“HAVE I been brought here/to repent of my sermons?’ wrote R. S. Thomas, looking back on his ministry. “The problems he had concealed from his congregations”, he said of himself, “had him now all to themselves.” Retirement raises an extraordinary range of practical, personal, and theological issues for the clergy, fortunately not all as problematic as Thomas found.
Here are two very different books on the subject. Make the Most of Retirement is an upbeat sequence of reflections and guidance by an eminent Baptist minister, arising from his own experience of retirement. In contrast to Paul Beasley-Murray’s gently avuncular prescriptiveness, A New Lease of Life? offers a descriptive series of lively accounts of their experience by 14 retired Church of England clergy, in the process raising sharp questions besides providing much wisdom and encouragement.
Beasley-Murray claims to have written the first British book on retirement aimed at the clergy, and he touches lightly on issues ranging from the first impact of retiring to preparing for one’s death. He has plenty of helpful things to say. Retirement should be an adventure, “an opportunity to be more alive than ever”. The first year should be a “gap year”, as free of decisions as possible, including any commitment to looking after grandchildren. Reconnecting with old friends is invaluable. The basic pastoral discipline is to offer encouragement to our successors.
But the book has limitations. The author is scrupulous in using inclusive language for the clergy, and yet all spouses are female, and the situation of single clergy is not mentioned at all. He affirms that “it is important for retired ministers to realise that we are no longer pastors”, but — reflecting, perhaps, his own Church’s perspective — it is not always clear whether the ongoing ministry that he describes is distinctive from that of a faithful church member. He recognises that he is writing from personal experience, but is tempted at times into over-sharing and self-promotion (“let me recommend my blog”).
There is limited recognition of the problems of retirement, verging at times on the blasé: “As I know from my own personal experience, trials are to be welcomed (James 1:2-4), for the truth is that ‘all sunshine makes a desert.’’’ We do learn, though, that in the United States “ministers tend to be fatter than their church members, and that churchgoers tend to be fatter than non-churchgoers”.
Make the Most of Retirement is a quick read, whose relatively slight consideration of many topics works best as a checklist for further thought.
The 14 contributors to A New Lease of Life? make one feel how lucky the Church of England is in so many of its clergy, and how fulfilling the experience of retirement can be, though they do not hesitate to speak about the difficulties that they found, the mistakes that they made, and their mixed feelings about the Church’s treatment of them. In many cases, they set their experience of retirement alongside an account of their previous ministry, which allows attention not only to the state of retirement, but to the process of retiring.
The collection represents a variety of perspectives, but does not claim to be comprehensive. Inevitably, it reflects the kind of clergy who get invited to contribute to a book like this, some of whom clearly have a wider range of retirement ministry options than the average. It is striking how many mention their good fortune in already having property to retire into, not least the one who spaciously writes her chapter “Sitting in the summer house again, looking across the pond and the lower part of the garden”.
Most of the contributors assume that the part that they are to play in retirement is to develop ministerial activities that sustain a permanent priestly identity, though some (notably the women contributors) dig deeper: “How easy to lose our primary value as human.” There remains a need to examine the relationship between priesthood and the relinquishment of the cure of souls.
Leslie Francis adds a summary of a 2013 survey of retired clergy, and David Walker (whose identity as a serving bishop is strangely not disclosed) provides an excellent response to the stories, highlighting both good practice for the clergy and questions for the Church. The timing of retirement preparation is one concern, as is housing provision. The Church’s attitude towards gay clergy evokes strong views.
A New Lease of Life? is warmly recommended to retired clergy, those looking towards retirement, and those with oversight of the clergy at a time when there are more clergy living on pensions than stipends. I warmed to the contributor who declared: “Putting aside public office, becoming an anonymous old lady, learning again how to be free, to play, to see things afresh is the way I want to go.”
The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest, who contributes to diocesan retirement preparation in the diocese of London.
Make the Most of Retirement
Church Times Bookshop £8.10
A New Lease of Life? Anglican clergy reflect on retirement
Tony Neal and Leslie J. Francis, editors
Sacristy Press £19.55
Church Times Bookshop £17.60