Most of you will know that I am retiring on the 28th of February, and that my last Sunday at St. Mary’s will be on the 26th of February. The editor and churchwardens have asked that I contribute a piece for the March parish magazine, so this month’s letter does not have quite the final, valedictory character it might otherwise have had.
The single most common response to the news of my announcement has been ‘Congratulations’. That suggests retirement is an achievement of sorts, which I’m still contemplating (is it an achievement to have survived ordained ministry in the Church of England for 41 years, perhaps?). But it started me thinking. So, recognising that many of you may have accumulated a decade or more of years of retirement, and therefore have plenty of actual experience to draw on, I offer a few tentative, early ‘musings’ on what this thing called ‘retirement’ seems (at least to me) to be about at this stage.
There’s no escaping at least some element of bereavement. Putting down a role and a vocation after four decades of being defined, to some extent, by the nature of the job is going to take a lot of getting used to. More so as the element of bereavement is added to for clergy by the requirement to move house – itself recognized as one of the stressful ‘spikes’ of life. Some dioceses (Manchester is one) make it almost a policy that newly-retired clergy are to have a complete six-month break from taking services to allow (amongst other things) a proper sense of detachment from the old role to take place. Chester diocese doesn’t insist on that, but it seems wise, and that is what I shall do.
I’m also pondering how to reply to the question from a stranger, ‘What do you do?’ People tell me retirement is a time for being rather than doing, smelling the flowers rather than attending yet another meeting. Though for clergy at least (and indeed for any Christian), some measure of ‘being’ ought to be part of what they are called to ‘do’. All Christians, after all, are supposed to try to make space in their busy lives for the things of the spirit, for prayer and contemplation (and clergy actually get paid to pray – to learn to ‘be’ as well as to ‘do’). But I take the point that there is less one has to ‘do’; that there is leisure time available for whatever is decided belongs there. Again, people suggest retirement means more ‘enjoyment’, though that can sometimes imply that what went before was pure drudgery. But I have been fortunate enough to enjoy so much of what I have been able to spend my time on. Yes, of course, there have been times when that hasn’t been the case, and times when the diary can seem a tyrant rather than a friend. So ‘enjoyment’ will hopefully be carried forward, but in different ways.
You are, of course, a priest forever, not just while you are in a particular job, but as a Christian you also have a call from God to exercise discipleship. That discipleship now has to find new expressions. There will no doubt be opportunities in the future to help out with cover for clerical colleagues (the ministry of the Church of England would collapse overnight were it not for the small army of ‘active’ retired clergy), but it is important to be open to fresh ways in which God’s call to exercise discipleship can be answered. You do not retire from being a Christian, though the context for the exercise of that discipleship may change,
That suggests something else about retirement: that it is not so much a condition, a definition of who or what you are, but more of a context in which to explore who you are – perhaps give attention to some aspects of self which have necessarily had to take a back seat during a busy working life.
It’s tempting to take up a whole range of new hobbies in the early days of retirement. But I want to see it more as an opportunity to discover what I really want to do, and not just fill time (and the diary) as a way of warding off potential boredom. There may come a time when I find myself saying, ‘I don’t know how I found time to go to work’, but I don’t want to get to that point too soon (and possibly not at all). I just look forward to discovering what it might mean to have a ‘good retirement’.