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We might be pensioned, but we’ve not been pensioned off

22 June 2018

Retired priests now equal in number the stipendiary clergy. Is the Church fully recognising all that retired clergy can offer, asks Rebecca Paveley

A Retired Clergy Association meeting at Bishopthorpe Palace, in 2017

A Retired Clergy Association meeting at Bishopthorpe Palace, in 2017

EACH year, hundreds of clergy retire. The majority of them will take up active ministry again — perhaps after a house move, and some time off, as most bishops normally advise at least a six-month break.

Canon Malcolm Grundy, who is vice-chair of the Retired Clergy Association (RCA), says that this “transition” period is to ensure that “they move from being the person they were, into the person they are now that they are retired — and they remember that they are a human being with other interests.”

For some, it can be difficult. “It can be a hard transition for those who were ordained young, and have never known anything else; but also for those who were ordained in mid-career, and who wanted to go for longer,” Canon Grundy says.

Many clergy will then continue as an “active retired” — taking services and more — for decades. And, today, a visitor attending an Anglican church is just as likely to find the services taken by a retired person as a stipendiary priest. That is based on an analysis by the church statistician Peter Brierley of the latest figures released by the Ministry Division.

In 2016, the number of stipendiary clergy was 7300, and the number of priests with permission to officiate (PTO) — to continue ministry in retirement — was 6600. “The trend in the first is downwards and in the second, upwards; so they will cross — and may, in fact, have already done so, or are effectively equal in 2018,” Mr Brierley says.

For many years, this swelling army of retired clergy were seen largely as recipients, both of pastoral care and of pensions. But the Director of the Archbishops’ Council’s Ministry Division, the Ven. Julian Hubbard, says that the Church is waking up to the huge potential of retired clergy to continue to contribute and serve, in more ways than just covering services.

“Often, when they retire, they are at the prime of their spiritual powers. Many will have gifts in evangelism, or can serve in other ways, as well as offering services — perhaps coming in as consultants to give advice.” He now meets regularly with the RCA to discuss better ways of valuing and involving the retired clergy.

Canon Grundy says: “It’s a resource that has to be taken advantage of. Many clergy would welcome using their skills, perhaps as advisers or trainers, or in conciliation during challenging issues.”

Although the numbers of clergy close to retirement have been portrayed as a recruitment crisis, Archdeacon Hubbard says that it should be seen as an opportunity. “On the positive side, that means there are a huge number of people aged 68 or 70 who still feel able to offer a tremendous amount, and may feel liberated to do so.”

The Revd Paul Wordsworth, who was a parish priest for 40 years and retired from his last parish in Letchworth eight years ago, has run two charities in retirement, and looked after a church in vacancy for four years. The Revd John Luscombe, who retired as the Archbishop of York’s mission and evangelism adviser in 2007, and who has taken on fund-raising for his new church in retirement, says that he has found liberation in being able to say ‘No’ to some things, learning new skills, and using his talents again.

Although Mr Luscombe acknowledges that there are occasional “frustrations” in no longer being the final decision-maker in the parish, the ability to choose what he gets involved in more than compensates. “Many clergy do welcome the freedom. . . especially the freedom from committees and bureaucracy, and the ability to focus fully on people,” Canon Grundy says.


THE Ven. Penny Driver, the retired clergy and widows officer for the diocese of Carlisle, retired as an archdeacon last year.

She has made a decision to take only an occasional Sunday service. At a recent training day that she led for retired clergy, she suggested that others should do the same. “I challenged them to stop just plugging the gaps. . . It is false support, in a way: it prevents the Church adapting and waking up.”

The diocese of Carlisle, which has 300 retired clergy compared with about 100 stipendiary, is adapting by establishing ecumenical mission communities, where one stipendiary priest has ten or 11 churches, and a ministry team of lay people and retired clergy take services and provide pastoral care.

