Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Discerning Vocation in the Third Age: more from the retirement front line

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?

2 comments:

  1. This is very moving. Thank you. But speaking purely personally, I couldn't help comparing your situation, at the end of a very fulfilling ministry, where things are changing, sure, but where you are conscious of having done what God intended you to do, and gone where God intended you to go, with my own situation. In twenty years in the Church of England, I have very rarely, and then only for twenty minutes at a time, felt that I am doing what God intended. Looming retirement looks very different, then. The same is probably true of those in unpleasant or unrewarding jobs, usually jobs where people feel disempowered. (Is that even a word?) Retirement might be the first time they are able to consider doing something that gives them pleasure or satisfaction. They may have been desperate to leave for many years. Or, like me, they may simply be looking at more of the same. My experience suggests most clergy are not remotely interested in the ministry of lay people. And I am using the word to mean, those who are not ordained. May I venture to suggest that your incumbent might, though he may be a saint, but he might be interested in you because you are ordained? And if you were anywhere else, or he were anyone else, he wouldn't have time at all for those who are low status? That, as I say, is my experience. And it has been so common that I venture to suggest you simply must have encountered those who behave in this way. Your duty, it seems to me, is to try to change that attitude wherever you find it. And it always was, so I hope you did. I get very depressed by the number of retired clergy who are prepared to defend the victims of bullying, but I have met only two or three who are not retired, who are prepared to do so. I'm feeling very peevish at present having been out today for the first time in a week, and still in a lot of pain with sciatica. But still, I'm glad you don't feel the need to elbow the local Readers aside for yet more time in the sun! (Not my words, my spiritual director's) I'm glad for you, and wish you all the best as you continue to seek God's will.

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  2. It is interesting that as we approach retirement and after retirement we see things differently. I know that I was tired of work and the stresses that accompanied being an Officer in an Army which was fighting wars on two fronts (Iraq and Afghanistan) and having to recruit young people, who we were certain to send into harms way. In addition, cuts and redundancies and future plans meant a much smaller defence force, but being expected to continue to operate as if we were still a larger fighting force.

    So, retirement at 60 enforced (age limits) was welcome and looked forward too - with plans to do so much. But God changed all of that and sent me down an entirely new path, towards Ordained Ministry - after 3 years of discernment, somehow the Church decided that I wasn't what they were looking for. Three years of hope and joy at receiving an unexpected call in Ashes.

    But God didn't allow that to be the end of the story, he encouraged me to look further and wider, which meant a new diocese and parish and a new discernment - now his plan is coming to fruition as I will be licensed as LLM on 20th May in the Cathedral, along with 12 others that I have accompanied for the last three years of training.

    Loads still being discerned. The license will be for the whole diocese and to work wider than the parish in the deanery with vulnerable groups, including refugees. I don't doubt that this call will morph as the years progress - nothing it settled. God is restless and is providing new opportunities for people to minister too and to serve others all of the time. And people are stepping up. My cohort was 15 in 2014, The next one was 25 in 2015 and the 2017 entry is up at 30 or more.

    For those who say that the church is dying or that we are in terminal decline - tell that to those who are hearing the call to ministry, not necessarily ordained ministry, but other new, exciting and varied forms of ministry. LLM here means diversity, vision and being able to grasp opportunities as they arise.

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