They say when you’re drowning you see the whole of your life pass before your eyes. Retirement is a bit like that. For me, it brought to mind the comment made by Babs in Chicken Run when she thought she was about to die, and saw all her life in front of her: “It was dead boring;” but, in the event, I found it wasn’t boring at all, much to my surprise.
From time to time, you’ll hear the word ‘legacy’ come up in conversations between clergy, which I find interesting. Clergy say we are called in Christ to be at the service of God and of our neighbour, and we are sincere about that. Yet, being human, as the years go by ever more rapidly, we find ourselves looking back and asking, “What was that all about?” It reminds me of listening to Ken Dodd one time when, in a serious moment, he commented that the only thing a comedian leaves behind is the sound of people laughing. It is both beautiful and precious, and yet also vulnerable and fragile. I felt an affinity.
On St George’s Day in 1991 I was licenced as Team Rector in the Kidbrooke Team Ministry, little knowing that this would be where my wife and I would grow our family, and where our daughter would be married. Kidbrooke became our home for 31 years and my life’s work. To be frank, looking back isn’t always easy; many personal disappointments and failures come to mind. However, on the plus side have been the people we have known, including some, sadly, no longer with us, and others growing families here like us, with children born, growing up, and becoming adults over the years. It has been a privilege to have touched lives with so many.
However, a conclusion came on the weekend of 15th and 16th October, our Farewell Weekend. When it arrived, I knew what was going to happen, but I had no idea how I was going to feel. In the event, it was one of the most moving occasions of my life. The church had asked me how I would like them to mark the occasion, but how do you answer that? Consequently, I hadn’t given much of answer, so they gave us everything they had suggested! There was a Tea on the Saturday afternoon, a “Cocktails and Mocktails” party that evening, and a big lunch the next day following my final service.
My church family was incredibly generous; however, I was worried that not enough people would come, and that we would be rattling around the church hall, but I needn’t have been; the place was packed. There were members of today’s church family, local residents, the mayor, the leader of the council, members of the local Citizens UK group, school governors, oh, and the Bishop of Southwark – you name it, they were there! We were given a wonderful book of photographs and memories, and an anthology of my sermons had even been produced! Especially precious was meeting again those from long ago, with shared memories of years gone by, sometimes including significant moments in their lives. Upon hearing the news, they had made the effort to come and join us once again. It made it all even more special.
The weekend culminated with the Farewell Service on the Sunday, at which we were pleased to be joined by Bishop Karowei. Many kind things were said, stories of how I had said this or done that, and of encounters of whose significance to them, until then, I had little or no inkling. I confess to feeling something of a fraud. “If they only realised what I am really like;” I felt. However, that was the beauty of it; they did; they knew very well what I am like, and yet loved me just the same. It was a moment of great grace, a moment when unmerited mercy and love were lavished upon me.
Kidbrooke may no longer be my parish, but it’s clear that it will always be a home for us. That love and acceptance enables me to let go, to float rather than to drown, and to rejoice in all the blessings that God, in his goodness, will bring to St James’ Church family in the years to come, long after we have gone.