Thursday, 22 September 2016

Gathering Fragments One Year On

It's the autumn equinox. Night has overtaken day. Up here in Northumberland, the leaves show little sign of turning. But the rose-hips are swelling in the hedgerows and the rowan glows bright red alongside the magenta hawthorn and deep purple elderberries. The scent of coal fires re-lit in village hearths now hangs in the still September air. Golden stubble fields are ploughed chocolate-brown ready for winter. The new academic year has begun: children file past our front door morning and afternoon chatting excitably on their way to and from school. 

The year has come full circle. This time last year, I was in my last few days in office as Dean of Durham. It was a week of high emotion. I was filled with real sadness at the thought of leaving a place and people we loved. I blogged about it here: At the same time, we were looking forward to our new life across the hills in the Tyne Valley. It would, we imagined, be quieter and gentler than Durham. Cathedrals are wonderful and exhilarating but they are fast places. You need to be intellectually and spiritually agile; you need plenty of stamina. It's not that I was running out of steam (whatever Mrs S says), but I did think I should retire before it became apparent to me and to everyone else that I was overstaying my welcome. And I wanted to be able to have something to give to church and community in retirement, try different things, volunteer in new ways.

It has turned out to be an eventful, not to say turbulent, year. If you've followed this blog you'll know about Storm Desmond and how it invaded our home last December at precisely the same time as one daughter gave birth to our second grandchild and another was rushed into hospital for an emergency operation. Having fully recovered, she sensibly got married in the spring and is now expecting a baby. But then in the early summer my 93 year old mother fell ill and died a few weeks afterwards. All this on top of laying aside a life's work, moving home and beginning again in a new place in an entirely different role, that of being "retired". Oh yes, and the EU referendum campaign and the awful prospect of Brexit.

It's the first anniversary of my farewell in Durham Cathedral next Tuesday. By coincidence (is there such a thing?), I am giving two addresses to a clergy conference that day and the next on "Ministry for the Long Haul". I asked the Bishop why he thought I was qualified to speak to his clergy on this topic. After all, I had never lived or worked in the demanding urban environment that is mostly the setting of their ministry. He replied, "Well, you've completed the long haul. Tell us what's kept you going and sustained you over forty years. Tell us what's been important to you". Fair enough I thought a year ago when we spoke. I'm now trying to work out what to say to these good people. No spoilers! You never know who is reading this blog. I'll post the talks next week. If they've gone well, that is.

But it's been valuable to have to undertake the exercise of thinking about forty years of public ministry as I look forward to the anniversary. I might not have done it otherwise. I had never tried to articulate to myself, let alone to anyone else, what I'd found to be central in inhabiting the vocation to be a priest, though I suppose some of it got expressed in the ordination addresses I gave a few years ago that later became my book Wisdom and Ministry. So I went back to my farewell sermon in the Cathedral on 27 September 2015 (how hard I'd worked on that one!): The clues are all there, I realised, for I'd intended the sermon to be a valedictory not only to Durham but to all the places where I had served as a priest. My text was the words of Jesus in St John after he has performed another of his "signs" and fed the crowd: "gather the fragments so that nothing may be lost" (John 6.12). So that is what I've tried to do in these two addresses, share some harvest gleanings in a way that I hope is helpful and finds echoes in what others have experienced in ministry. 

It's always important in life to do our best to make sure that "nothing may be lost". I believe it to be a key spiritual task, and especially in later life. One of the gifts of retirement has been to have time (even amid the dramas of the past year) to look back and ponder. I've blogged under the "woolgathering" title for some years but this is the first time in my life when it feels as though it can mean something creative because proper time and thought, reflection and prayer can go into it. 

But the more wool I gather, the more I realise that what I think and say on this first anniversary is still provisional. At this early stage, my musings on the story of my ministry are no more than a ballon d'essai, a first go to test whether I've got it even partially right. Who knows what themes may emerge later on in retirement when the foreground has receded a bit and distance lends perspective? 

That last bit was a photography-inspired spoiler, by the way....


  1. A difficult and challenging first year. At the same stage as you, one year in retirement, I was just entering the discernment process for Ordained Ministry and all the challenges and hope and frustrations that it produced. It was a period of formation, while actively engaged in Lay Ministry, being nurtured and developed bu a very able and active 80 year old Reader, Margaret, herself a Vicar's widow.

    I was also engaged in Study at Christ Church University in Canterbury to build up my Academic credibility, as I'd let school without any academic achievement to show (no A or O levels) although I had a level 7 Qualification in Leadership and Management via the vocational route and evidence to support that from my career.

    It was to be two years before I went to BAP and was given the Not Suitable for Training for Ordained Ministry, so that disappointment was in the future.

    This was a huge time of hope, engagement, and spiritual formation and nourishment in my parish and through a hugely supportive spiritual director. I had to face myself, warts and all, and submit my whole life to close scrutiny, including my divorce, many years before, and my spouse had to open up her story to be aired in the Faculty process.

    I also found time to attend a 10 week Pastoral Care course in that first year, to equip me for work that I was going to be doing in the parish. This was rewarding, as it was the first time that I had actually studied the biblical basis for Pastoral Care, which I had exercised for a number of years (all of my career) when leading others, and latterly as a Battalion Welfare and Families Officer, which opened my eyes to the human frailty and fragility of personal relationships, in a very mobile working environment - long absences impacting on family life, frequent moves between homes, schools and countries, and spouses returning from operational tours, immensely affected by their experiences - and helping families to cope with changed circumstances.

    Putting all of that into perspective, took time, energy, heart ache and pain, but was an opportunity for forgiveness of others and of self, because carrying baggage into ministry, with out some sort of reconciliation with it, isn't healthy.

    Our lives changed. We didn't move house, just cultures. From the fairly enclosed culture of the Armed Forces family, to a wider world, where people thought differently from me, and whose experiences were also different. I couldn't really bear to share things that I had seen and done on operations, while needing to allow them to be shared with at least my SD. Healing was part of the process.

    Now, 7 years later, I'm about to commence the third year of LLM training, and will be licensed next May in the Cathedral. The journey isn't over, as in our Diocese, opportunities for LLM are intentionally wider than the parish - to the Deanery and further afield. I wait with baited breath for what Bishop James might have in store for me.

  2. Thank you for this. It's good to share stories and insights about using retirement creatively and wisely. Entering the 3rd age feels as vocationally significant as beginning a life's work in ordained ministry 40 years ago. I think it calls for the same kind of spiritual discernment.