About Me

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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.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

A Last Post

Today, but for the virus I should have been in London preaching at Hampstead Parish Church where I was a boy chorister. It was there in the early 1960s that the journey of faith began for me, at least in a conscious way. I owe that church more than I can say.

It would have been a special occasion for me personally. Having turned 70 this year, I’d resolved to retire properly by finally stepping aside from public ministry. The Vicar had very kindly invited me to preach for the last time in the place where I first felt the stirrings of faith. It would have been, almost to the day, the forty-fifth anniversary of my ordination. So I’d intended to speak, on what would normally have been an ordination day in the church, about vocation to ministry and how the local church, knowingly or unknowingly, can foster it.

If ever there was a case of l’homme propose, Dieu dispose, the pandemic has provided it a hundredfold for all of us. ‘How do you make God laugh? Tell him of your future plans!’ I won’t get to preach that sermon now. And this blog is not it. You can’t substitute a written text or even a live-streamed online event for the real thing when it belongs to such a specific place and time.

I’d thought about asking if we could defer the event. But the symbolism of turning seventy this year felt too significant. So I reckon I’ve now preached my final sermon without realising it. That was the last time I stepped foot inside a church, just before lockdown in March. It was to mark the launch of the pilgrim Way of St Hild at the mighty church dedicated to her on the Headland at Hartlepool. With hindsight, given that the North East has played such a central part in my life, it seems appropriate that this last homily should have celebrated the region’s Christian legacy. Hild was one of the greatest and most inspiring of all the northern saints of the seventh and eighth centuries. As I said at the end of my sermon, she ‘speaks to us across the centuries of all that represents the best and noblest in human character, giftedness and service. She is a woman … to emulate as we ask ourselves what it might mean to serve God and our neighbour in whatever capacity he calls us to at just such a time as this’. What more is there to say about our Christian vocation as men and women of God?

I wrote about finally laying aside public ministry in a blog last summer. I want to reiterate that it is not a case of giving up something because it has become a burden. Still less, despite our differences, have I fallen out with the Church of England which has nurtured and, yes, cared for me all these years. I love what Anglican Christianity stands for at its wise, humane, charitable and generous best. I am profoundly grateful to have been a priest during these four and half decades. The people among whom I have lived and prayed and served, the places I’ve experienced as holy and life-giving have left indelible memories. They have been central to my formation as a priest, a Christian and a human being. They have become a part of me.

As I tried to explain in the blog, far from leaving my life’s work behind, I want to take the fruits of it into my seventies. I want to try to reflect on what it’s all meant, to go on learning while I can. So I see it not as a negative ‘giving up’ of public roles but as a positive decision to live differently in what I imagine will be my last decade of active life (if I’m spared that long). It’s as much a vocational matter as being ordained was in the first place. I’ve tried to discern it with integrity. It feels time to live as a lay person in the church again, or if you prefer (thanks to a former colleague for helping me to see it this way), to become a more contemplative priest in my last years, rather than an active one.

And because the public platform is no longer a place where I believe I should be, I’ve decided to give up blogging as well. I love writing just as I’ve loved preaching. But there comes a time when we need to recognise that later life brings with it the call to reassess the worlds we inhabit, what we do and why we do it. We each have to do this in our own way. For me at least, this entails a necessary contraction of horizons. It feels like an ‘unmaking’ which is uncomfortable at times, perhaps because it is new and unfamiliar: I always knew retirement would be significant but turning seventy has shown me that it really is one of life’s biggest rites of passage. So I need to discover how this ‘unmaking’ can also be a ‘remaking’. It’s not a case of ‘not-working’ (God forbid!) but doing ‘work’ of a different kind. This includes the openings retired people have, as physical and mental health allow, to volunteer, involve ourselves in our local communities, develop new interests, learn new skills. I want to grasp more of these opportunities.

But in retirement I’m especially thinking of the ‘heart-work’ that begins when we realise that the most basic question we can ever ask ourselves is, what does life expect of us? Or if you like, what does God ask of us? What is the work of God in the world and what is my part in it? How do I go on responding to God and to life before I die, become the best self I am capable of being? It’s a question that, like the Hound of Heaven, pursues us down the years, though we don’t always face it in our busy working lives. Retirement gives us the time and opportunity.

I think there are three parts to this ‘heart work’. First, being more present to the here and now: family, friendships, the pleasures of nature and art, the cycles of times and seasons, the goodness of ordinary things. This feels like an important aspect of ageing: you never know when you might be experiencing something for the last time. Secondly, welcoming the perspectives we gain later in life when when we can look back and recognise patterns and connections that have run through our personal histories. ‘Life must be lived forwards but understood backwards’ said Kierkegaard in words I’ve come to treasure. And thirdly, becoming more attentive to ambiguity, darkness and suffering whether I find them in the pain of the world or closer at hand in other people or in myself. Growing old has to mean embracing both the shadow and the light.

And above all, it means nurturing a sense of gratitude, loving life, and loving the God who is the source of all life and love, from whom we came and to whom we all return.

So this is my last post, my final blog. To those who’ve been kind enough to tell me they’ve enjoyed listening in on my woolgathering, I’m grateful. Where I’ve misjudged or offended, I apologise. These (nearly) ten years of blogging have been a good adventure, and I’ve been stimulated by and learned from your comments, criticisms and challenges. Thank you for being such good company.

