Talkin’ ’bout my generation

Published on: 1 January 2017

Contrary to what many rock starts expected, they did not die before they got old, and our churches nowadays contain many from the rock generation. Some of them are in leadership positions. Time Lenton explores the concept of the "boomer" Christians.

In many churches “the old people” continue to be seen as a liability instead of an asset. James Woodward, director of the Leveson Centre for the Study of Ageing, says it is “surprising that the Church fails to make older people a priority; it disempowers them and often deprives them of an opportunity to participate as children of God. Too many of us in the Church apologise for our congregation with words such as ‘I am afraid we are all elderly here’.”

Many from the 50s and 60s, perhaps influenced by the spirit of that age, drifted away from the church, looking for a more informal kind of spirituality. But a lot have come back, discovering a deeper faith than the kind of “tickbox Christianity” of some post-war evangelicalism.

As the Revd Ruth Adamson grew older she particularly appreciated the diversity of worship in the Anglican tradition that enabled her to treasure her biblical roots while increasingly pondering the mystery and majesty of God. So she started a midweek village worship time called Pray, Reflect, Coffee.

“Life is so busy that it’s good to light a candle and be still together, letting the Psalms speak to our deepest needs at the beginning of a new day,” she says.

Ruth was recently ordained deacon and licensed as assistant curate in the Quintet benefice. She says: “I am blessed to be in a group of parishes where age is no barrier to experiencing God’s love and to serving one another.”

An early retiree, she sees becoming older as a celebration of a lifelong journey with God through its many ups and downs.

She had not been seeking a leadership role in the church and does not see her present position as a career or a job. “It’s a calling,” she says. And she believes that we all have a calling – simply because God loves us. “It’s never too late to have a longing for God and to become all that he intends us to be. For me it takes discipline and a bit more work on the memory front, but the joys are immeasurable.”

Working five days a week as a curate, she says: “Life balance is important. It’s not easy; it needs discipline. But it’s so worthwhile.”

The need for life balance is echoed by Brian Wigg, a retired accountant who is now church treasurer at Cromer and helping to lead an adult group with learning difficulties, which he finds “inspiring”. He came to the Church of England after starting out in a free church more than half a century ago.His faith is now radically different. “I used to be a believer, but now I’m a Christian,” he says. On coming to Cromer he noticed a difference from what he had experienced in earlier life. “For a start, there was a lady curate,” he laughs. “And the church oozed Spirit.”

Brian likens his early life experience to an Old Testament approach, with the emphasis on “thou shalt not”. His experience of Jesus and the Holy Spirit at Cromer was significant, and he was baptised in the sea there. “It wasn’t easy,” he says. “There were big waves!”

Having discovered his own role in the church, he is concerned, however, that the Church as a whole might not be encouraging the older generation to use their talents. “A lot of people are trying to hide their light under a bushel,” he says. “Leaders are often not sufficiently aware of the potential.”

Brian feels that older people could interact more with children, too – a point with which James Woodward would agree. He writes: “Older people often appreciate the vibrancy that children bring. Junior churches or Sunday schools can invite older members to contribute to teaching sessions. Older people can get involved in activities such as nativity plays. I once saw the inn-keeper in a wheelchair, and the children enjoying the aged wise men.”

Sybil Martin, who is churchwarden at Wymondham Abbey, as well as a Mothers’ Union trustee, an authorised worship assistant and a school governor – among other things – started out as a teacher in East London and knows the value of people who are happy to be committed in difficult areas. “When I went there they were desperate for people who were willing to stay,” she says.

After 12 years there, when she had problems with her back, Sybil came to Norfolk: her daughter had attended the UEA and stayed on. She looked for a market town, and Wymondham had everything she needed, as did the Abbey. “I was brought up as a middle-of-the-road Anglican,” she says. “Here I found awe and wonder.”

She also found a need for many of the skills she could offer. She describes herself as a “doer and facilitator” – not someone who feels called to go out and convert the community, “but with God’s help doing the things that need to be done”. Quoting Elizabeth I’s comment that “I would not open windows into men’s souls”, she recalls her experience at taking assemblies and discussing faith issues – roles she has been able to take on in different contexts.

Sybil is concerned about the older people in the local community, however, feeling that the Church is not good at advertising itself as a place where they can find something worthwhile to do. “Prayer meetings and Bible studies are too much for some,” she says. “We can’t expect them to do what we did. Saturday and Sunday are not what they
used to be.”

With the awe and wonder at the Abbey – qualities I found in abundance during a brief visit – there is also humour. When bad weather forced the cancellation of a traditional duck race in the nearby river, they used social media to advertise a new venue: the Abbey. There was a huge response to find out how a duck race in an Abbey could possibly work.

Although she herself “forgets to say no”, Sybil is not in favour of badgering people. “We should rejoice in the congregation we’ve got and use their talents.”

She concludes: “If we don’t understand the community we live in, the local church will die.”

The Revd Matthew Hutton, curate at St Stephen’s Norwich, also feels that older people are an under-used resource of the church. Older, single women in particular “tend to be invisible”, particularly in large churches, he says. “This can have a damaging effect on the women themselves in terms of identity and selfimage, but it is also bad for the Church.

Having been a lay reader for over 20 years, Matthew was ordained as a deacon in 2014, when he was 60, and as a priest in 2015. He was formerly a tax lawyer and a writer, and he continues to manage the family farm. Ordination followed a five-year process of discernment initiated by a suggestion from the Bishop of Liverpool at the time, the Rt Revd James Jones.

He now feels “very content”, working three days a week as a curate, although those three days frequently expand – a phenomenon known well to most people who work in a part-time capacity.

True happiness requires work and love, as Edward Vacek SJ points out in an article on Ageing, Retirement and Spirituality. He asks: “Would it be appropriate for a Christian to decide to use these post-retirement years as a 20-year vacation?”

Christianity is clearly something that you don’t take a break from, but life balance continues to be important – perhaps becomes more important – as we grow older.

Participation in the life of the church needs to be clearly understood as allage, Matthew affirms. “Everyone has something to contribute. We need to honour and encourage each other.”

For older people he feels there is often a mentoring and general pastoring role. “It may be costly in time, but the potential is huge. There is the excitement of starting to see people walking tall.”

Although he dislikes labels, he admits to being culturally Anglican and a gently charismatic evangelical. He likes to be a peacemaker. “Churches are all different, and we hurt each other terribly easily,” he says. “We need to have respect for each other in love. I love to play my part in bringing people together, maybe challenging them in a gentle way. It’s where I’m naturally comfortable.”

Those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s may have been more drawn to “All you need is love” than to organised religion, but many of us have come to a realisation, through a broadening of our faith, that love is indeed what it’s all about, even at an advanced age.

Father Vacek reminds us that “for most of their retirement, the elderly are not at death’s door, but that door is no longer in another building”. He concludes: “The most important activity at any age is to love God.”

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