*** DEBUG END ***

Retirement: Clerics with time on their hands

21 June 2024

Three priests reflect on their experience — so far — of retirement and ageing

The Revd Philip Welsh

The Revd Philip Welsh

The Revd Philip Welsh was formerly Vicar of St Stephen’s, Rochester Row, in Westminster. He now attends St Mary’s, The Boltons, in West Brompton, in London

I PICKED up the invitation to write this piece on return from helping at the diocese of London’s retirement-preparation course for clergy, from which I brought back two strong impressions: how fortunate the Church is in so many of its clergy; and how impossible it is to make generalisations about retirement.

I have been happily retired for 11 years, and it has taken me time to realise that many of the typical challenges of clergy retirement still lie ahead for me, as my wife remains an incumbent, and we live in her London vicarage.

So, I am still waiting to take my own advice about the dilemma of where to live (often driven by affordability, but still bringing the question what you really want); downsizing (which might stand for wider adjustments); finding one’s feet in a new part of the world (no longer parachuted into instant community); finding a sympathetic new church (not always as easy as you think); and getting used to our both being around all day (balancing overdue time for each other, and time for ourselves).

Meanwhile, my particular experience of retirement in style suggests that the Pensions Board could usefully become a marriage bureau for introducing clergy to younger partners in orders.


EARLY in retirement, I contended that the first job of retired clergy was to retire, not to try to hang on to a clerical identity that we no longer really have without a cure of souls, and to recover an essentially lay identity. Plenty of clergy didn’t agree, although I always found one or two that this really spoke to. A decade down the line, it still holds good for me.

I enjoy helping out in local churches if cover is needed, and find myself unusually popular in the summer months. But I continue to believe that, unless necessity requires, my proper place is in the congregation of my parish church. It is for the clergy entrusted with that cure of souls to preside at the altar.

Slightly to my surprise, though, I find that I have come to value preaching every few weeks at my home church. I think this is partly because thinking and preaching have long gone together, and I have discovered a pressure of things that I still want to say, particularly where I have a relationship with the congregation. At least they are more likely to laugh at my jokes.


BUT what do I believe these days? I think I believe more and more about less and less. Things that I might have worried over previously have dropped away; the central convictions stand out more clearly. I find plenty of room for Keats’s Negative Capability, “that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.

And this includes God, whom we clergy get used to speaking about with such outrageous confidence. Unconstrained now by the inhibitions of public office, what do I really think? Am I an inadvertent crypto-non-realist? Is God a person or a language? I am happy to leave that to cleverer people to work out. It is a language that still speaks to me, and that’s enough.

Cliché alert: I have seen the Church of England change in ways that I would never have imagined years ago, and some of which I regret. But, then, I have always felt that the only proper attitude towards the Church of England is one of exasperation contained by love.

It exasperates me to see so much of what I have treasured apparently set aside, but still I love the Church to which I owe so much.

“God will have other generations to succeed us,” the Puritan Richard Baxter said. “Let us thank him that we have had our time.” But spare a thought for those who, at the end of their public ministry, have lost faith in the Church of England.


EITHER way, retirement reminds us that there is more to life than church. For me, it has been a great time to recover outdoor enthusiasms and cultural interests — although not, as time passes, such a great time to find the boring ailments and routine diminished capacities of later life catching up, and to curtail activities that I have always enjoyed.

I notice a change in my attitude to my physical health, from a mindset of repair to one of conservation: no longer expecting to fix what goes wrong, but concerned to hold on for as long as possible to a diminishing resource.

There is something similar about friends. Retirement has been a wonderful opportunity to repair neglected friendships, particularly those that go back a long way. But the time comes when old friends begin to disappear, and the world starts to thin out. You can’t just go out and find another old friend.

If I am going to sustain an expansive theology of retirement as a time of blessing and opportunity, I will also need a robust theology of diminishment. “We are not trained to recognise the inevitable as natural, and so cannot give up gracefully that which has to go,” the Bengali poet Tagore admitted.

Shortly, I shall keep the 50th anniversary of my ordination as priest. I don’t want a guard of honour of adoring ex-curates, or to fill the sanctuary with clergy friends like a budget version of the elders around the throne. I just want, for a change, to leave my accustomed pew and preside at the eucharist, and then to have a glass of something bubbly with my fellow parishioners, in thanksgiving for all the blessings that ministry in the Church of England has given me. And to pick the hymns.

As for what lies further down the line, Meister Eckhart got it right, long before retirement was ever thought of: “There is no stopping place in this life. Nor was there ever one for anyone, no matter how far along the way they have come. This then above all things, be ready for the gifts of God, and always for new ones.”


