So, that was 2016
What a year 2016 has been. For many people, a year of shock and grief at the number of well-loved celebrities who have died: among them we felt especially the loss of Victoria Wood, Alan Rickman, Leonard Cohen, Carrie Fisher - others will have their own special List of Loss. For all of us, a year when we have been stunned by the outcome of votes in some of the world’s leading democracies. The Brexit vote on June 23; the election of President Donald Trump on November 8… both have baffled and horrified the rest of the world, and who knows how much the countries where these decisions were made, will be irrevocably changed as a result? In both the UK and the USA the election campaigns plumbed previously unknown depths of falsehood, calling evil good and good evil, and deliberately trying to stir up violent hatred of foreigners, and anyone ‘different’, as well as of political opponents. What has happened to decency, civility and truth, in our two great democracies? Truly, the world has become stranger, more uncertain, more dangerous than it has felt for many years.
But for us, it was also a year of unprecedented personal change, as we began to face Retirement. After 37 years in parish ministry, the past 25 of them as Vicar of Marston and Elsfield, I felt I had had enough. Maybe the parish had had enough of me, too. But at 67 it was time to go. We had to leave the church, the community, the house, that had been home for a quarter of a century, for longer than either of us had ever lived anywhere in our lives. The home where our children had grown up, and where they still would have liked to be able to ‘come home’ for ever. (It’s been a time of loss and grieving for them, too!)
The house in Thame which we were fortunate to be able to buy in 2013, has now become our home. So, a lot of our time and energy this year has been taken up with the process of getting from There to Here. From a large, 4-bedroomed detached Vicarage, to a modest 3-bedroomed semi. From a village suburb of Oxford, to a small Oxfordshire market town. We needed to find a builder to carry out the work we wanted to have done: an augmented extension to provide a downstairs loo and shower; converting a small kitchen and through living- / dining-room into a kitchen-diner and a small sitting-room; complete refit of kitchen and bathroom. Alison was in her element, and did a great job of planning - possibly even better than the kitchen designers with all the CAD at their disposal. We needed to get rid of quite a bit of the large furniture we had in the Vicarage, and buy smaller, more appropriate pieces for the new home. And there was lots and lots and lots of downsizing: even though it felt like we were giving away more than half of our ‘stuff’, we still had too much to fit into the space available. The downsizing continues…
Along the way there have been lots of ups and downs. We thought retirement and moving house would be an emotional rollercoaster; we just hadn’t imagined what a monster one it would be. Excitement, anxiety, anticipation, bereavement, loneliness, loss, hopefulness for the future, enjoyment, relief. It’s been a heady mix. Just a few of the highlights:
My plans for ‘my last Easter’ in the parish fell apart when I developed shingles on March 14. The rash on my lower back wasn’t as bad as the unremitting hiccups - a documented side-effect of the disease, but uncommon enough to interest my GP and lead to various blood tests to make sure I wasn’t suffering kidney failure (one of the common causes of unremitting hiccups.) They went on for ten days. On some of those days, they stopped for an hour or two and I was able to sleep - until the hiccups woke me up again. On some of those days, Alison timed me and I was hiccuping every second. On at least one of those days, I really thought I was going to die. So, in spite of the not very severe rash, I was quite ill, was signed off work for three weeks, and needed it too.
Now you see it, now you don’t! After about 15 clean-shaven years, I grew a beard starting on our retreat on Holy Island in May 2014. Shaved it off on February 2 this year. Began to grow it again at the beginning of October. So here it is again.
They say it’s a good thing to learn a new language when you retire. Earlier in the year I was reading the ‘life’ of John Aubrey by Ruth Scurr, My Own Life, in which she describes his interest in the 17th century dream of a universal language. I thought, Well, there is a universal language… When I was about 17 I bought a copy of Teach Yourself Esperanto, but never got, or had the motivation to get, very far with it. But on May 1 I googled Esperanto, and found there was a Duolingo course in the language, had been for just over a year, during which time 400,000 people had signed up for it. I started Lesson 1… Esperanto claims to be the easiest of languages to learn, and I can easily believe it. I completed the Duolingo ‘skills tree’ on June 6.
