I have a booklet that was published by the Joint Board of Christian Education way back in 1986. It was part of a Uniting Church Elder Series and the subject matter was ‘Effective Visiting’. The co-authors were Rev John Billington and Rev Willis Jago (both now deceased).
John Billington wrote on Visiting the Healthy and Willis Jago wrote on Visiting the Sick. As an inexperienced elder in my mid-30s, I regularly sought guidance from this booklet. My parents were elders and, whilst I had been aware that they ‘visited’, I was not aware what that entailed.
As an adult layperson I have been visited occasionally by an ordained minister but rarely, if ever, by an elder. I haven’t had a lot of experience of being on the receiving end of Effective Visiting, however I tend to agree with the writers of the booklet that pastoral visitation forms part of the work of both lay and ordained Christians.
In many of the sayings of the monks of the desert, ‘work’ simply meant manual labour, but several related sayings link the concept of work to a monk’s duty toward God and his attitude towards his neighbour.
“When we were in Scetis”, said Theodore of Pherme to John the Eunuch, “the works of the soul were our work and we held manual work to be secondary. But now the work of the soul has become secondary, and what was secondary has become our work.”
In recent times I have been reflecting on whether visitation within the life of the Uniting Church is in fact a ‘work of the soul’ and that maybe it has become secondary. I offer this reflection particularly in an environment where the church is undergoing a Major Strategic Review.
John Billington wrote, “When we take time to visit healthy active members of the congregation, two important things happen. First, we let people know the church considers they are worth visiting; they don’t have to be ill to gain the recognition of a visit. Second, we hear what they have to say to us.”
Don’t get me wrong, my objective in writing about this is not to impose a guilt trip on anyone. I recognise that not everyone wants to be visited. Indeed, these days privacy is a prized possession for many. What I want to suggest is, perhaps we have lost the hang of visiting – particularly with the advent of e-mail communication.
I remember well John Billington’s disarming smile whenever he visited me as an employee in the synod office during his term as moderator in the early 1990s. John had a particular knack of sensitively taking the initiative early on in the conversation and then moving the conversation beyond a social one. Certainly it was an opportunity to talk a little about the experience of faith, but it was never a dialogue of discomfort, of being imposed upon.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury wrote that “One of the great temptations of religious living is the urge to intrude between God and other people. We love to think we know more of God than others”. Perhaps we have never quite appreciated the fact that the sacred can often be found in ordinary conversation.
I’m still not sure how John managed to do it, but he had the happy knack of helping me feel that he was as enriched by the visit as I was … that somehow he was finding his own life in solidarity in his communication with me. This sometimes seemed to involve a willingness to put ‘on hold’ any perspective he might have on wherever the conversation had led.
For my part, during my time as moderator, which in many respects, is essentially similar to the role of elder, there have been several occasions where I have found myself in one-on-one conversation about matters of faith. Such conversation has involved a certain ‘dying’ to myself – my ‘self’ as a possessor of knowledge, virtue or gift.
In the end, as I have left those conversations, all I have known, is the struggle and weakness out of which I have attempted to listen and to speak; beyond that, who knows? Yet somehow I have been confident in knowing that the liaison has been helped by God’s unfailing presence.