Sunday, 15 March 2015

A Retirement is Announced

I announced my retirement today. It’s not something I’ve ever done before. I don’t expect to be doing it again. So you’ll forgive a soliloquy to mark the day.

Here’s what I wrote in the Cathedral notice sheet.

I write this with mixed feelings.

On St Cuthbert’s Day it will be 12 years since I was installed as Dean of Durham. The time has now come to announce that I shall be retiring from the role at the end of this year. The Bishop and the Chapter have kindly granted me three months of sabbatical leave to complete my time here, so Jenny and I will be saying our goodbyes to the Cathedral and the wider community at the end of September. Our farewell service will be evensong on Sunday 27 September.

It is too soon yet to put into words the gratitude we feel as this wonderful chapter in our lives approaches its end. However, I am sure you will realise that this parting of friends, when it comes, will not be easy. But in the image of an earlier dean (who loved this place as I do), we are hermit crabs who need to recognise when the time is coming to move on. We shall be retiring to Northumberland. There we shall say our prayers for the Cathedral in the knowledge that it will be in the best possible hands in the future.

It’s a strange feeling, knowing that the die is cast. We made the decision months ago, Jenny and I, that we would retire in September. So I already knew that it was my last Advent Procession in the Cathedral, my last Christmas sermon, my last ashing at the start of Lent. I knew that I would never again watch the trees on the river banks turn autumn gold, or the first snowdrops push through the frosty Deanery lawn. I was aware of these things, but didn’t allow myself to think too much about them. It didn’t feel real. It wasn’t imminent.

But after today it is different. It still isn’t imminent (I tell myself), but it has become a whole lot more real. Seeing it there in black and white says to me: the time is coming. There’s no argument. You need to be ready when it comes. There are things that need to be done before I go: people to see, undertakings to meet, jobs to finish, files to close. I have never been a good completer-finisher, so this could be exacting. The rituals of leave-taking can be deferred for a while: it’s not yet time for farewells. It can be business as usual for a few more months.

Or can it? For in a sense, every moment from now on is a kind of leave-taking, not just of these 12 Durham years but of the 40 years I have been in full-time ministry since my ordination in 1975. I have to learn that everything that has ‘constructed’ my working life is now provisional. It’s not that everything comes into the category of ‘last time’: ministry doesn’t end with retirement. But what will be different is that it won’t any more be the daily habit of ordinary working life. I need to recognise that pretty well everything will need to be renegotiated on the other side of the threshold called ‘retirement’. That feels exhilarating but, if I’m honest, daunting too.

All day I’ve had the line of a Philip Larkin poem in my mind: Unresting death, a whole day nearer now. This great poem is called 'Aubade'. In it, Larkin imagines death creeping up on him remorselessly, terrifyingly. The dreadful visitant will not be put off. There is no postponing the unwelcome encounter, so it all depends on how the poet faces it. I wonder why I unconsciously made the association: presumably because whatever else it is, retirement is a kind of dying, letting go of one kind of life in order to embrace the new. Right now, life after retirement feels as much of a mystery as life after death, so maybe the analogy has something in it. It recalls earlier rites of passage: what was I supposed to do on the first day after I left school? Or got married? Or was ordained? You never quite know till you get there.

On the other hand, I won’t pretend that I’m not looking forward to the possibilities retirement will bring: more time for family and friends; a new place to live and a new community to belong to; lifelong interests to enjoy and new ones to discover; volunteering in ways that could put something into church or society; having choices about where to focus energies. One of the best things will be that we shall still be living in our beloved North East England with its wonderful people, rich heritage and beautiful landscapes to go on enjoying. We shall accentuate the positive in the spirit of Dag Hammarskjöld: for all that has been, thanks! To all that shall be, yes! Isn't that the Christian way to cross any threshold?

But oh, it is going to be so hard to leave Durham….

More anon.


  1. Many thanks for the warmest of welcomes that you gave to my choir when we came to Durham to sing in the cathedral last August. May you and your wife enjoy a long, happy and fruitful retirement.

  2. Retirement is all that it's cracked up to be. I retired with joy in 2009. Aged 60, the Army decided that it had no further use for me, and I had concluded that I was no longer enjoying what I was doing, having done it for 43 years of my adult life, from age 17.

    I had prepared people for my departure well in advance (I had little choice in the matter) and did exactly what you're doing. Took the last three months as leave, so that I had time to adjust, while nominally still on the payroll. That three months allowed me to attend training for ministry in a role with my parish, and freed me to work in roles that I hadn't really had the time for before retirement.

    Now, six years later, I am finally having been through the hoops of discernment, embarking on a three year Licensed Lay Ministry Course - so far so good, and it's something to thank God for every day.

    My spouse elected to continue working - she is younger than I, and this works well. I'm now the house husband doing domestic stuff I hadn't ever before done, while she is able to enjoy our leisure time together without thinking housework or washing etc.

    Mundane things, but they do make a difference. I seem able to contribute more to my community than I did when I lived and worked away from our home for long periods, and being finally settled gives you some space to breathe and to get to know the many people you neglected throughout a busy, mobile working life.

    I pray that your retirement will be a fruitful and productive that you hope for and that the release from a busy life of ministry, will provide opportunities which will continue to enlighten the lives of others for years to come.

  3. Thank you, Michael, for all you have given in Durham with your wise, scholarly and humane leadership, which has made the Christian faith credible for so many. Please continue to blog (and to write generally) because the Church of England is going to need your wisdom more than ever in the years ahead.

  4. Thank you for these kind and generous comments.