A wise friend and counsellor, a cleric seasoned by many years of ministry, the incumbent of a neighbouring parish, once commented to me, “Ian, people will forgive you almost anything, if you visit them.” Had anyone sought corroboration of his comment, it would have been evident in most rural Church of Ireland parishes. Sunday worship was generally dull and unexciting, sermons were often mediocre, spiritual life did not extend much beyond saying grace before a meal, parish organisations were usually predictable in their membership and activities; yet tiny communities would sustain a full time incumbency so that in times of joy and in times of grief, there might be a clergyman upon whom to call. The house-going parson still had the capacity to encourage, at least partially, a church-going people.
It seemed too simple to be true, that knocking at doors and drinking tea and listening to woes and worries were what was really wanted. Of course, the church decided it was too simple, and embarked upon new strategies, spent huge sums on new initiatives, filled parishes with a new breed of clergy who worked office hours and regarded themselves as having a managerial role. Door-knocking and tea drinking became increasingly rare activities, there could not be time for such antediluvian thinking in the new and shiny electronic dispensation. The church sent out the message that it no longer cared about people and then seemed surprised when the people reciprocated by no longer caring about the church. Instead of acknowledging a mistake had been made, the church leadership spent ever more sums of money on new schemes and plans, even adjusting statistics to try to present a picture less anaemic than the one that they, in their obtuseness, had created.
Listening to an education tutor talking about building relationships with those whom one was trying to teach, the wise colleague’s words came to mind. The tutor spoke bluntly, “they won’t care about what you know unless they know that you care.” It seemed so simple, so obvious, as to not need to be said; people will respect those who show them respect, people will care about the words of those who care about them. It is the foundation for a style of teaching very different from that experienced by those who faced the sarcasm and indifference of teachers of a former generation. Oddly, the church seems yet to rediscover a practice that was once the norm.