Every now and then I try to take stock of this still new stage of life called retirement. In this blog I want to reflect on where Christian life and ordained life belong in it.
The first thing to say is that I am writing entirely personally. Every one of us has to negotiate this threshold into retirement in our own unique way. For clergy, it can be especially problematic because a vocation is so much more than the kind of job you can step in and out of. To have been a priest for more than forty years is to inhabit a way of life that forms you, shapes you, confers its own "character" on you, is intimately involved with your personal identity. As priests we "become what we are" just as we do in baptism and marriage. This is as true of our personal interior lives as well as our visible public roles. Which is as it should be.
I recall very clearly the experience of entering the priesthood as a young man. What we now call vocational discernment was accompanied by a vast amount of prayer, conversation, reflection, study and scrutiny. A great many other people were involved in helping me approach and then cross this threshold into ordained life. At that time I was in my mid-twenties and had been a student all my life up to then. Being ordained coincided, for me, with taking up my life's work, or if you like, taking responsibility and earning my own living. It felt like a rite of passage into adulthood.
At around the time I turned sixty, memories of that earlier vocational journey became much more vivid. I knew I had four or five years in which to prepare for retirement (not long in the sweep of a lifetime). There were inevitable practicalities to think about. Where would we live? What were our housing needs likely to be? What financial resources would we have? (I learned from older clergy who'd come to me for regular spiritual guidance that it's never too soon to ask these questions, and in today's less certain economic climate, the earlier the better.)
But I wasn't expecting these pre-retirement years to prove once again to be a time of vocational discernment. But that is precisely what they turned out to be. At the end of those four decades of ordained work, and now as an older if not wiser man, I found that the prospect of leaving stipendiary ministry felt remarkably similar to my memories of entering it. In other words, both seemed to have discernment at their heart. I found that for me, retiring was as much of a vocational issue as ordination had been. So it's important that the church "accompanies" its retiring clergy spiritually and emotionally because as every retired person knows, it's one of the biggest thresholds we ever have to cross in our adult lives. I think we are getting better at this, and that's heartening.
Discovering who we are in retirement and what we could become is a journey, of course. I am not even in media res. As yet, if I'm spared for a while, I am probably nearer the start than the finishing line. I have a lot to learn. But for what it's worth, here's my interim report on where I'm getting to.
For me (and again I stress that this is just one person speaking), I did not feel in my waters that retirement ministry could simply mean more of the same: taking services, preaching sermons, continuing in some form or other to participate in the church's public leadership. As I started to think and pray about it, I came to see how the coming years could offer all kinds of new and untried opportunities to contribute to both the church and the wider community. Some of these I have explored and begun to embrace. Some are as yet simply possibilities to be thought about. One or two have not led anywhere. But pushing at a few doors and testing volunteering opportunities has felt very much to be the stuff of discernment. I've wanted to discover if, and how, these different conversations might coalesce into a single answer to the question, "what could my life now become, what does God want it to become as I embrace the potential that comes from being released from day to day work responsibilities?"
At the core of this new vocation, and rather to my surprise, there emerged more and more insistently a desire to live and worship as a lay person once again. I mean that I wanted to play my part as a Christian not through preaching and presiding at the liturgy but as a worshipper, sitting with my wife in a church nave among the laos, the people of God. This isn't a nostalgic harking back to the first year of our marriage when this was what "churchgoing" meant. But it is to rediscover as a couple this communio in sacris, a "sharing in holy things". I'm one of those strange clergy who has always enjoyed churchgoing (even on holiday!). It's been good to find ourselves once again in that place of community where the holy-common people of God gather. I know that has always been true, whatever my role as a deacon and priest in the church. But to experience it in this new (i.e. old) way on the Sundays of our lives feels like one of the best gifts of retirement.
We are fortunate that in this village, our parish priest understands this and allows me to live out my vocation in this way. I've made it clear that if there is a need, and especially an emergency, I shall of course step up at once and help along with other retired clergy colleagues in the parish. I value the invitations to take part in special services and preach in and beyond the diocese when an invitation comes. I have the Bishop's permission to officiate. But if asked why I am comparatively rarely to be seen in a surplice or a chasuble, I try to give as honest an answer as I can along the lines I've explained. And I find that people not only understand what I'm struggling to articulate, but respect it.
What does this say about vocation at this stage of life? There's an important theological principle that I've needed to revisit. It is that the fundamental vocation of every Christian is conferred at baptism. For some of us, ordination flows out of that vocation to discipleship as a consequence. But I'm clear that the "normal" way of being a Christian and a member of God's church is the lay state. Deacons, priests and bishops do not renounce their lay-ness on ordination (nor the orders that have already been conferred on them). All the ordained continue to belong to the laos. I think it's not only good but important for us to express this from time to time. For me, retirement is - for the moment anyway - such a time.
I'm aware that this could be misunderstood. (I also recognise that other retired clergy will see it differently, and of course I respect that.) It may sound as though I have renounced my orders - as if it were possible to renounce an indelible "character" conferred by the church at ordination. Or that I am no longer interested in playing my part in helping the church to flourish. Or perhaps that I'm just not aware of the pressures local churches are familiar with through the relentless decline in the numbers of stipendiary clergy. None of these is true - but maybe it needs explaining.
(Excursus. I happen to think that our present patterns of church life, especially in the countryside, are not likely to prove sustainable beyond a few more decades, and the generosity of retired clergy should not protect the church and its dioceses, bishops and archdeacons from recognising that reality and engaging with it. I know they are already doing so. I am simply suggesting that the future of organised religion will look very different from the past, and one day there will not be enough clergy whether stipendiary or non-stipendiary, active or retired to maintain it in something like its present form. I say this with deep sadness because I believe with all my heart in parochial ministry and am uneasy that others, including some in senior leadership roles, seem to sit more lightly to it than I believe is good for the national church and the people it is here to serve.)
My response is to say that I am trying to re-express the lay aspect of my baptismal vocation - or, if you like, to live as a priest in the local church in a new kind of way. I am glad to be alongside so many good lay people in this parish who give such time and effort to supporting it. It makes me appreciate all the more how much all the cathedrals I served benefitted from our teams of volunteers. No cathedral, no parish, will go anywhere nowadays without its committed lay people. Now that I largely live as one, I see this more from the inside than I used to.
At the same time, I am glad to go across to the church on weekdays to pray the daily office with the vicar. I hope that by doing this I can offer him spiritual companionship. Reciting the psalms, hearing the scriptures read, offering intercession for parish, church and world all connect me in a deep way with the whole church and my own priesthood within it. All of this is what we call the opus dei, the work of God. Whatever form our ministry takes, whether as laity or clergy, it's our privilege to bear witness to the reality of God and do his work in the world.
How we undertake this, for people of faith, is the question that matters at every stage of life. In retirement, it's good to report that it still gets me up in the morning.
**These images are all taken in the Benefice of Haydon Bridge, Beltingham and Henshaw in Northumberland where we have made our home in retirement. Maybe there are appropriate metaphors in some of them?
- Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean of Sheffield, then Durham.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.