By Bishop Bill Ray:
“One of these [long retired] priests had already been serving his Tractarian parish for over fifty years. He smiled that he was already over seventy when the retirement legislation came into force, so clearly that was irrelevant for him” (p.1).
This was the reaction of one priest when the Church of England introduced the compulsory retirement age in 1976.
As a contributor to this book, Brian McQuillen shares how he retired from a specific post, but not from the priesthood itself (pp. 4 & 21-29).
Other contributors describe struggling with the perception of being retired. David Jennings recounts how his grandson told him upon retirement that he is now a “substitute priest”. Jennings says, “perception again, but laced with a criticism [for retiring before 70] (p.75).
In compiling this book, editors Neal and Francis draw on the experiences of “the religiously engaged retired clergy” to effectively highlight issues arising from the compulsory retirement age.
The book has several aims. The first is to provide space for the retirement stories of 14 retired clergy. Second, to identify any trends that will inform thinking and future direction. Third, to examine the statistical information that is available to assist the Church in future planning.
However, the book is not intended to supply answers, but rather to raise various facets that make up the retirement agenda, including theological understanding of ordination and the indelibility of Holy Orders.
On the back cover we read, “There are now more retired clergy in the Church of England than there are in active ministry. Some clergy spend much of their life in retirement involved in the life and ministry of the Church, while others feel that their gifts and experience are being ignored or rejected by the Church they have served for many years.”
My hunch is that this reality in the Church of England is also the case in the Anglican Church of Australia.
So, what can we learn from the 14 retirement stories and themes that are identified?
Each of the contributors is open, honest and speak into the joy and pain of retirement in a convincing manner. David Walker, the author of the final chapter, titled ‘Reflecting on the Narratives’, reviews the stories of each of the 14 contributors and identifies six key points. They are:
i. You have to get over the hump.
ii. In retirement there is a loss of social life.
iii. It is not right to go back to your previous ministry location and this further adds to the loss experienced.
iv. The retiree has to ask themselves, ‘are they now wise or out of date?’
v. Retirees can support younger clergy.
vi. There is more than one phase in retirement.
From my experience of two years of retirement, I have found the book’s six key points to hold true. The first realisation for me was to understand that retirement is not an event, but a process. As several contributors state, you have to get over the hump of retirement and move on.
Katy Morgan described the start of retirement as, “The first week was just like a holiday…however, as time went on it began to dawn on me that this was how it was to be from now on. I wandered aimlessly through the days. I hated living in our ‘own’ house and missed having my own space, my study. For me retirement was a fourfold bereavement. I had lost: my job…my daily contact with people, my home and much of my past (p.36).”
Several contributors comment on the reality of leaving their former ministry location as being essential but bringing a real sense of loss. A number of stories also relate situations where a clergy person has retired in the area where they had served, making it challenging for the new incumbent.
Several contributors saw retirement as an opportunity to develop new skills such as in counselling and remained a member of a community of faith. Like these retired clergy, it has been a great delight for me to be a listening ear or spiritual director/mentor to younger clergy. However, it important that we do not become out of date! We must keep up with our reading and stay meaningfully in touch.
About five years before I retired, my daughter gave me the book, How to Retire, Happy, Wild and Free. It contained a lot of wise advice, including making sure you explore all your possible options in regard to your financial situation. Neal and Francis make the same point in this book. Several of the clergy who shared their story described how their financial situation changed when they retired and that was a big adjustment.
I was brought up short when I read about clergy having to retire because of health and/or mobility issues. This impacts clergy, their spouses, family and friends. Peter Knibbs describes how he had a heart attack in the parish hall after a worship service as, “A new chapter of my life and the life of my family was beginning” (p.64).
At the end of his chapter Knibbs states, “Many can choose the circumstances of their retirement, while I had mine thrust upon me. I cannot really pretend that I am content with the timing and the nature of my retirement, but I have no discontent being an Anglican clergyman in this place at this time: a recipient of the love and practical support of those who are charged with offering care to the pastors, as well as to the flock.”
After reading this book and pondering the retirement experiences of others, I recommend it for its diverse informative content. I encourage those who are nearing retirement and/or are recently retired to form a small group of no more than four to explore the issues raised in this book. It would be great to see several groups formed across our Diocese and we may even do our own research as well. The book is not only a must for those of us at this stage of life or approaching this stage of life, but it is also a ‘seed sower’ for the future.
Tony Neal & Leslie Francis (Eds), 2020. A New Lease of Life? Anglican Clergy Reflect on Retirement. Sacristy Press, Durham, UK.
First published on anglican focus on 2 February 2021.