********

PS: I’ll leave this website up for now, along with the others here and here, where you can find my sermons and addresses, and the blogs I wrote when I was in Durham. But I shall close the comments in due course.

28 comments:

  1. Thank you! When I got to the part where you say you will not blog any more I was sad! But I get it - the focus has to shift to engage with the new 'work'… a challenging blog which has lots to offer to one coming up a few years behind you, some of the reflection prompted by the pandemic. Go well…

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  2. Thanks for all you are and have done, Michael.

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  3. Thank you Michael for all of your writing and preaching , which has helped us along the way

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  4. Ah, Michael, what a lot we owe you. Thank you. May the journey on be all you hope for and much more besides, nourished by the presence of all presences at every hand, and in every twist of the path. From a grateful fellow-pilgrim.

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  5. Well, a very principled and considered decision - and one which a lot of people, including me) will regret. Thank you for all your thoughtful, theological and spiritually provocative contributions to the public space over the years. Gives the rest of us pause for thought for what happens when we hit the three score and ten...
    God bless and go well for all that shall be.

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  6. I am of course sad, or perhaps melancholic, at reading these words. But I understand them, and as I am now 71 and a half, I share some of your thoughts and feelings. Like others, I am sure, I look forward to interacting with you wherever you will remain in cyberspace. And thank-you, profoundly, for being you and all the inspiration that you have been to me personally.

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  7. Thank you Michael. Your gift to me has been your ability to offer new perspectives and the graciousness with which you have offered yourself and God to all who read your blogs continues to inspire.

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  8. With many thanks for your always insightful and stimulating writing. Your presence in the blogosphere will be much missed - as it will in formal ministry. However, the next part of the journey will be exciting, challenging and interesting. I admire your wisdom in choosing to create the space to immerse yourself in it fully and hope it will bring much serenity and that ability to dwell in the place of paradox that maturity brings. Every good wish.

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  9. Thanks Michael. Your gift to me has been your ability to offer new perspectives and the graciousness with which you have given your heart o us will continue to inspire me.

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  10. Thanks Michael. Your gift to me has been your ability to offer new perspectives and the graciousness with which you have given your heart o us will continue to inspire me. May your journey onwards and inwards be life giving and heart filling.

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  11. Thank you Michael. Your blog is always stimulating and I'm sorry that we can't look forward to more new posts - but you are leaving us a rich resource of material to go back to and learn from. Thanks for your ministry and all the best for the future.
    Mark & Grace Davie

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  12. Thank you, and my prayers, such as they are, accompany you as you do your hidden 'heart-work'.

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  13. A decision full of integrity and promise which I hope will lead to rich discoveries. Thank you Michael for your ministry over the years, particularly your words both written and spoken. Mark Waters

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  14. Thank you and very best wishes for your retirement.

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  15. Richard Cattley29 June 2020 at 11:48

    Michael thank you for all you have shared and taught me over the years. We are of similar age and I too have been reflecting recently whether it is time that I gave up my taking services in the Thames Valley Methodist Circuit. Thank you for what you say here in the last blog. May God continue to enfold you in his love.

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  16. Thank you Michael for the wonderful blogs and insights but especially for when you turned to me at dinner that time, and asked me a question. You listened for the best part of half an hour and it began a process for me (and others, I suspect) from which I have benefited and will remain forever grateful.

    Hasn't dented my atheism though - you can't win 'em all!

    All the VERY best in retirement and I look forward to reading more once you've changed your mind and re-started the blog.

    Chris Haughton (DCOC)

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  17. Thank you, Michael, I've really enjoyed your observations over the last few years.

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  18. Thanks for all your contributions, and for this gracious example of stepping back. Blessings for the future.

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  19. Thank you for the go to place for wisdom in the Church of England.
    And thank you for what I have treasured since the old days.

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  20. Thank you very much for having provided such a superb and thoughtful blog over the years. Very best wishes.

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  21. I am very sorry to hear this. Thank you for the perceptiveness and sanity of your posts. Your final reflections are most helpful to someone who is about to turn 78 let alone 70. All the best for the future. Daniel Lamont

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  22. Thank you very much for your thoughtful and perceptive posts. I shall miss them. Your final reflections ring true to someone about turn 78. All the best for the future. Daniel Lamont

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  23. On receipt of this news I feel the same as I did when Mrs. Proudie said that she was giving up her weekly Saturday Letter on Archbishop Cranmer's blog. I greatly miss her observations on the diocese of Barchester and I shall miss your wise contributions to Northern Wool Gatherer. Thank you and God Bless.

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  24. So many thanks it sounds like a funeral delivery. I'm resisting ageism at seventy one and a half so am sorry you are giving up, however well-dressed your rationale. Very best wishes.

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  25. Blessings in abundance. I have enjoyed your writing, I've always wondered if you were Priested in Bristol Cathedral in 1976, and the day that I was made Deacon. Your name has often "rung a bell" Michael Povey

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  26. I too shall miss your kind and generous words in a difficult world, and may God bless your mind and body these next 20 years

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  27. Not really having time for blogs etc, yours has been a regular watering hole for me and v. much appreciated. May you savour this new chapter with all its different colours and textures. Thank you for your compassion, challenge and for modelling what it means to be a priest in this beautiful and broken nation of ours. From a former denizen of the South Tyne valley, P

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  28. I'm so glad I arrived in time to benefit from your ministry, both here and elsewhere.
    Much love and many thanks.

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