- 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.
Monday, 16 September 2019
Called to the Priesthood, Called to be Lay
Discerning our vocation is something we all need to do as people of faith. Often it’s far from straightforward. If only there could be Damascene moments that clearly pointed to the destined path ahead! But as we know, life is not usually like that. It can take years to recognise and respond to the call of God to take some particular direction in life. That call may at first have been no more than a whisper amid the babble of voices that competed for our attention. It almost certainly took a lot of listening, and prayer, and the accompaniment of wise, experienced friends before we were ready to say yes, even tentatively.
In my own case, it was about seven years from beginning to explore the possibility of ordination to standing before a bishop on my ordination day. How tentative those words are sounding now that I look back on the experience 44 years later! Beginning, explore, possibility. But I like words like those. They are provisional and don’t claim more than they should. Before we can rise up with confident wings like eagles, or run and not be weary, we need to learn to walk and not faint, to borrow an image from the Book of Isaiah (40.31). We need to discover how to feel our way more slowly, in God’s time and at his pace.
I think retirement is like this because it entails reimagining life in a wholly new way. You have to ask the question, what does God want me to become, and to do, here, now, in this stage of life we’re learning to call the third age? I’ve blogged on this before here, and here, and here. It’s a work in progress as I keep saying. Each time I write about it, there is something new to say about how “inhabiting” retirement is working out in the lived experience of it. And just as the journey of entering stipendiary ministry to begin with took years, so leaving it is also a journey of years, not months or days. Even if it looked as though you were working one Sunday and on the Monday morning you woke up and lo! you had retired!
I blogged a while ago about exploring vocation in the third age. I’ve since become much clearer about this. I’ve reached a (possibly startling?) conclusion that’s implied by the title of this blog even if it’s the less obvious reading. It is this: that just as I was once called to the priesthood and gladly gave my working life to fulfilling that vocation in the best way I knew how, I now discern an equally insistent call to live as a lay person once again.
What do I mean by that?
Simply, that my way of serving God in the world and in the church will no longer be as an ordained man in public ministry. I no longer see myself called to preside at the eucharist, conduct baptisms, weddings and funerals, preach sermons, give lectures or lead retreats and quiet days. I’ve loved doing all these things and regard them as among the most privileged kinds of ministry anyone could undertake. I’ve also been immensely fortunate in living and working as a priest in beautiful environments surrounded by wonderful communities and colleagues. As I look back on my career as a curate, a theological educator, a parish priest, a cathedral canon and as a dean in two dioceses, I realise how much I have to be thankful for.
But now in retirement, the time has come to lay all this aside. I need to hand on the baton to the next generation of clergy (in whom, I’m glad to say, I have complete confidence). This decision doesn’t reflect any regret or negativity on my part. I may sometimes be grumpy with the Church of England that I serve (who isn’t?), but there is no falling out, no crisis, no parting of friends. I feel wholly positive, even excited, about renegotiating life on a new set of terms. It will open up opportunities for discovering, I hope, a different quality of life in which there will being more time for family and friendship as well as volunteering, travel and recreation, and, I hope, productive writing. And of course to understand and make my own the spirituality of growing old. I shall continue to serve on the church committees I’m currently a member of. I intend to go on seeing clergy and ordinands for mentoring and spiritual accompaniment for as long as they want me to. I shall go on trying to support the parish and diocese in whatever way I can.
I suggested in my last blog that this was the way things seemed to be leading. But I admit to being deeply influenced by watching the TV documentary about the mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker a few months ago. I wrote about this at the time. She made the courageous decision in her 50s to say farewell to her career in opera, and a few years later, to lay aside her recital and recording activity as well. She was at the height of her powers, and was being followed by an adoring public. In her book Full Circle, she chronicled her final year on the operatic stage and offered insights into what it was like to know that so much of her music-making was for the last time. Of retirement she said that it wasn’t about leaving a life behind so much as engaging with it more fully, in a more wholesome way. There was work to be done at that stage of life that she did not want to neglect. Human work. Heart work. The work of love. I warmed greatly to that way of putting it.
The fact that I turn seventy next Easter has concentrated the mind. I am no Janet Baker (if only!) but the human and spiritual issues feel similar: the need to change direction, the need to pay attention to matters I’ve neglected thus far. There is a time to speak and a time to be silent, says the preacher in Ecclesiastes. My time to fall silent in public ministry is coming. I won’t pretend it’s not hard, at times, to contemplate it. But it’s what my discernment process late in life has brought me to recognise should happen.
I admit that I’m haunted by the ontology. Once a priest, always a priest. That character (as it’s called in catholic theology) is indelible. So what does it mean to lay aside the practice of priesthood, hold the order but not exercise it? I don’t know, yet. But I do know that there would inevitably come a time when old age or illness or disability would mean facing this question in any case. In my seventieth year, stamina is not what it once was. Hundreds of clergy are forced by circumstance to lay aside the exercise of their priesthood, and most do it with grace and dignity. If my discernment leads me to take this step in a more intentional way, anticipate the endgame so to speak, it’s no different in principle. And as I’ve said, living out a lay vocation in the service of God and neighbour is not pretence or play-acting. It’s what I already am and have always been.
I wrote to the Bishop of Newcastle, the Diocese in which I was once an incumbent and where we live in retirement, to outline my thinking. I hold her permission to officiate (PTO) so she had a right to know. She asked to see me so that I could explain more fully. It was a good meeting, not least because it helped to have to put inchoate thoughts into words in the presence of a kind and sympathetic - but shrewd - listener. “It feels a bit all or nothing” she remarked. Maybe. But when you arrive at a crossroads, for whatever reason, you have to make a choice. So we reached a settlement. The deal was that I would not send her back my PTO. Not yet, anyway. “You never know” she said. True. I might need to come out of retirement to help in an emergency at the vicarage across the road. I might be asked to preside at a family rite of passage. I’ve promised to preach at the funerals of a former churchwarden and of my closest friend if they die before me. I suppose a clean ending would have pandered to my tidy mind. But instinct tells me that the Bishop was right.
Nevertheless, I am now entering the home stretch of what I’m calling my formal public ministry. I have preaching commitments during the coming months that I need to honour, including during Holy Week next year. These engagements will be all the more precious because they will be among the last I undertake. And then?
Greatly daring, I wrote to the incumbent of the church where I became a chorister at the age of eleven. In that place, the whole Christian journey began for me. What I owe it is incalculable. So I wondered whether I might recognise the part that church and its people and music had played in my life and say thank you. It’s not that I want to make an event out of preaching “for the last time”. Simply that I would love to share something of my Christian and vocational story with the community where the seed was first planted all those years ago. He has been generous enough to welcome that idea. So some time next year, aged three score years and ten, I’ll have the chance to acknowledge the debt. And in my inmost self, say farewell to a ministry that has meant everything to me. And always will.
Here’s a link to a recent feature in the Church Times that’s relevant to this blog.