With the wisdom of hindsight (which is a kinder way of saying age is having its way with me) I become ever more convinced that this Church will live or die according to our pastoral witness.
Diocesan and general synods are powerful instruments of law and governance but they don’t shepherd souls from this world to the next. (Hasten perhaps, but let’s not go there.)
Neither do they meet people in moments of joy and suffering.
The pastoral visitor – lay or clergy – is the one who carries the Christ-light into personal darkness, and it’s no secret that a short, well-timed visit with a tin of home baking can warm the saddest of hearts.
A country parish in which I served had been blessed with many fine clergy, including some of the best preachers this Church has seen.
But who did the parishioners remember most fondly? Not the riveting preacher.
Country folk know that oratory will not get the paddock ploughed or the sheep drafted. That requires women and men who will get down and dirty, especially when the weather is turning.
So the vicars whose names evoked smiles of remembrance – many years later – were generally quiet clergy who apparently did little more than turn up in doorways, in and out of season. And diligently conduct Sunday worship, of course.
One older woman recalled a vicar who used to take over the ironing while she boiled the kettle. He seemed to have nothing better to do, she said – which is precisely right.
Certainly, he was not captive to the tyranny of unanswered emails and insistent cellphones. No, after a morning in his study he was free for a stroll down high street or a pastoral expedition over some cattle-stops.
And if Church House couldn’t raise him, well and good; there was always tomorrow.
Yes, I know. This is sounding like “the good old days” – which in truth were often long and mean.
But let’s acknowledge that the vicar on a bike modelled something that sits oddly in today’s litany of key performance indicators and strategic opportunities.
He gave the impression of having time to listen and chat: an idle enough exercise on the surface, but actually the building-up of familiarity and trust that would swing open doors in a crisis.
Pyschologist Patricia Champion, an authority on child development, notes that when two people are together the “space between them” creates electrical and chemical activity in both brains simultaneously.
Whether the relationship is caregiver to infant, teacher to pupil, neighbour to neighbour, vicar at the church door, priest with the dying, or any other human interaction, the critical question is Will this brain activity register as positive or negative?
Oh dear. As a lifelong Anglican, Patricia has too often been the recipient of shoulder-gazing at the church door.
As she noted in her presentation at the Transitional Cathedral last month, relationship really comes down to whether we are “fully present with the other.” With a subtext: I am here for you and you are worth it.
“What does it really mean to walk in another’s shoes?” Patricia asked. Then: “It must always be the other person’s story, not ours.”
Tell that to some of the people we get seated with at dinner parties or wedding breakfasts. I know it’s rude to pry into a stranger’s life, but in the course of several hours I do welcome one or two gentle inquiries about my own world, ordinary though it is.
Patricia finished her presentation with a story from medicine that struck me as better than a tonic.
When patients go to the doctor, she said, they are looking for both healer and expert. They want the correct diagnosis and appropriate remedy, but they also want someone who connects with them in spite of their suffering.
A dying patient put it this way:
“I wouldn’t demand a lot of my doctor’s time. I just wish he would brood on my situation for perhaps five minutes, that he would give me his whole mind, just once, be bonded with me for a brief space, survey my soul as well as my flesh, to get at my illness.
“I’d like my doctor to look deeply at me, to grope for my spirit as well as my prostate. Without such recognition I am nothing but my illness.”
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A verse to dwell on this week: Jesus, looking at him, loved him… ( Mark 10: 21)