By Mark Clavier
“You’re the first vicar ever to visit my home.”
I can’t tell you how many times someone has said something along those lines to me. In some places where I’ve served, this clerical inattention was understandable enough due to the size of the parish or the number of churches combined into one. But in most cases, the speakers have been elderly churchgoers who had spent a lifetime faithfully attending a church that seemingly had never returned their devotion. I’m not sure we esteem highly enough those who continue to attend church despite years of priestly neglect.
I recently was sitting by the bedside of a dear lady nearing the end of her long life. Despite the imminence of death, she was in a cheerful, reflective mood, telling me stories about her life as a farmer’s wife and her involvement in her local church. But then her face clouded over. I asked her what was wrong, and she replied, “You know, Father, the day I became useless to that church was the day the clergy stopped taking any interest in me.” She then confessed to me that though her faith in God remained unshaken, she had long since lost any faith in the church.
I have in my library a delightful little book, Pastoral Work, written in the 19th century by the Bishop of Bedford. It was taken from a series of pastoral charges he gave at Cambridge and contains such gems as “a house-going parson makes a church-going people.” In it, he reminds them of the importance of pastoral work and the etiquette involved in conducting it.
Overall, I find its somewhat dated foolishness wiser than the wisdom of much that’s written today. But the part that has always stuck with me is the standard he sets for a sustainable level of pastoral work: “I think … an active earnest parish priest in a large town parish ought not to be content to pay less than thirty-six to forty visits weekly.” He encourages clergy to spend every afternoon visiting people in their homes.
In all the talk about how to reverse the Church’s decline, there is rarely much about the need to revive dependable, effective, and attentive pastoral visiting among clergy. Invariably our debates center on styles of worship or models of local ministry (usually limited to structure and governance), as though what clergy do outside of Sundays or within their office is immaterial. Indeed, when pastoral visiting is mentioned it’s often as one of the more obvious jobs that can be done by the laity and so is left for them to do alone. This is fundamentally to misunderstand the purpose of pastoral visiting.
In one of my former guises, I taught pastoral studies at a couple of British theological colleges. Much of what I was supposed to teach was nonsense derived either from pop psychology or (worse) corporate management, as though what my ordinands’ future parishioners desperately required was a therapist or an HR consultant. I tried as much as I could to avoid all that and instead had them read Gregory’s Pastoral Rule and George Herbert’s The Country Parson with a little Ken Leech and Thomas Oden thrown in. I preferred these old authors to the current textbooks because I found in them the combination of pastoral love, faith, and prayer that I hoped would underpin my ordinands’ future ministries.
“Being a good priest isn’t rocket science,” I used to tell my ordinands. “You simply need to love your people and be seen to love your people.”
I was, of course, being both hyperbolic and trite. Gregory the Great, a man much wiser than I, warned against undertaking pastoral care lightly: “No one presumes to teach an art till he has first, with intent meditation, learnt it. What rashness is it, then, for the unskillful to assume pastoral authority since the government of souls is the art of arts!” Because the consequences of the “government of souls” are so great, he believed that instructing clergy in the ars artium responsibly and fruitfully was of the highest importance. They needed to know how to bring theology, prayer, and wise counsel to bear in order to advance the souls under their charge toward God. Pastoral care wasn’t chiefly about making people feel better or even loved but about the salvation of their souls.
In order to practice the ars artium well, clergy needed not just to know their people, but to know them well.
Sadly, the modern ministry does not lend itself to attentive pastoral work, even for those so disposed. In many cases, clergy have too many churches under their charge to entertain anything like Gregory’s “government of souls.” Many are forced to devote their attention largely to baptism, wedding, and funeral visits — in most cases, with people they will hardly if ever see again. As a result, our churches are filled with people so neglected pastorally that it hardly ever crosses their minds that faith is something that ought to shape their daily lives and inform even their mundane decisions.
Good pastoral care requires knowing the people under our care well. It is built on trust. It shouldn’t, therefore, be restricted to moments of crisis or major life events. We must visit people in their normal lives as well — “To the sick as to the whole” is how the Ordinal puts it. Often dismissed as “social calls,” these visits allow clergy to cross the threshold of homes, meet and get to know people in their own household, and build the trust — perhaps even the bonds of affection — that prepares the spiritual soil for faith to grow and develop. In that way, too, when crises arise, the priest can minister to parishioners’ needs as a friend rather than a stranger.
None of this precludes or devalues the role of the laity. A healthy church should have clergy and laity working together to ensure that the congregation is properly cared for. Indeed, the traditional emphasis on corporal acts of mercy has long served as a reminder that all Christians have a duty to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, give shelter to travelers, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead. The value of a layperson showing up to pray cannot be overstated. I think the laity also have a role in holding their clergy to account — if they’re active, they’ll know if their priest isn’t.
So, the laity play a vital role within the overarching pastoral ministry of our churches. But few of them have the theological training to guide those whom they visit and none of them has the authority that’s vested in the priesthood. Though the cure of souls depends on their help and support, it remains the personal charge of the incumbent and as such requires personal commitment. In fact, I don’t think pastoral visiting can be outsourced by clergy without cost; it’s in the conduct of that ministry that we are strengthened to bear the cross of our priestly ministry. It is in feeding our flock that we ourselves are fed.
“Make your life a sermon,” advises the Bishop of Bedford when describing the tools required for clergy to perform their pastoral work. The equipment he enjoins them to use are personal holiness, prayerfulness, and devotional reading, including the study of Scripture. If we want to begin to revive our churches, following his advice wouldn’t be a bad place for us to begin.