What’s Church For? Church as ‘Retirement Home’

When is the time to retire?

Here I am still ranting on about the elderly nature of my bit of God’s church. Last week I made a plea for the active recruitment of younger clergy: this week I want to talk about the other end: retirement. My thesis is simple: we don’t have a culture of retirement in the church, and this is profoundly unhealthy.

In a recent visit to the Church Times jobs website there were 49 British parish posts on offer, of which 11, over a fifth, were on a House for Duty basis. (In other words, for non-Anglicans, they were expecting mostly retired clergy to work for nothing but get free housing.) I don’t know what proportion of Anglican parishes are currently being run by ‘retired’ clergy, but I know that we’d collapse overnight if they were all suddenly raptured.

Of course for many retiring clergy the offer of a free house is a life-saver. If you’ve lived in tied accommodation all your life and haven’t somehow managed to get on the property ladder it can be a very difficult thing suddenly to acquire a retirement home. But I’m more concerned about what our increasing reliance on elderly people is doing to the church, particularly when coupled with our relative failure to recruit younger ordinands. I’m also concerned about what it is doing to them.

‘Ah, but …’ I hear you say. Surely there is no place in God’s church for retirement. Nowhere are we told that St Paul stopped gadding about and settled down to grow vegetable marrows. Good old Moses was still at it on his 120th birthday. I’ve heard all sorts of sermons on this very theme. But I think there is another side to this. For a start you can’t simply read a 21st century retirement lifestyle, complete with state pension, B&Q Diamond card and bus pass, back into biblical times. With a low life expectancy most people simply did not have much of a chance to grow old gracefully. And what about the claims of St Paul (or whoever wrote the Pastorals) in 2 Tim 4 that he had fought the good fight, finished the race, kept the faith, and was now awaiting the crown of righteousness in store for him? What about Jesus throughout Hebrews having finished his earthly work and sitting down? We’re not good at finishing things. We prefer facing a task unfinished.

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I once heard that in the USA 80% of those who resign from Christian ministry enter the construction trade. It was suggested that this is because at the end of a project you have something concrete (literally!) to show for it. But the work of Christian ministry rarely has these built-in end points. There is always more to do, and we are socialised into feeling guilty if we’re not busy doing it. Many of us have been so busy, and so bad at work-life balance, that once we retire we fear we’ll have nothing at all to live for. I once worked with a guy who had given his life on the mission-field in Asia. He was unmarried, had no close family, and in fact had no life at all outside his voluntary work for his parish church. Well into his 80s he was still going, although to be honest not particularly strong. Another parish I knew had a priest who had been there since before some watershed date and so did not have to retire ever. He was well into his 90s, and people were simply waiting for him to pop his clogs so that the church could move on.

So what should we do? I believe we should be helping Christian disciples to believe that retirement is an honourable estate, and preparing them more thoroughly to enter it healthily. We should mark it with a significant rite of passage after which life does not simply go on as before. We should make space for the considerable gifts which older people have to contribute to the life of a church, but without expecting them to run it themselves. We should find a way of ending our dependence on retired clergy to keep the C of E show on the road, and if that means some churches have to die, so be it.

Let me say again that chronological age is not to be equated exactly with youthfulness or otherwise. But I leave you with a question, one which I often ponder myself: when I do eventually get past my sell-by date, and am doing the church no favours by continuing, how will I know?

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