"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,