New Year's Eve marks a threshold for everyone who feels the flow of time. For me, saying farewell to 2015 means the end of an entire era of my life. For this is my final day on the Church of England payroll as a stipendiary priest. Tomorrow I throw myself on the mercy of the Pensions Board. In twenty four hours' time I shall be indisputably, officially, legally retired.
Readers of the Decanal Woolgatherer blog will know that I left Durham Cathedral at the end of September. Since then I have been on sabbatical leave while officially remaining the Dean. The idea was to spend three months in reflection and prayer. I wanted to look back over my forty years of active ministry to draw threads together and find meanings. I wanted to prepare for a very different future, try to think about how to be 'retired'. I wanted to be present to what everyone agrees is a big life-change, perhaps the biggest since setting out on the journey of adulthood, getting married and starting work.
Well, reality is not always what we expect or hope for. Woody Allen famously quipped: 'How do you make God laugh? Tell him your future plans'. We knew it would take time to settle into a new home and feel we belonged to the Northumberland village where we have come to live. In these far northern lands, the shepherds talk about sheep being 'hefted' on to their hill, that is, berthed in and bonded with their native soil. Maybe offcomers like us who have been blown in from somewhere else can never expect to be fully hefted. There will always be something of the exile in a quondam Londoner like me, even one who is lucky enough to have landed in a beautiful village like ours with a great sense of community.
But as some of you know, recent events have had their own way of contributing to our 'hefting' a lot more speedily than we had predicted. Barely two months into our new home and life, at the beginning of Advent Storm Desmond hit. The house (appropriately named after a collier ship that capsized in the North Sea) began taking in water. Lots of it. We can tell a long story about the drowning of our newly installed biomass boiler in the cellar: I blogged about the floods at the time. Suffice it to say that this village has been marvellously kind and supportive. We have made new friends and got to know our neighbours. This drama helped us more than anything else could have done to 'arrive' in the village and feel part of it. Already, we can't imagine living anywhere else. It's good to be able to say that.
I had decided to keep a journal for the six months before leaving Durham and the six months afterwards. It's been an important way of logging this experience of transition. When you retire, you lay aside a role you've inhabited for years, maybe (as in my case) your entire working life. For me, coming to the end of my service at the Cathedral has been to say goodbye not only to my dozen Durham years but to forty years of stipendiary ministry as a priest. As a family we've learned a bit about leave-taking as we've moved from one place to another in that time. It doesn't get any easier, however practised you are. There's always the painful business of having to say farewells to people you have come to love, leaving a community where you've been contented and fulfilled (if you're lucky enough), packing up your possessions and walking away from your physical home and the environment where you have flourished, felt at ease and been happy.
Every priest knows that this is the deal. And every retiring priest has known that it was going to happen again, but this time in a uniquely final way. We clergy are well looked after by the Church in retirement. Yet there is still the unnerving sense that somehow, this is it. We are on our own now, responsible for our futures, responsible for the lives we choose to live, and responsible for this house we live in, not the tied accommodation we have enjoyed all these years but our very own property in which we have invested our savings. This sense of being on our own has hit home quite sharply, thanks to December's events. When the cellar floods, the power goes off and the water runs cold, there is no Clerk of Works or Parsonage Board to sort it out for you. But I guess it's good for us. Maybe retirement is the last but one event in the process of growing up (the last step of all being death?).
But we're also on our own in the more profound sense that there are far fewer external demands to control our decisions and priorities. So we are discovering how retirement is about a new experience of time spent together, sitting alongside each other in our local church at the Sunday service, learning how to pray together again. It's a bit how it was when we were first married, before I was ordained. Sabbatical time even had an odd whiff of honeymoon about it to begin with, though the flood rather exploded that perspective. But whatever our circumstances, there are no rules in retirement. We have to reinvent ourselves, develop new rhythms and disciplines, a new spirituality to shape the third age and help us to grow old gracefully. This is what I've tried to think and write honestly about in my journal.
In 2016 reality will kick in. I'm not under any illusions about the challenges it could bring. But part of my reason for asking for sabbatical time before officially retiring was to ask myself some key questions about the future. What are my personal priorities going to be? How am I going to try to be useful to the church and the wider community in Northumberland, maybe beyond? What will it mean, and how will it feel after all these years now to find myself a 'retired priest'? What is expected or asked of me in that capacity? What projects and pursuits might I take up in the next few years, whether in a public way through taking up volunteering roles, or more personally in writing, photography, music-making, walking, reading, travel and other enjoyments where I have longed for more time and have new discoveries to make?
When the midnight hour strikes tonight, we shall be on Haydon's old bridge over the Tyne (troubled water in recent weeks) enjoying the annual village firework display and party. It's a highly symbolic place at which to mark a threshold in time, a crossing-over, as a commentator on this blog points out. We shall all in different ways be thinking about those many for whom 2015 has brought endless trouble, disaster and pain, including people we know who will be relieved to see the back of the past year. But we shall also remind ourselves, I hope, of all that is lovely and good in life, all that has enriched the past year for us, particularly in the people who love us. And in my own case, these past forty privileged years that come to an end in the coming hours.
And if the world is looking pretty desperate as we link arms and sing Auld Lang Syne, faith gives us every reason not to lose heart. We can cross tonight's threshold with a song in our hearts that's not simply wishful thinking. I'm looking forward to 2016 and discovering the doors it will open and the possibilities that lie beyond their portals. Whatever you are hoping for or afraid of in the coming twelve months, whatever the changes and chances you face, I want to wish you as personally as I can a good new year. I pray that it will be a time of gifts for those in our world who most need them. I pray that for all of us, as Pope Francis is reminding us, it will be a true Year of Mercy.