“It is part of realising how we can use people’s gifts, whether they are lay or ordained,” Archdeacon Driver says. “We would not put one retired clergy person in one church — partly so the church doesn’t get used to having one vicar, as that can create dependency on one person again.” Not all retired clergy want to engage in the new model, she says, but the most active are tending to be the most willing.

There is still some concern among younger priests that retired clergy will get in the way, or take over their ministry, although this is changing, she says.

In the diocese of Newcastle, Canon Colin Gough has just retired as the diocesan retirement officer. The diocese now recognises, he says, that retired clergy “are indispensable to the mission and ministry of the Church”. Compulsory safeguarding training for those with PTO has also helped retired clergy to feel valued.

Being included in all the training “adds to a sense of belonging [and] helps us feel we are all in something together”, he says. It “counterbalances the disenfranchisement that can be felt when you retire”.

He identifies an undercurrent of feeling, among some retired clergy, that may be fuelling their desire to serve into their seventies, eighties, and nineties: “There is a disquiet among some retired clergy that the Church has diminished on our watch, though it was not for lack of prayer or want of trying. . . That is something we just have to live with. But it is outweighed by the joys of continuing to have a fulfilling ministry.”


The Revd Paul Wordsworth helps to lead worship at St Hilda’s, York

‘The change has been a great deal of work’

RETIRING clergy normally have a break before offering themselves in ministry again. But the Revd Paul Wordsworth retired as the Archbishop of York’s mission and evangelism adviser one day, and was given his new licence as parish priest to his home church, St Hilda’s, York, where he had already been helping out, the next.

But he has also taken on work with a much wider brief, and now supports a charity that works with the homeless in York, chairing its board of trustees, and has become the co-ordinator for York’s work with refugees, as a City of Sanctuary.

“It’s been a great deal of work,” he says. “I am also an advocate for asylum-seekers, and help them with their claims for asylum, and am just alongside them through the process.”

His parish has also been in vacancy for four years, and he has been looking after services and the pastoral care of the congregation. He is about to hand that over, however, and has no qualms about stepping back again from day-to-day ministry.

“It will be a new beginning for the parish, and for me. I have chosen to be as involved as I have been, and I am grateful I have the physical health to do it. I hope I will know when it is time to step back for good. I know it can be hard to receive when you’ve been a priest. I am aware I will need to accept help graciously.”

‘I just can’t stop myself’

THE Revd John Luscombe’s ministry in retirement has presented him with bigger challenges than he encountered in 40 years of stipendiary ministry. He is involved with the parish of St John’s, Totnes, in Devon, where generations of his family have lived and worshipped.

After moving there from his last parish, in Letchworth, he offered to help, and then volunteered to take on a fund-raising project to replace all the windows. After months of fund-raising, and reaching the £100,000 total, renovation work has just begun.

The Revd John Luscombe with friends and his wife, Carmen (to his left), at his 70th birthday celebrations at St John’s, Totnes, in Devon

“There has been a real snowball effect to it: once you get started, you gain confidence. I’m not sure I did plan to be so involved in the beginning. I knew I would offer services and pastoral work, and I had done some building projects during my time as a vicar, but nothing like on this scale. I am quite enjoying it, but I went into it with my eyes wide shut, which was probably the best way.

“I’ve gained a lot more experience doing this, and acquired new skills. And, if I hadn’t offered to do it, there’s a fair chance we’d still be talking about it: the team are just so stretched.”

The pleasure of being involved — and making real progress — has outweighed some of the minor frustrations of no longer being “in charge”. “Sometimes, of course, it can be frustrating when I have to refer to other people to make decisions, but I’m not complaining at all.

“This last year has been all-consuming, and I am going to carry on being involved in the day-to-day management of the project over the next few months. We are also looking at putting in another application; so we can do more to the roof space, which was never properly completed when the church was restored after a major fire in the 1970s. It must be catching: I can’t stop myself.”

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