The Revd Kevin Scully is a poet and retired priest who served most of his ministry in inner-city London. He assists in a number of churches in the dioceses of Southwark, Rochester, and Chichester 

RETIREMENT planning is an oxymoron. At least, it was for me. I had planned, so I thought, pretty well: I would leave stipendiary ministry at 68 or 70, the recommended ages, and move to a purchased house that would have had incoming works completed before ending my full-time ministry.

The Revd Kevin Scully

A breakdown (a combination of overwork, stress, and personal issues), however, led to a much needed reassessment of how and why I wanted to work. I also pondered what shape my life would take as I as trod the well-worn path of going grey, losing hair, and a realisation that a lifetime’s genuflection comes at a cost to the knees.

In the end, I left early — just after my 65th birthday — to have a fallow year waiting for a house sale (Covid delaying that plan), and a purchase suspended (gazumping, the usual frustrations of being in a chain), before easing myself into a new relationship with myself and those around me. This time was filled with lots of sleep, reading, and getting myself active.

Serving an inner-city parish for nearly all my ministry, not having a car, travelling mostly by bicycle, and swimming two or three times a week meant that I had been in pretty good physical shape. Sadly, a lot of this had been put on hold in my final post. So, getting back in the swing of these things, subject to the restrictions as we came out of various stages of isolation, became a priority. But the overriding emphasis was this: nothing must be done in a hurry.


FROM the outset, I realised my relative fortune. I had had a well-paid career in journalism, acting, and writing before ordination, and the wisdom of my wife (Adey Grummet) had ensured that we took a mortgage when we were newly married. We were earning good money, and bought a house at a time when it was affordable.

As I put myself back together, I was surprised that my diocesan bishop was keen for me to take up permission to officiate (PTO) fairly rapidly, but I wasn’t so sure. I realised that I had overworked for nearly 50 years, and needed some time to reflect on why that might be.

Retirement is, for some, I know, disorientating — facing the loss of a position and focus in a community, of being in demand and someone whose work and opinion matter. And I know that a sense of fulfilment has traditionally meant that clergy tend to live long lives. I couldn’t help but notice around me the sense of burden and lack of joy in many as they approached “liberation day”.

But, in my early days of retirement, the first sense that I had was one I had heard about from fellow clerical retired people: a sense of freedom from crap (administration, tedious meetings, and a host of other responsibilities for which we are not trained at college, nor feel a particular calling to). Like them, I wanted to enjoy myself.

My newfound sense of liberation meant that I could finally spend a decent amount of time in prayer and reflection. Coming up to three years in retired ministry, I have a sense that I am now the priest that I was called to be. I wish I had been that 20 years ago.

Despite a reputation for activity and sociability, I have a deep love of silence and meditation. In retirement, I have the freedom to carve out more time for quiet days (and I live relatively near to the contemplative monastery in which my spiritual director resides) and for long walks in the country, as well as time for prayer in churches near by. I maintain an unbroken practice of an annual silent retreat.

Having been “a man in black” for my time as a stipendiary minister, this sense of liberation in retirement also means that I have been able to indulge in my love of colour in my wardrobe, clashing bright tones with strident shades. It is great fun.

I am a season-ticket holder at Leyton Orient. I was also blessed with a lifelong passion for writing. Before I retired, I started to pursue my creative gifts in classes on poetry, as part of keeping myself centred. These things “get me out”.

Three years into retirement, I am coming to the end of an MA in Writing Poetry, through the Poetry School and Newcastle University, and this has enlivened my mind and practice. For part of that time, I was Poet in Residence on the Cuckmere Pilgrim Path, which I have written about (Feature, 8 December 2023).

So, now it is that these days I write, serve on a committee that organises a local poetry festival, host an Open No-Mic for Spoken Word in a pub, and help out in a range of ways for my local church and community.


IN RETIREMENT, I have experienced a deep sense of choice. As a bishop said to me, in a church where I was officiating one Sunday, “‘No’ is an important word in retirement.” The truth is, it is in all of life, but so many priests like me found it hard to pronounce. We felt we had to say “Yes”.

In reflecting on my experience of burnout, I came to realise that I was prone to taking on too much, set standards that were not always possible to meet, and took things personally. Taking responsibility for things meant, in some ways, going easier on myself, and being firmer in what I would agree (or not agree) to do.

I live on the borders of three dioceses, and the large number of vacancies ensures that I am in demand. Now, responding to approaches, I take into consideration away trips for football, poetry, and personal commitments.

Having said that, I take services most Sundays, and find that presiding and preaching at the eucharist underpins my life. It is, as I have always felt, central to my being.

