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.
- Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.