Retired Clergy Don’t Run Out Of Steam

We noted this article in a village newsletter from Grafham near Huntingdon, in Cambridgeshire, written by Rev Clifford Owen who served in several churches in the Diocese in Europe before his retirement. We offer it here for some light bedtime reading!   The original article can be found here

Many clergy eagerly long for retirement if they are feeling the strain of the years, but it can also be a frightening and threatening time. Vicars are often counselled to prepare well in advance for their retirement because as well as the relief of no longer bearing the pastoral responsibility for a parish(es) it may also mean loss of purpose, perhaps ‘status’, or even very identity. I remember visiting the retired clergy home some years ago at Mannormead near Hindhead. Our Farnham Deanery Chapter always held an annual meeting there and the retirees were always glad we came. One of the things I immediately noticed was that most of the ‘inmates’ kept their clerical collars on! Even a bishop sat there in his immaculate purple stock. It forewarned me that retirement for a clergy-person inevitably means facing up to the question of ‘Who am I underneath this uniform?’

It is in this area that I was urged to think of which hobbies and interests one wanted to return to in the early more active years of retirement before anno domini kicked in and I joined the armchairs at Mannormead! These days many clergy are being ordained later in life and so probably have good pensions and have had a halflife career first. In my case I was ordained at 30 after ten years in the Royal Navy. I had always had a sense of guilt that the very expensive training I had received at taxpayers’ expense was somehow being thrown away. However I have had a lifelong interest in railways and always intended to get a job on a heritage steam railway when I retired.

I must have talked about it because when the time came to think about my retirement at nearly 70, a member of the congregation in my last churches, in Brugge and Oostende in Belgium said: ‘Would you like to work on a heritage railway?’ ‘Well..yes, ‘I replied. ‘Well…what would you fancy doing? We’ve got this form to fill up from the Nene Valley Railway and they want to know which departments you are interested in’! Unknown to me the congregation had been planning my leaving present: five years membership of the Nene Valley Railway! I decided that having been trained as an engineer originally and with marine steam engineering as a specialisation I would volunteer for the locoshed/ workshop.

I could not have had a better start than to be asked on my first day as a volunteer to rub down (with light emery) Thomas the Tank Engine’s undercoat and paint his driving wheels with topcoat in ‘Thomas Blue’ (that’s what it says on the tin!) Since then I have enjoyed needle-gunning (taking down thick rusty plates to bare metal with a pneumatic gun) helping to reassemble Thomas’ main wheel bearings and lower them on to the axles. Cleaning up flat surfaces for steam slide valves, wire brushing gauge glass mountings, and learning how to fit together a host of parts which have been beautifully cleaned and restored and lying on the workshop floor.

But the most poignant job of all was being sent out on a cold winter’s day to clean a visiting celebrity loco 4-4-0 Morayshire down from Edinburgh. I was shown how to mix steam oil with paraffin in my bucket and slowly with paint brushes and rags to clean off all the ‘gunge’ below the running plates and around the motion and cylinders. I thought to myself: ‘What on earth is a 72 year old retired vicar doing on a job which many 15 year old schoolboys would have dreamed of doing in the 1950s!’ Loco-cleaning was the first step in the old railway ‘link system’, which school boys did on the way to becoming a steam loco driver. It was poignant in another way because it was precisely the job my grandfather would have done seventy years previously in Aston railway depot in North Birmingham. He finished as a skilled loco fitter.

My wife has traced our various family trees back and on my father’s side. She discovered that we all go back to the West Midlands and virtually all of the men worked on steam locomotives!…many as drivers and firemen. They even reach back almost to the beginning of the London to Birmingham Railway. When my age was in single figures I used to visit my grandparents in Erdington. Nearly always the conversation got around to ‘What do you want to be when you grow up Clifford? Would you like to work on the railways like grandad? ‘ Flickers of joy came to my heart as I contemplated the thought, but nearly always granny would seriously chip in with: ‘I think this boy will be a vicar, I do, I really do’ Was granny in touch with someone I wasn’t ? Maybe railways and engineering are as much a vocation as being a vicar!

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