the springboard for new organisations that drew on Sufi, Taoist and Buddhist traditions. Drawing on oral history testimony we have identified how psychotherapeutic ideas informed the growth of house groups and innovations in pastoral care. This testimony together with archival sources demonstrates the important role the churches played in the development of new counselling services between from the 1970s to the end of the twentieth century, including Church of Scotland, Roman Catholic and ecumenical ventures . Gender is an important theme here and we show how the churches encouraged and enabled women to develop new kinds of professionalised caring roles in these counselling centres. We also show how and why this close collaboration between the churches and psychotherapy began to wane in the late twentieth century . Finally, analysis of the oral histories and under-exploited archival sources has thrown new light on the interaction between changing psychotherapeutic emphases and new religious ideas, especially from the 1960s .

The emergence of psychotherapy in the twentieth century and its subsequent expressions reveal inter alia a holistic and integrated approach in which broader issues around the meaning of human existence - especially in relation to personal identities and interpersonal relationships - could be explored critically and dialogically. The loss of this wider dimension is seen by many on both sides of theology and therapy to require urgent attention today.
AcronymTheology and Therapy
Effective start/end date1/01/1031/05/12


  • AHRC: £283,352.00
  • AHRC: £30,668.00


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