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.