My guiding principle is simple: as long as I am useful, fit, and happy to take on services, and have the means of reliable transport, I will continue to serve the Church in a way that coheres. When that is not the case, I will say “No”.
So, now it is that that I hear myself saying, much to my own surprise at first, when asked how I find retirement: “I wish I had done it years ago!”


Canon Ailsa Newby was formerly a Residentiary Canon of Ripon Cathedral, and in retirement officiates in Southwark and Leeds dioceses 

RETIREMENT is an odd concept for people who are expected to see their work as a way of life, a vocation, and also as involving what in my theological college was grandly called the ontological change of priesthood. Once a priest, always a priest.

So, on the one hand, you cannot change. On the other hand, you can change posts, and, for most priests in full-time posts, retirement is a sudden and absolute change: change of almost everything: home, neighbourhood, place of worship, way of life. The continuity, thankfully, is faith, family, and friends.

Canon Ailsa Newby

One week, I was working my usual 70-or-so-hour week, said farewell on the Sunday, and, by the Monday, had nothing at all to do. It felt a bit like jumping off a cliff.

Fortunately for me, my sister and a friend had already recruited me to their choir, and, on that first Monday evening, I was already trying to get my brain around the music of The Dream of Gerontius, later enjoying a leisurely dinner with them — not the usual way Monday evenings had been spent; and it was good immediately to experience something of the benefits and opportunities that retirement could bring.

So, it seems to me that it mattered to have some plans in place for those early weeks, to combat that immediate sense of loss of position, and loss of context.

As my last post was as a residentiary canon at Ripon Cathedral, what I did find hard, straight away, was the loss of the routine of morning prayer, and evensong or evening prayer. The loss of that daily anchor, prioritising corporate shared prayer, and fellowship of colleagues, left me adrift.

That said, with the consent of the Dean, my husband and I have continued to attend the Sunday sung eucharist at Ripon, as we divide our time between Ripon and London.

That has been important to my husband, as that is his place of worship and where his friends are. He has been fortunate to be able to have that continuity. Not all clergy spouses are so lucky.

I have found attending worship there hard at times, although I have greatly welcomed the warmth of welcome and the chance for me, too, to catch up with friends. With time, it gets easier.

Before I retired, lots of retired clergy said to me that it was important to do no priestly work for six months. Looking back, that was good advice, and, in London, I enjoyed being fed as a member of the congregation at St John the Divine, Kennington, near where we live. It was good to feel I had “permission” to do nothing, but be ministered to.

That said, soon after I retired, the Bishop of Leeds asked me to take the priesting retreat. It was a joy, not least because I had all the time in the world to prepare it — so unlike the usual pressures in a post in which you get an interesting and challenging task without adequate time to prepare it.

Since then, I’ve applied for PTO in Southwark diocese, where we live, and put down roots as an assistant priest in the parish of St Mary’s, Newington, near by.

Having first, in the noughties, been an incumbent in Vauxhall, where it was desperately hard to get Sunday cover in the summer (as few clergy retire to inner London), I feel that I want to help where I can, and reduce the pressures on others.

It has been good, too, to be part of an ordinary inner-London parish, much like the one in which I first found my faith during the ’80s. So with this, and my PTO in Leeds diocese, I hope to be able to be of use.

While I have offered to save the Rector of St Mary’s, Newington, some time by making tedious faculty applications for him with the new online system, one of the greatest benefits of retirement is being able to get away from all those routine administrative tasks that most ministries entail.

Retirement gives the opportunity to return to focus on early ministerial passions that first fired the sense of vocation — to return to the core business of priesthood.

For me, that is celebrating the eucharist, and the opportunity to return to spiritual direction and faith development, which is made possible by no longer having administrative tasks to fulfil.

So, possibly the greatest benefit of retirement is to have time: the time to use as you want, to take up those hobbies that you’ve always wanted to try (or to return to long-neglected hobbies), and to exercise ministry as feels right for you. Time to read more, get fitter, learn that foreign language.

To be honest, in my first year, and a bit of retirement, I haven’t done as much of all those things as I had hoped. As in life generally, it takes a degree of organisation, determination, and focus to make the best use of time. I must try harder!

The most important aspect of having time to use as you want is time for family and friends. I rediscovered the joys of the weekend away: two, or possibly, three days on the trot at the weekend to catch up with friends around the country. It is quite a luxury.

Time for family has been important, too. In the event, my retirement coincided with the arrival of a second baby for my son and daughter-in-law

While I was working, I was not able to be of any real practical help to them with their first. Now retired, I could fully commit myself to being the designated person at the ready, to care for my granddaughter whenever her mother went into labour.

I have done a fair amount of childcare for them since then, and it has been a joy to be able to play a full part in my grandchildren’s life.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)