The Church's forgotten power-house: old people

02 November 2006


TWO REPORTS last week highlighted the question of care for older people. The first, Living Well in Later Life ( told of how there is still a lack of consultation with older people when planning services, and a lack of respect in the way they are treated in hospital. For example, staff take meals away before they can be eaten, and discharge older people to free their beds, without making suitable arrangements.

In the second report, the King's Fund made another reasoned plea for society to fund personal care for older people (

These findings should attract our attention, if only for the selfish reason that more of us are falling into this category. The fraction of the population aged above 55 will reach one quarter by 2051. But we should also care because each of us is made in God's image, and should be valued at every stage.

It is therefore surprising that the Church fails to make older people a priority; it disempowers them and often deprives them of an opportunity to participate as children of God. Too many of us in the Church apologise for our congregation with words such as "I am afraid we are all elderly here."

We ought to see those in their second half of life as our natural spiritual constituency - people who have travelled further in life, and have become more open to God. We should celebrate our older members, not be ashamed of them.

Churches should listen more imaginatively to older people's experience, and be ready to learn from them. Older people can provide a longer perspective in a time of change. They know about making mistakes, and understand human nature, work, and faith.

We need to find ways of valuing age, and enabling older people to find a voice. The parish magazine can give an opportunity to feature the faith stories and life experiences of older parishioners. During the sermon slot, the vicar could invite older members of the congregation to give their testimony, perhaps through an interview-style dialogue.

We should ensure that older people are offered new experiences rather than assuming that they always prefer the status quo. Older people are not a uniform group - they are as open to new things as anybody else. For example, older parishioners in Smethwick run two groups: one arranges trips out, providing the only opportunity some individuals have for getting out of town with others; another meets weekly for tea, games, gentle exercise, and informal support. Many older women, particularly widows, have found this a transforming experience, as they make new friends and enjoy new pastimes.

Older people often appreciate the vibrancy that children bring. Junior churches or Sunday schools can invite older members to contribute to teaching sessions. Older people can get involved in activities such as nativity plays. I once saw the innkeeper in a wheelchair, and the children enjoying the aged wise men.

Churches must recognise the wide range of abilities and potential to be found among older members. Reflect on how often a funeral address reveals an older person of talent, who was not recognised as such either by the vicar or congregation. We need to see the person and the possibility beyond the greyness. A person does not have to be productive to be useful.

In their pastoral care, churches need to be aware of the affects of physical and mental diminution on their older members, and help them to learn to cope with the associated feelings of loss. Our constant emphasis on doing rather than being can devalue the latter.

We need to draw on older people as a prayer resource - a productive ministry of intercession that can surround a place with care. This ministry could be exercised from home, and a network developed that connects people and situations across the world.

If older people become too frail to attend Sunday worship, we need to note their absence, and offer support. There might be a lay person who could have a pastoral watch for older members. We also need to explore ideas of worship at different times and places. Why do many churches offer BCP services only at 8 a.m., and evensong after dark in winter?

Churches should be conscious that many older people are themselves carers of spouses, parents, other elderly friends, or grandchildren. We need to find ways of encouraging them in this task of caring. Offers of help can give carers time, while a formal support group that listens to them can help to relieve pressures. We don't always think of older carers when we talk of our "family church". Family is at all stages of the life cycle. We should also remember older carers in Sunday intercessions.

As Peter Speck said ( Comment, 3 March), churches should recognise that older people feel challenged in their beliefs as they cope with losses, and can be looking for help to come to terms with past experiences. We need to respond to these questions rather than change the subject: this is important theological work.

The Church also needs to be prepared to give time to the harvesting of memories as a resource for bringing souls to Christ. Some older people are natural evangelists. They have time for people and for spiritual friendship. Their lives often reflect many of the virtues of discipleship: empathy, patience, and compassion. These are attractive resources for mission. There has been an eight-fold growth in our congregation among the over-55s here in Temple Balsall.

Churches should act as beacons of intergenerational activity, so that the young may learn from the old, and visa versa, and that neither is seen as more important than the other. I am not suggesting that the Church sack all youth workers, and begin to employ older-people workers, but nearly all dioceses have posts for youth and children's work, but few have them for older people.

We should work to build all-age communities, where older people are a respected part of the body of Christ. To do this, we must combat some of the fears that surround ageing. We must also exercise pastoral imagination to root out ageism.

Older people are an overlooked majority, who deserve our energy. They are our natural spiritual constituency - let us stop apologising for them.

The Revd Dr James Woodward is Director of the Leveson Centre for the Study of Ageing, Spirituality and Social Policy in the diocese of Birmingham ( uk).

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