From the Rectory
During the past three months, whilst on Sabbatical, I had the chance to think about many things in a way that with the pressures of daily ministry is simply not possible. That time off was a gift from the diocese in recognition that for some clergy a prolonged time away from parish life is necessary: necessary for their physical well-being, their spiritual refreshment and, for some, their sanity.
‘What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stop and stare?’
My Sabbatical enabled me to stop and stare. To reflect on what has been so far in my ministry, and to consider what might yet be to come. Also how I might continue to BE an effective Christian in the world today.
I’d like to share with you all some of the things that happened during that time away. It did not all go quite as I thought it might. It brought considerable challenge as well as the opportunity to relax. It was for me a time of learning to just be me, with nothing much attached to that statement: something that many of you will have experienced, especially when full-time employment is no longer an option.
I gave my Church keys to Terry Lane, so I couldn’t get back in here even if I wanted to. I found letting all of this go immensely difficult. I kept looking out of the window to see if I could see any of you. It took about three weeks before I felt settled. I had cut myself off and I felt as if I had been cast adrift. All of the normal support structures, indeed the very structures of the day were withdrawn. I have been in constant employment for over forty-seven years, and during that time I have never had more than a couple of weeks off at a time. Three months seemed an incredibly long time. My body-clock is programmed to get me out of bed at 7.00a.m. It has done so since 1964, that’s not possible to change.
On the first day I went on Retreat to West Sussex. I went on my motorbike. It poured with rain and I arrived drenched to the skin. A silent retreat, for me that’s challenge indeed. In the morning I received a telephone call from my wife telling me that Peter, my son-in-law, had been diagnosed with Cancer. None of us expected this; we had waited for ten weeks for the results of a biopsy. We all thought, no news must be good news. For the family the world temporarily stopped. I have known Peter since he was five years old. He calls me dad and I call him son. I have been with many people when such difficult news has been given, but this was different, this was family. It was close up and personal.
I came back home, but there was nothing I could do. We all had to wait for what would come next. Whatever had been up to this point, whatever I was planning for the future? My Sabbatical, none of it seemed important now. Peter was important, along with his young family. My Sabbatical enabled me to be with them more than I might otherwise have been able to do. As we now know, mercifully, Peter is again fit and well. It was doubly difficult because as a minister out of his parish, there were none of you to share it with. It was a lonely time for all of the family, but a time when we all drew closer to one another. I believe that as a family we all learnt a lot and are stronger as a result. But it’s an experience that we would all have rather not had.
At the end of June the whole family, all ten of us went to Norfolk for a holiday. Lys and I celebrated our Ruby Wedding Anniversary whilst there. The day we came back home Peter went into hospital for the third operation in twelve months. We had two whole weeks to be a family together in Norfolk. It was great fun. It helped us to cope with what was about to happen.
Two weeks after Peter’s operation I suggested that he and I have a couple of days away together. We rode on our motorbikes to Stratford- upon-Avon, all up through the Cotswolds, a beautiful ride. On the return journey a Transit van drove into the back of me, destroying my motorbike. I stayed on the bike and brought it to the side of the road, and to this day cannot believe that I sustained no injury, apart that is, from being very shaken. Consequently my ‘biking’ days are over, much to Lys’ relief.
All of these events have changed me and my outlook on life. Perhaps having the time to live through them unhurried helped with that. As the time went on I missed seeing you more and more, that bit didn’t get any easier. I’m glad to be back, back amongst you where I believe I need to be. You see, I need you, perhaps more than you need me. The fact that all went along pretty much as usual during my absence proves that point.
During this time I visited many different churches. I visited one, not too far from here. I arrived, I worshipped, and I left, not one person, including the vicar spoke to me. If I had been an enquirer, looking for a church to join to worship in I would not have gone back there, that’s for sure. By contrast, I visited another, again not too far from here and I was almost mobbed. The entire congregation spoke to me. I spent a week in York and enjoyed the services in the Minster, with a visiting choir from Connecticut in America. Each time I thought of this place. I visualised the building and you. I thanked God for where I came from and for all that this represents. For what this all means to me and my life.
I intended to write a book whilst away. That was the project that I had chosen to work on, a reflection of my early life from birth to adolescence. The thirty years I spent in the printing industry and the time since being ordained. I gave it the title, ‘For God’s sake let me be.’ Something, that since I was born in fact, someone or other has tried their hardest to prevent. Let me be me, not what you want or expect me to be. But me! “Just as I am without one plea”, as the well known hymn goes. It was at times a painful journey writing that book. Here it is, complete, all 35,000 words of it spread over 150 pages.
It tells of how I was loved as a child, but no one ever told me so, not once. Of how industry took the boy and turned him into a man. Of how the Church took the man and tried to turn him back into a boy. As I reflected, recalled and struggled with the writing I decided to pull no punches, but to tell it as it was. But for me not as it should have been. It could have been so different. It’s raw in places, critical and uncompromising, but as fair as I possibly could make it. It is honest.
Where was God in all of this? Well, as I discovered as I wrote, right there in the middle of things. God alone it seems to me has allowed me to be me. As an inspiration I took psalm 139. O Lord, you have searched me and known me………in your book were written all the days that were formed for me.
This time of challenge and creativity has taught me so much. About what is really important in life. About the value of friendship, of relationship of mutual love and care one for the other. The importance of place and belonging. And how difficult it is when there is no where to belong to. I have also been given the time to reassess and re-evaluate what I have left of my life, especially the time that I might have as an active minister in the Church of England.
I am approaching sixty-three years old. I could retire in just over two year’s time. This time on Sabbatical, if a run-up to, a preparation for, a little taster of retirement - then I do not know how I will deal with it. Having no structure, nothing in particular each day to do doesn’t sit easy with me. Many retired people have said to me, ‘I don’t know how I found the time to work.’ For me the fear is, I don’t know how I might find the courage to retire. Or withdraw into that place of possible measured inactivity, which the world seems so often to sideline or overlook.
I am back, at least for the time being, and who knows how long that might be, not I. Back, refreshed and ready for what comes next. But as I have discovered in recent months, never taking anything for granted. Love your neighbours whilst you have them, and thank God each and every day for what you have been given. It is all such a wonderful and humbling gift. Thank you for welcoming me back. For your part in letting me be who God made me to be.
Yours for Christ's sake.