It’s not that easy to find Esperanto speakers in Oxford, where a once-thriving Esperanto club is now long defunct. But I did meet up with a German Esperantist, and we managed to have some kind of a conversation for an hour and a half. Later, Jens introduced me to one of the doyens of British Esperantism, Marjorie Boulton. Now a very frail and elderly lady, living in East Oxford, but it was a privilege to meet her however briefly, so that I can say I have done.
We had some good holidays during the year. The ‘little’ one was a post-Easter break, when I was still pretty run-down after the shingles, and we went to Criccieth St Thomas for a few days in the Warners Hotel there.
At the beginning of May we went to Barcelona for a week, finally fulfilling a plan we first conceived about ten years before. And in September, our big post-retirement special treat: a two weeks’ river cruise from Budapest to Cologne, on the Danube, the Main and the Rhine, on board the river cruiser William Shakespeare. A really great time, with lots and lots of lovely memories.
National Novel Writing Month! I did it again this November, and ‘won’ by writing more than 50,000 words of a fiction called A Book of Changes. NaNoWriMo is something I find it good to do when there are a lot of things in my life that need processing. Like in 2005, the year Dad died. This year’s fiction begins with the death of the protagonist Joseph’s wife - so bereavement turns out to be a metaphor for retirement. The story brings in all kinds of things that interest me at this time, chiefly Esperanto, and its interna ideo of world peace through mutual understanding between people of all races and languages. There’s Christianity, in Joseph’s cross-European pilgrimage that includes a visit to Herrnhut, the headquarters of the Moravian Church. There’s Taoism, and especially the teaching of the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching which run through the whole. There is the great Darkness which comes upon the world when the Dark Lord Marduk overthrows the British Government and seizes power of the island he has come to hate. There’s the discovery in Hanover of the Leibniz Emergency Mathematical Hologram, and in Aachen of the lost Crown of Charlemagne, which promises the restoration of all things in a renewed Holy Roman Empire… None of this was in my mind when I started, when I only had the first sentence in my mind: “The day that Joseph’s wife died, the world ended.”
If you want, you can read the whole thing here.
The year began with me buying a refurbished Lenovo ThinkPad X201 on eBay. I’ve been running Linux on it, and in so many ways it’s my favourite computer: the keyboard is lovely, the best I’ve ever used.
My other favourite is the Chromebook. After enjoying my first one, an Acer Chromebook, for over two years, I replaced it with a more recent Asus Chromebook Flip, and I’m loving it.
Fed up with the Church
One of the pains of this year has been, that I’ve been feeling fed up with the Church, and the way it seems to have changed from the Church I first fell in love with, and the Church that tried to follow the teachings of Jesus. It started with the Primates’ meeting which voted to exclude the Episcopal Church of the USA from the councils of the Anglican Communion. It went on with the continued arguing about sexuality, same-sex marriage, and all that stuff.
Then there is the sense that the leaders of the Church are in total meltdown panic because they know the state the Church is in, but haven’t a clue what to do about it. Consequently they have all these ‘Reform and Renewal’ proposals, which look as if they are going to suck the life out of what is alive, in order to try and create life where none exists. I’m not sure this is the right way to go about it.
Finally, settling here in our new place is proving to be a challenge. We feel very much called to worship at the parish church here, and even to be called to a ministry of encouragement and support for the clergy here. But it’s a real challenge, and not a situation where we can easily feel our own faith is being nurtured. Somehow, perhaps, we have to try to keep up a monastic lifestyle of prayer for a Church and a world which look as if they have gone astray.
The only ministry I’ve done since my last Sunday in the parish on July 17, is two funerals. The first, of Ivan Kernahan; the second, of Dorothy Evans. Both of them people I’ve known for many years as parishioners. Both very different; yet both funerals which there was no way I was not going to take.
So, quite a year, was 2016. The future looks exciting, uncertain, possibly dangerous. But the Christian virtues, above all others, are faith and love and hope. It is hope that we hold on to, by the grace of God.