Christopher Idle on the virtues of visiting
First, two documents some seventy years apart. One is from an old SPCK book lying almost forgotten in a church library: a contributor to the 1928 symposium Essays Catholic and Missionary is speaking of the latest model of incumbent. If in a town parish he has possibly joined the new school that would rather wait in a vestry to counsel the faithful than to go round houses and dockyards after the lost sheep. Or perhaps, unsparing of himself, he is seeking by a perpetual galvanism of guilds and personal stimulus of meetings to supply the absence of life from on high, to keep the clock hands moving without the spring. He is too busy to fret if there are no fresh conversions…
Thus Cecil Boutflower, Bishop of Southampton, formerly of Barrow-in- Furness and Tokyo, and author of ‘O joy of God, that comest in the morning.’
Fast forward to exhibit two, a so far unpublished and semi-private circular letter from a Rural Dean in Norfolk, December 1999. My friend writes: We have now been here for five years… I have very nearly completed a first visit to every house in all but the largest village. I still think that calling on homes is a high priority…’
This is good news! The bad news is that word ‘still’, and the fact that such a sentence should be in any way remarkable. But it is.
Somewhere between the 1920s and the 1990s came the 1960s, when I vividly recall another Rural Dean in action. During the carefree days of my second curacy, the clergy chapter spent a meeting talking about parish visiting. Discussing is easier than visiting, but at least then we discussed ‘something’, rather than work cynically through the latest pile of circulars from Diocesan House.
The Rural Dean, whom I shall call Stanley because that was his name, opened proceedings by reading out the notes he took at college pastoralia lectures many years before. I could only guess then, and do so now, that he did that because he had nothing else to say; so much had moved on since then, and the ideals of the 1940s would be good for a laugh thirty years on. So today, one meets clergy who regard visiting parishioners in their homes as part of a bygone culture, like clothing coupons and the Home Service (that’s Radio 4, by the way). The case against visiting is certainly formidable.
One, nobody expects the vicar to call, or (two) wants him to if he does. Three, everyone is out and (four) even if they’re in they may not admit it. You can’t even leave a card. The entryphone system attached to a cast-iron grille guards the Englishperson’s castle from door-to-door salespeople, thieves, muggers, Jehovah’s Witnesses and clergy. Unless of course they know you, in which case they certainly don’t want you to see you – at least not today. Five, the vicar and his parishioner may find themselves in a vulnerable or compromising situation. How was he to know that the lovely, delightful Mrs X, or even her young son, would be alone this evening? But in any case (six) he is far too busy on other more important things like checking his e-mail, chairing the committee, keeping up with world news and sport, and watching the show that everyone else is watching so he knows what to preach about on Sunday. Or in some dioceses networking with likeminded thinkers in Diocesan house or down at the pub. Or, crucially, annotating his way through his £30 New Dictionary of Pastoral Studies for the latest thoughts of Wesley Carr and Rowan Williams. Seven, he is lazy; see 6. And eight, once he starts visiting, he raises false expectations. ‘Came to see you, did he? Never came to see me!’ etc. And eight, he may get attacked, but see Proverbs 22.13. What, if anything, can be urged against these cast-iron objections? They are after all almost as strong as the case we could make against evangelism or prayer; can anything be said in favour?
In a different diocese again, the Archdeacon liked to have a go at clergy with several churches to care for, who think that by rushing around from village to village they are somehow building the Kingdom of God. We knew what he meant; there are the overworked, the under-organized, and the broken-down. An ever- rushing Rector is not a good public image. But there are, I felt, worse things to do with our daylight hours. The Archdeacon’s own policy, of rushing instead from committee to committee, seemed to be one of them.
First, visiting may open the eyes of the visited. It certainly opens the eyes of the visitor. By his house, lifestyle, clothes and title, the ordained visitor is already removed from how ‘ordinary’ people live. It may be a bit of a shock even to get inside the door; he may find bare walls, battered furniture, a home devoid of basics and often of books. Or at the other end of the scale, more than millionaire luxury. How much can they have spent on the bathroom? But they count a fiver a week as a bit much for the church to ask. More interesting may be the photos, bottles, videos, or the lack of them; animals, ditto; invalids, far more so. The outside may give no clue to what lies within. A run-down facade can lead into a richly cultured living room; a newly decorated porch can mask poverty indoors. The visitor has not come to snoop, but he may be moving rapidly up the learning curve.
Second, people behave differently at home. Clergy are often those who lead, speak, chair, preside; as guests their roles are different. You catch a different tone of voice and see different body language when someone else is the host.
Third, you meet family members you hardly knew existed. Children, teenagers, elderly relatives or other dependants.
Fourth, a different visiting mode, still appropriate in many parishes, is the door to door method, whether the doors are half a yard or half a mile apart. Sceptical clergy, give yourselves a treat and try it! You will have whole evenings of bleak disappointment lit up by a ray of glory before you finish.
It is always good to set off with a target but no timetable; to knock on doors not knowing what lies behind them, and to ring bells with unfamiliar chimes. There will be moments of rejection, even humiliation; painful or hilarious misjudgement; frustration and even despair. But not of boredom. Always, but always, there will be treasured rewards for prayer or action, even if someone else may need to take it. A rural dialogue and an urban one. The old lady with two small dogs and an immaculate lawn outside her bungalow on the common. ‘Well, my goodness! I did once hear that the clergy sometimes visit people in their homes, but I never thought that anyone would ever come to see me!’
Or the anonymous, vandalized concrete estate where a man appears at a first floor window in response to my knock at the door. ‘Whadja want?’ ‘I’m looking for Debbie.’ (I had taken her baby’s funeral.) ‘She ain’t ‘ere’; the window is closing… ‘I think she’s expecting me.’ Reluctantly ‘Oo is it?’ ‘I’m the vicar’. The window closes; the door opens: ‘Sorry, sir, sorry, she’s upstairs; didn’t know she was in’ (liar).
I can manage without the ‘sir’. But if the little word ‘vicar’, which closes some doors, can still open any at all in such a place, who are we to ignore these opportunities? They will not last for ever; some places never had them. A team of international youngsters with ‘Operation Mobilisation’ who once descended on us got two shocks; first, that I wanted to go visiting with them, and second, that more doors would open when I was there than when I wasn’t.
Going in pairs (sometimes) has other advantages. Mutual support, yes; but an older visitor can also train a younger one. And our inadequacies are soon apparent. Some clergy avoid taking anyone else along for fear that their own failure should become known. Don’t lose the chance to be honest, and to learn.
Fifth, it is one thing to pray in church; most people who let the vicar in at all appreciate a prayer before he goes. It is sometimes inappropriate. If in doubt, ask; if still in doubt, pray. I have never regretted praying; I have often regretted not praying. But with or without, let at least the name of Christ be heard in every home, in testimony rather than blasphemy.
And sixth, what did Cranmer say, again? Or if you are old enough, your bishop? Not only ‘to teach and premonish, to feed and provide for the Lord’s family’, but also ‘to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this naughty world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever’ (from the 1662 Ordinal). One conscientious friend used to worry when at home that he should be visiting, and worry when out that he should be in his study. Of course there are times for reading, writing, quietness and prayer; but a useful rule of thumb, with the Prayer Book still echoing in my ears, is ‘When in genuine, serious doubt – visit!’ The world seems no less naughty today than it was 35, 70, or 440 years ago. And it is hard to see how ‘seeking’ is covered by a mouse on a string attached to a machine, or an agenda for the next sub- committee. Some clergy may need a bit of premonishing themselves in this area. Go for it!
Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark.