Retirement11 July 2022
Two years into a second retirement, what do I feel? I retired from full-time ministry back in 2003, on my sixty-fifth birthday. Couldn't wait to get out, you might say, but you'd be wrong. What I really wanted was the freedom to choose what I might do with my time. That freedom included a sense of release from the Church of England, the organisation which had formed much of my future way of life from childhood to theological college. My salvation as an ordained minister was the move from parish and local church work into industrial mission, working alongside ordinary people doing ordinary things. There is a 'church member culture' in all churches, a syndrome which is cultivated in a familiarity with traditional Sunday worship and other church-related activities which then become the lens through which we see the rest of life around us.
Since the 1980s in Dudley, I had regularly taken services in the Methodist church as well as the C of E, so I was fairly used to different orders of service. But I was frustrated in this because I was having to use forms of liturgy that had lost my full attention. The classic example of this is the Nicene Creed, a staple item in Anglican worship and very infrequently used elsewhere. "If I wanted to use words to encapsulate what I believe," I used to say, "why would I choose words that are seventeen hundred years old?"
In retirement I was urged to take on cruise ship chaplaincy, and between 2003 and 2017 I sailed on twenty cruises, with the company's expectation that I would conduct interdenominational worship on Sunday morning(s). What a gift! What an opportunity to break free from denomination tradition and invite folk to hear different words and sing new hymns. Now I was able to devise orders of service which were based on recognised traditions but reworked, refreshed and re-invigorated - and frequently much appreciated. Some of them are here.
Since those days I have drifted further away from the organised church, finding the denominations to be over-constrained to their tradition and hampered by the requirements of their governing bodies, all in the name of guarding their essential tradition. Nevertheless, however, we have joined our local United Reformed Church, and enjoy the company and the sermons. In these present day, of course, all the churches are experiencing a decline in membership and Sunday attendance, and we are beginning to ask questions about survival, and about what the Christian message is really all about. Behind all the chatter in local church communities is a real fear of closure. If churches close, what takes their place? Congregating and worship in people's houses perhaps? It started that way!
So there are two main areas of interest for me from these recent years. One is my growing interest in radical theology - what do I really believe, and how important is it? - and the other is to think outside the ecclesiastical box to recognise the spirit of Jesus alive and well in people who may not know his name. Most certainly, I think, is my growing conviction that the message of Jesus has little or nothing to do with eternal salvation, and much more to do with changing the world. I remember (just about) a saying from the past: "the purpose of the church is to make people into the people of God, and then to help them make the world fit for the people of God to live in."
Evangelism is not recruitment. Mega-churches are not the way out of decline. Churches are not buildings. Sunday morning attendance at church does not make you a Christian. Being a Christian does not depend on what you believe, but on how you follow the teaching and the example of Jesus - and that's a whole lot more difficult.