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….