I’d thought long and hard about the sermon for my Farewell Eucharist last night, but I had (somewhat strangely) not been as prepared for speaking at the reception afterwards. I found myself saying I would share two personal things I didn’t think I’d spoken about before, adding that nobody need worry that something too embarrassingly confessional was coming. I said some of the following.
First, between 1968 and 1973, I was educated at a boarding Prep School in a country house in Sussex’s Ashdown Forest. Each Sunday we were taken in crocodile to fill one half of the village Parish Church for what was still in those days weekly Book of Common Prayer Matins. One week the Vicar announced that he would soon put out a box to collect questions and then seek to answer them in sermons. My question was ‘How do you become a Vicar?’.
I don’t remember details of his answer from the pulpit a few weeks later, other than it included the useful basic information I needed about discernment, selection and training procedures. If I was twelve then, it is now exactly half a century ago. I have no idea at this distance what that little boy thought, or how it related to any God-accompanied vocation, but I was ordained twelve years later, and, after a further twelve years of Curacy, further study and time as a Team Vicar, I was working not in a parish but in a job animating the in-service training of other clergy. Make of that what you will.
Secondly, although I couldn’t have explained this to that pre-teenager in a way he’d understand if he was told he’d retire in fifty years time as the Rector of Haworth and Cross Roads cum Lees no longer fully able physically and emotionally to sustain the workload required, one of the things I’ve discovered and feel acutely this week, is that there is a cruel side to the Church of England’s deployment of clergy. It is the flip side of the principle, of which we are rightly proud, that our clergy usually live in the middle of the community which they and their congregations serve together.
I became Rector of a benefice for the first time when I completed that clergy in-service training job. I was still just in my 30s, and we were all still just in the Twentieth Century. I eventually left there to come to be Rector of the benefice here. The two places are where I’ve spent the Twenty First Century so far.
The cruelty is this. We are asked to fall in love with a place and with its people. We are called, if possible, to know that place well personally, sociologically, historically and geologically (although perhaps the last of those may just be me and not a Church of England expectation). We are called, if possible, to know many of those people’s deepest concerns and issues of faith. And when our time there comes to an end, we are asked to move on as if that rooting, commitment and love, which has deliberately been all consuming, can simply be switched off.
To put it simply, I cannot believe that for the second time in six years (and for the fourth time in my life) I find myself walking away from parishes and people who mean the world to me. I know on which inspection cover in the middle of which road to stand and hear the rush of the now culverted dyke which was dug in the 1840s to drain part of the Humber Marsh to make it agriculturally productive. Hardly anybody else knows that. I know the particular pains in the hearts of at least half a dozen people in whose homes in the Worth Valley I’ve been, or who I’ve spoken to after a service, in the last week. I may be the only other person who knows some of that.
I trust that grace which has followed me thus far (and which may have puzzled its way to follow a twelve year old half a century ago asking how to become a Vicar) will follow me through retirement and eventually lead me home. But saying the next steps on that journey are a wrench hardly does justice to what this stepping away means.
The view towards Old Oxenhope Farm is taken from my bedroom window.