Why ‘retirement’ is not a Christian Word

22_sunsetThere are good reasons why the word ‘retirement’ has been used around me, and about me, in recent times. I have just concluded my placement at the Theological College and, at the age of 67 years, am no longer taking up a further placement.

I must be retiring; even the ecclesial documents I need to fill in tell me so.

However, a view which I have held for a long time has surfaced more starkly for me in these latter months of my conclusion of placement at the Theological College – namely that ‘retirement’ is not a word which belongs in the Christian vocabulary.

This is not simply an assertion of someone who doesn’t want to face up to the reality of ageing and death. Neither is this assertion a matter of interest only to those who are nearing ‘retirement’ age.

Rather, what is at stake is the gospel itself, and the extent to which the Church lives out of that gospel. Let me invite your reflection on the following two points.

First, the Christian word ‘vocation’ literally means ‘calling’. In the Christian Church, calling is defined not by ordination but by baptism. My only real vocation is to Christian discipleship and I share that vocation with all who are baptised. Each person within the community of the baptised is called to exercise their discipleship in various ways, all of them for the sake of the building up of the Church and witness to the gospel.

My particular role as someone who was ordained as a Minister of the Word was the result, not of a calling, but of the discernment of the Church. It was the Church who decided that my calling as a disciple would be exercised in a ministry for which I was to be ordained. In other words, I was not called to ordained ministry; I was called to discipleship.

This may sound somewhat controversial, or at least strange in an ecclesial context, where it is routine to speak of a person being ‘called to ordained ministry’. And where we think it very odd if someone who presents for candidature doesn’t confess to having such a calling.

Anecdotally, when I made my own application to become a candidate, at the age of 17 years, I did so only because I was encouraged by my local minister and not because I had any personal sense of wanting or needing to apply. In fact, it was pointed out to me at the time that my letter of application said nothing about feeling a sense of being called to this ministry. For some time, this troubled me – I felt like a fraud. Eventually I came to the conclusion that I ought to allow the Church to ‘make the call’ for me.

One of the serious consequences of referring only (or primarily) to those who are ordained as having a ‘call to ministry’, is to undermine and diminish the ministry of all members of the Christian community and to set up a harmful separation in the Christian community between those who are called and those who are not.

The theological fact is that all members of the Christian community (ordained and not) share in the same calling – to participate in the ministry of Christ.

Within that one ministry of Christ, some are set apart for particular ministries for which the Church ordains, but it is a matter of the Church’s ordering and not primarily of a person’s calling. Of course it has a particular significance in the ordering of the Church’s life but across the breadth of gifts and services of ministry, it is not a superior one. As with every other disciple – the one who is ordained takes their part in the one superior ministry of Jesus Christ.

This common calling to discipleship, marked by baptism, gives to each and every one of us a new identity as human beings in the world. It is an identity that overwhelms all other identities by which people might know us or describe us. It is an identity that comes to an end only at our final breath – or rather, it is an identity which comes to culmination in the moment of our death.

Therefore, for none of us in the Christian community does the word ‘retirement’ describe our state of being or our true identity.

The second point to be made is that the word ‘retirement’ has currency only within Western cultures.

From my earliest years of involvement in the cultures of the South Pacific, it quickly became clear that the word ‘retirement’ had no meaning in that part of the world.

Culturally, everyone in the community, male and female, young and old, has an identity and a role which contributes to the life and health of the whole community. In fact, in those societies, as men and women become older, they move into an increasingly esteemed role as sources of wisdom and truth, as bearers of a tradition which is to be passed on to the next generations.

In Western cultures, the word ‘retirement’ is premised on a notion of ‘employment’, which is narrowly defined in terms of productive and paid activity.

This Western focus on what is considered to be productive and worthy of payment becomes an idol which assumes power to define human identity and to judge the value of human life. Such is the power of this idol in Western society that those who are not employed in this way are judged to be of little worth.

In the same way, under the auspice of such an idol, retirement brings not only a cultural marginalisation but it may also bring with it a personal crisis of identity and meaning.

Some of us are tempted to combat such a power by affirming that ‘we are just as busy now as we were before we retired’. This still falls foul to the idol that equates our worth with our productivity or busyness.

The scandal and liberty of the Christian gospel is that, by baptism, we are clothed with a new identity which determines that even to the point of our final breath. Well after our culture might consider us of any value at all, we are participants in a vocation which is of cosmic significance – the ministry of the one who is the life and hope of the world.

Let me illustrate my point with a story which remains etched in my heart and mind.

Recently I visited a colleague and friend who was dying. At the time of my arrival, he was the focus of an emergency prompted by signs of sudden deterioration and the prospect of imminent death. I was given ‘just one minute’ to be able to see him as he breathed his way towards death. For a split second (which is all the time I had), I wondered how I might use this one minute.

I was given no further time to think as I was ushered in to his bedside. Surrounded by the few members of his immediate family, I walked up to him, held his hand and said: “Peace be with you”, to which he replied as he gripped my hand: “And also with you”.

I kissed him in gratitude for his friendship. He looked up at me and with a smile on his face said: “Remember Randall, God loves you.” And then I left. Soon afterwards, he died.

What was so memorable for me was that this baptised member of God’s church, offered to me such a powerful witness of the Christian gospel at a moment when, by all cultural measurements, he had nothing of value to offer. As he had taught me much about how to live faithfully, so here was a lesson in how to die faithfully.

The funeral of this colleague and friend celebrated the fact that, with his death, he has now retired … into the fullness of a permanent communion with God. Such is the destiny of all who share the vocation which is marked by baptism.

Rev Prof Randall Prior

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