‘Supernumerary’

A strange word and a teaser for our Spanish translator no doubt, but one that is used to describe the role of a retired Methodist minister, of which I am one. My dictionary defines its meaning as one who is a substitute or extra worker. That’s a bit how it feels. Apparently in the theatrical world it’s someone who has a walking-on part but no lines to speak. We don’t have much walking on to do, but when asked, we still speak, wisely perhaps. Other people who stop working leave their work behind. I remember over-hearing a conversation once where a recently retired man was being paraded with pride by his wife, as if after many years she had suddenly discovered him. ‘I haven’t thought about work for a moment’ he boasted, as his wife smiled fondly. In my case it’s the other way round – the work never entirely forgets you.

Twelve of us met recently to celebrate friendships that go back to college days. We had a room to ourselves in a Cistercian Monastery and began by each of us sharing with the others, where and how we found ourselves.

There were very different responses. One of us delighted that he and his wife now owned their own house and having lived in a Church house for all of their married life, could do with it whatever they wanted. Wives were often mentioned, their health problems and the greater time spent in their company, enjoying times spent together. Children and grandchildren made up a major part of everyone’s lives and affections.

Some had found retirement a challenge and even after a dozen years or so were still uncomfortable about the tensions between being free and being loyal to the work that had occupied much of their lives. All of us felt to varying degrees estranged from that work and some had severe reservations about the present shape of a Church whose membership has been reduced by as much as two thirds since we left college.

We were agreed that we were trained for a different theological tradition. ‘Things ain’t what they were used to be.’

They never are, of course. One of the problems of age is to live in the present with the experience and skills of the past. It’s as impossible for younger people to go back to a past they have never known as it is difficult for older people to embrace the present without pretending to be young. It’s especially hard for older people to do that when they see valuable insights and practices being replaced by what they see as unconvincing ones. And that’s everyone’s problem. Not just grumpy old clerics!

B.R.