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Why I don’t take services now

25 July 2014

Philip Welsh explores retirement and being a priest without a cure of souls


"JUST wait - you'll be snapped up to take services all over the place." That was the confident prediction of just about everybody when I retired, perhaps after allowing me a decent interval to take stock.

They seemed baffled, though, when I said that I did not plan to officiate at services, and especially when I explained that it was not because I was disillusioned with the Church, or losing my faith, but precisely because of what I believe and value most about ministry and vocation.

Thank goodness for that army of retired clergy who conduct services all over the country, week by week, and without whom, in some areas, there would scarcely be a church - or at least regular provision of the sacraments. Unquestionably, it is a way to be of real service, and toput experience to good use, freenow of the burden of organisational responsibility, as well as a pos-sible supplement to retirement income.

Clearly, there is a problem for any organisation that becomes dependent on its retired workforce; and, clearly, there is a problem for any clergy who become dependent on a pastoral position they no longer have. But, for the most part, the extensive liturgical ministry of retired clergy is a blessing to the Church, and to the priests themselves.

In my case, it is still early days, and I may change my mind. No doubt I would be welcome to celebrate or preach from time to time at the church I now attend, or elsewhere locally. But there is a question that I must face first, and that is about the extent to which I remain a priest, now that I no longer have a particular cure of souls.

Obviously, I remain a priest canonically, and I have got a certificate with my bishop's permission to officiate to prove it. But first there is the issue of what it means to be a priest without a cure.


IN THE year since I have retired, after 40 good years of ordained ministry, largely in parishes, I have not presided at the eucharist, and I have scarcely preached - and the strange thing is that I don't miss it, although it was such a central and defining part of what I did, and of who I was before.

I still enjoy being opinionated about those who are officiating in church, but I do not wish that I was standing there myself. What lies behind this is the conviction - which has become stronger as the years have passed - that the proper place to preside and to preach is within a pastoral relationship with a community of faith, a community to which you have been called in order to be a priest for them.

Any parish priest knows that preaching to your own congregation is completely different from preaching as a visitor, and generally far more rewarding. And most congregations, although they will enjoy a visitor's special contribution from time to time, will reserve a particular value for the possibly routine preaching of their own minister, simply because he or she is their own - "I know my own, and my own know me."

There is a dynamic in the relationship. Not only does it shape what the preacher chooses to say, but the way in which it will be heard, as the congregation construes what you say against the way they already know you, and the way they know that you know them. The fact that they are more likely to get your jokes means a great deal.

In this sense, preaching is an aspect of presiding; an embodiment of the covenant relationship between a community of faith and the person called to be their priest. In the Church of England, you cannot be ordained without a "title", an appointment to a Christian community whose priest or deacon you are to be. To be ordained is not to be given an indelible individual character, but to be placed in a relationship with a worshipping community that validates your priesthood, that "entitles" you.


THIS is not an Anglican quirk, but is rooted in Catholic tradition. "No one", Canon 6 of the Council of Chalcedon says, "shall be ordained deacon or priest in an absolute manner," and the Dominican Edward Schillebeeckx draws out the largely forgotten implication: "Another fundamental consequence of the Canon of Chalcedon was that a minister who, for any personal reason, ceased to be the president of a community, ipso facto returned to being a layman in the full sense of the word."

So being a priest is transitive, like one of those verbs that has to have an object. You cannot be a priest if you are not a priest for some-body. You are more of a verb thana noun.

This applies not only to stipendiary parish clergy, but to all those clergy - in parishes or chaplaincies, paid or self-supporting - who are licensed to serve in some particular cure of souls. It does not apply, however, to those clergy in diocesan posts who are not based in a particular parish or canonry (the situation I was in years ago, which first prompted this line of thought), and it does not apply to retired clergy, the vast majority of whom have general permission to officiate. And that leaves people like us with an interesting prospect.

It offers us the chance to rejoin the Church's principal order of ministry, the laity, to which we were ordained at our baptism. It is fortunate that we do not have to go through another selection process, for which we may no longer be the strongest candidates; but that does not mean that there will be no testing, some of which may come on us unexpectedly.

I need, for example, to learn again how to worship, now that it no longer means leading the service. I need to adjust to invisibility, now that I am no longer identifiable in a public position, and with a prominent identity within the church. If I stay for coffee, I rediscover what it is like to be shy.

I need to find a new way to say my daily prayers, now that I have not got a church next door, and nobody is expecting me to turn up.I have a great deal to learnfrom those fellow-members of the Church who have faithfully found a rhythm for prayer within their secular life.


ADDRESSING what it means to be a priest without a cure soon becomes a more personal challenge, as it brings before us the unsettling question of who we are, now that we no longer have the position and status that has properly shaped so much of our life.

If it feels unnatural or unwelcome to embrace being a lay Christian again, that may say a good deal about the impoverished picture we have of how the Church expects its members to live out their Christian commitment, to say nothing of the frequently condescending clericalism that bedevils the Church - not least among those who have spent years preaching about lay ministry, but who lose touch with who they are when they are not being the vicar.

It is quite possible, of course, that I am just being selfish in not seeking to help where I can. But I am also trying to stand up for all that I believe it means to be a priest, and even more for all that I believe it means to belong to the laity. And I do not want the fear of being thought selfish or irresponsible to take away this precious opportunity to turn - or, strictly, to return - to a different way of living as a Christian, and of serving the gospel, both inside and outside the Church.

Inevitably, there will be an occasion, from time to time, when it makes sense to step out from my usual place in the pews, and officiate. But it will be important for me to be clear that this is not characteristic - as if I ought, periodically, to reclaim a priestly identity - but an exception to what is now my proper vocational default setting as an ordained member of the laity.


LIGHT dawns from the East, in the form of the four traditional Hindu life-stages: student, householder, retirement - or retreat for the loosening of ties - and, finally, hermit. I may not be ready for the last one yet, but there is wisdom in giving a whole third stage to the process of disengaging from active employment, if one is then to become free to befriend one's inner hermit, the child of God first named at baptism.

"Even when our grip has relaxed, we are reluctant to give up possession," Rabindranath Tagore wrote. "We are not trained to recognise the inevitable as natural, and so cannot give up gracefully that which has to go."

When I retired, the final service and the parish party were an important rite of passage; but it was handing in all my keys, a few days later, that felt like a minor sacrament of decommissioning - an action that did not just describe the situation, but made it happen.

Now I have just one front-door key, and a largely empty diary which I am in no hurry to fill with clerical duties. It feels a bit exposed, but it also feels like a good and potentially creative place to be. Above all, it is an invitation to explore again the vocation to be a Christian that lay behind the vocation to be a priest. I doubt that the Pensions Board will be issuing my saffron hermit's robes just yet.


The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London. Formerly he was Vicar of St Stephen's, Rochester Row, Westminster.

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