Towards the end of last month I had a birthday. One normally marks decades, and receives cards making rude remarks about one’s age. My birthday didn’t mark a decade, but rather signaled that moment when the Episcopal Church, by Canon, decrees that its clergy must retire. It would be interesting to discover how General Convention came to the conclusion that seventy-two years marks the expiration date on the label. Seventy might have been logical: seventy-five perhaps too antique, although the present Bishop of Rome, in another jurisdiction, is still in office in his mid-eighties. Of course Rome doesn’t cover too much territory! I gather that venerable prelate has other responsibilities too.
In the early days of the Episcopal Church it was assumed that clergy retired when they died. In the case of bishops this policy, based on an early church tradition, resulted in bishops serving even when they reached the stage when they attempted to ordain brass knobs on communion rails. So assistant bishops were appointed, men (in those days) who were spry youngsters in their sixties. Following that, the office of bishop coadjutor was created, by which a bishop was elected with the right to succeed when the diocesan bishop expired. Such bishops were rumored to ask the sitting bishop how he felt on frequent occasions. Rectors just staggered on, and unless their parishes could afford curates, they did so unaided. I met a priest, Fr. Frank Hawker Kingdon, who died in office in his CofE parish at the wonderful age of 97.
But no, this isn’t another rant about the retirement age. Last Sunday I said my farewells to the parishioners of St. Paul’s, La Porte, Indiana. I’m writing this in an echoing rectory. The movers came yesterday. I’ slept last night on an air bed, designed for one person. Now it’s an upscale model. One plugs it in and it inflates to a reasonable size. I’ve yet to discover how to deflate it. I shared this limited space with my two dogs who couldn’t fathom why their space had shrunk. My cat attempted to join us, but gave up in disgust. I found it easy to get on this contraption. Getting off it was another matter. After an attempt which threatened to dump me prone on the floor, I managed an unseemly shuffle, feet down, body towards the bed, a push up, hand on the wall and then a turn which propelled me to my feet, an interesting maneuver in the middle of the night as nature called. Such a lack of dexterity no doubt proves the point of a retirement age.
Thus for some brief days, I am without parochial responsibility. The vital aspects of ministry, ‘the Calendar says it’s white tomorrow but isn’t it St. Vitus Day Father?’, ‘the toilet in the lady’s room is blocked Father’, ‘why didn’t you go to see Nora (or Jim, let’s be PC) in hospital – no you weren’t told he/she was ill but you should have known,’ are absent from my life. It’s all rather strange. What on earth shall I do with myself? Someone emailed me to suggest I write my biography. I’m afraid too many people are still alive though. I don’t play golf, having forsaken all forms of muscular Christianity when I was a youth as a religious discipline. I’ve never had the impulse to chase balls of various sizes in order to get them through or over poles or into tiny holes. I realize that most people seem to think my lack of interest in such things to be a character flaw. But one only has time for a limited number of those.
During the past few weeks a number of people have said they will miss my sermons and bible studies – one said I should have been a professor, did that mean I should not have been a priest? Those I’ve ministered to through illnesses or personal crisis have been appreciative. It’s odd that they are the only ones, or nearly the only ones in a parish who don’t give one a hard time. Let me hasten to say that this parish, or rather what is now my former parish has seen me through a broken hip, a broken wrist and a broken leg, chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem-cell transplant all in the space of four years. Their prayers and care have seen me through. I shall always be grateful.
There have been lovely moments in this process too. My bishop took me out for lunch. Some of the diocesan clergy hosted a lunch for me at an upscale eatery on the campus of Notre Dame. A host of ‘Facebook’ friends have bidden me Godspeed. Even the tellers at my bank and the ladies at the pharmacy, where I am a very regular customer, have wished me fond goodbyes. The Church Pension Fund promptly send me a generous relocation check and my first pension payment arrived on time. Battling with the Medicare bureaucrats has been another matter. I won’t tell. Who knows who reads my blog?
What shall I do with myself? Well, instead of caring for one parish, I’m to pastor two missions, which neither singularly nor collectively can afford a full-time priest. My younger son flies in tonight. He will drive with me to my new home, provided for me, and stay to help me unpack, bless him. Each Sunday I will lead worship in one at 8.45am – it’s a twenty minute drive – and then I’ll hasten back to the other for a 10.30 am Eucharist. During the week I shall continue to do that which a priest does and that will now include two vestry meetings a month. I don’t think I have any worries about how to occupy myself in ‘retirement’ which is all to the good. To tell you the truth, I’m rather excited.
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