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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Retirement: an interim report from Haydon Bridge

Six weeks to go, give or take: retirement is charging down the slipway. 40 days - the same as Lent. But the prospect sometimes feels more like Lent wound back in reverse, as if retirement day, far from being some kind of Easter, is more like Ash Wednesday, a day to mourn and give things up.

No point in pretending: there will be so much to lose. It's not just the life and worship of this wonderful community here at Durham Cathedral. It's the end of forty years of full-time stipendiary ministry as 'clergy'. Not the end of priesthood, of course - that vocation is till death us do part. But it will mean the end of the way I have been called to exercise it over four decades. And that's symbolised by the names of the places where I've been privileged to minister during that time - Oxford, Salisbury, Alnwick, Coventry, Sheffield and Durham. So many memories. So much learned. Such a rich time of gifts. Yes, there have been periods of struggle and pain too. But at such dark times, these places and their people have been compassionate, wise and forgiving. They have been wise teachers. I owe them a great deal.

But as we always say at Lent, 'giving up' creates space to offer life in new ways, be open to new opportunities. 'New lamps be lit, new tasks begun' says George Bell's hymn. That's the entire point. And this weekend I've begun to glimpse this in a new way. We've spent 48 hours in Northumberland, Haydon Bridge where we shall retire, beginning the long process of turning a house into a home. It's hard work to dismantle one home, especially when you've been happy there, and start to build another. But for the first time I began to glimpse what new gifts await us as we let go of the old.

I'm thinking of simply homely things. A neighbour invites us in for coffee. The Vicar and his family call in with a bottle of wine and a welcome card. Locals help us out in all kinds of practical ways. The folk at the pub are genuinely interested in who we are and when we'll be arriving. The church clock chimes the hours reassuringly - reliably five minutes late, just like Christ Church in Oxford. Local trains trundle over the level-crossing fifty yards away. We take a late stroll and linger on the ancient bridge across the Tyne enjoying the warmth of a summer evening. Sunlight pours into the front of the house each morning and lights up the rear each afternoon and evening. We sit contentedly on the patio drinking coffee.

As it's Sunday we go to church. It's even nearer than the railway station, indeed every bit as close as Durham Cathedral is to this Deanery. It's dedicated to St Cuthbert because his body probably lay on the site of the little Romanesque church up the hill on its long journey to Durham. Cuthbert has been our constant companion and guardian these twelve years so it's a comfort to know he is here too. Jenny and I sit together in the nave as we look forward to doing for many years to come. It's good to be 'lay' as well as 'ordained'. The Vicar presides at the liturgy with care, and preaches thoughtfully about the Living Bread and how the eucharist should shape our life together as a Christian community. Afterwards there is coffee and we meet a lot of warm-hearted friendly people. No-one needs to be told who we are or where we live. The village grapevine has done that long ago.

These are simply glimpses of the future, hints of horizons that are yet to come fully into view. Who knows what life is going to be like after September? I've learned the wisdom of Woody Allen's famous joke. 'How do you make God laugh?' 'You tell him your future plans.' On the other side of this threshold, so much is unknown, inevitably. There's no way to discover what lies beyond except by crossing it - that's the nature of a rite of passage.

We need to have good travelling companions when we cross boundaries. That's why we have farewell rituals, however much of an ordeal they are. They are a chance to say thank you, and maybe sorry, but above all to affirm the relationships that have meant so much to us and will continue to do in years to come. I won't deny that my last Sunday, 27 September, is not a day I look forward to with eagerness. My emotions will no doubt be in turmoil. But as we have all found, when our lives are offered within the life of the people of God, loss has a way of being transformed into gift, even if we don't always see it that way at the time.

So to have eaten our first meal, and slept our first night, and worshipped on our first Sunday in our future home feels like a big step forward on this strange but rather wonderful journey. Because Ash Wednesday always looks forward to Easter when life begins again.

1 comment:

  1. I think that you're taking a realistic approach to retirement. I was fortunate that I had already settled when I retired. Having a nomadic military life for the first 23 years of my military service, I finally settled in one place, and traveled to postings, the last one being in Canterbury, with a remit across the whole South East, where the Reserve Army unit I was part off, had Company locations. Travel and the M25 (horrid road) featured in my life weekly, as the journey to and from home daily was at least 120 miles. But being settled, allowed my spouse to find permanent employment in her own community, and for us to put down roots for children and grandchildren to have their own roots, after their nomadic upbringing.

    Your new community, sounds very much like the rural benefice that I joined while working in Canterbury - five churches, on Vicar and a gaggle of retired priests, one of whom became my SD as I entered the discernment process. The people who welcomed me, took me into their hearts, invited me into their homes and gave out Christian love and grace unstintingly. Curious about me, about my Army Career, places that I had been and things that I had seen and done - and the historic Reserve Forces Battalion that I was serving with - intimately linked to those communities in which they were raised. Names like 'The Buffs' and Royal West Kent Regiments (RWK) and the proud tradition of being the holders of more Victorial Cross members than any other Infantry Regiment.

    Retirement meant new paths, new ways, learning about ministry in this strange new faith that I had gained. Fighting to work out how Anglicanism was different, but similar to my former Catholic faith, and adjusting to 'Church Speak' and away from 'Army Speak' - which can be confusing and unsettling for someone used to giving orders to submit in obedience to a country Vicar and the Bishop, who I met early in that journey.

    I have no regrets. The decision that I wasn't right for Ordained Ministry, while trouble some and painful at the time, opened vistas in different directions, which meant thinking wider than one place and eventually moving dioceses to my home diocese to ministry and training in a local context. Having just completed my first year, ever of academic study for Licensed Lay Ministry, I'm happier, more settled and content than at any time in the last 6 years since retirement, and perhaps in all of my life.

    I'm still adjusting, but I think that this is part of God pushing and pulling me in different directions. This year starting in September, there are decisions to be made about which area's of ministry I will specialise in in year three. Wonderful choices, but only four to be chosen - prayer and reflection, along with others will decide and God's will to be discerned as part of it.

    For me this is retirement - time for allowing God to work his will - a bit like Stephen Cherry's book about 'busyness' putting that aside and allowing life and God to take me with them. Sometimes like his 'Barefoot Disciple' walking the path, feeling every stone, dip or dent along it, but going in God's direction, not my own.

    Prayers for you as you continue to prepare and for your family, who are having to make these adjustments with you. May your retirement be as blessed and fulfilling as your ministry has been over the last 40 years.