This column first appeared in the April issue of the Anglican Journal.
This February, two bishops shocked their communities by announcing their retirements. Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to retire was an enormous break with tradition. The bishop of British Columbia, James Cowan, decided to retire at age 61.
Benedict feels called to a life of prayer. James hasn’t yet shared where he feels called. Within months of my own retirement two years ago, at age 65, I was at a theological college teaching those preparing for ordination, and shepherding a congregation. (To which decision my wife asks me what it is I don’t understand about retirement.)
An earlier generation of clergy believed there was no such thing as retiring-one could conclude congregational leadership, but the call to enact Christ’s redemption of the world at the eucharist could no more be laid down than one could retire from being a Christian. For that generation, the role at the altar was priesthood-managing a voluntary organization was a sideline.
Clergy of a later generation resisted crushing expectations and claimed the dignity of working normal hours, and taking regular time off each week.
Those whom I teach, about to be ordained this summer, wonder if they will have any employment at all, and whether they can ever pay back to the banks the money required for their degree, but which the church somehow couldn’t find for them. For these new clergy, full-time congregational leadership leading to a pensioned retirement is the stuff of a mythical past in which they will have no part.
In my father’s generation, and perhaps in the experience of the Pope, the church asked its leaders to be saints. In my generation, the church asked clergy to be organizational leaders through whose skill congregations could successfully turn around declining numbers. But the important issue is what our relationship will be with the new ordinands.
A hospital nurse recently called my church, saying one of her patients had asked for an “Angel-kan” minister. She struggled with the unfamiliar phrase and seemed very relieved when I said I was indeed an Anglican minister.
What might we expect of our leaders in such a world? How will we support them without the traditional structures? Will they lead congregations in living-room eucharists on Monday nights? How will they feed themselves and their families? Will they work at non-church jobs five days a week?
Perhaps they won’t ever retire from the church-retirement may have the same meaning for them as it did for the clergy-saints of an earlier age.
Canon Harold Munn is Anglican Mentor in Residence at the Vancouver School of Theology.