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At the Gate of the Year

This is the poem King George quoted in his Christmas Day broadcast 1950

I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year
‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’

And he replied,
‘Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way!’

So I went forth and finding the Hand of God
Trod gladly into the night
He led me towards the hills
And the breaking of day in the lone east.

So heart be still!
What need our human life to know
If God hath comprehension?

In all the dizzy strife of things
Both high and low,
God hideth his intention.”

by Minnie Louise Harkins 1875-1957


I remember vividly King George VI’s last Christmas broadcast. He’s the king of the “King’s Speech”. He finished by reading the poem, “I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, give my a light that I may tread safely into the unknown…”  A few weeks later he was dead. I was in class when the headmaster, robed in full academic dress, enrtered. We stood. He simply said, “The King is dead. Long live the Queen”. We filed out in silence. Only somber music was playing on the BBC. The whole world seemed silent and sombre on that February day.

In the intervening years the Royal Family often symbolized for us the upheavals in contemporary life, as if they experienced for us the confusions of the social and sexual revolution which followed. King George’s death seemed to draw a line on the past, although in truth years past until a succession of royals broke up, divorced and their lives were exposed to an unrelenting media blitz. Some blamed them for all that happened, as if the symbols of the nation’s reality should be above that reality. Through it all the Queen and her consort did indeed mirror the ideal of happy marriage. Some of us grieved for them and for the children whose lives were shaped by the confusions of a world tasting a new freedom in its liberating and destructive fervor.

And now the grandson, heir to the throne marries a young lady whose ancestors, like my own, include north country coalminers; a tough and steady breed. I am heartened by that bloodline. While in college I visited Durham miner’s homes on the walls of which were displayed portraits of Keir Hardy, the Labour patriarch and Her Majesty the Queen. Miners were often the downtrodden sector of British society, particularly before the Second World War. Yet their tough and dangerous lives sparkled with amateur dramatics, choral societies, brass bands, “the Workers’ Educational Society, the Coop, and all sorts of mutual help and care. Many in that generation sought to break free. One was my mother, who despite a lack of formal education managed to get admitted to a teaching hospital and became a nurse. Another daughter of my Yorkshire grandfather became a formidable teacher. Kate’s maternal grandparents showed a similar grit.

As differing forms of modern democracy creak and groan under the pressures of a changing world, and politicians slide into general disrepute, still the grandson of a Queen and the granddaughter of working stock inspire imagination and hope and the good wishes of millions.

The Established English Church plays its part. Fewer attend its services just as few wrap themselves in royalist patriotism in our cynical world, interpreted by an even more cynical media. And yet, for a few moments next Friday something of the magic of former days revives as a buffeted Archbishop of Canterbury blesses the union of future sovereigns. I hope and pray that the magic will run deep for a few hours and that many challenged by the hopes and disappointments of our troubled world will find a new courage from William and Catherine as they give their lives anew to each other and to the God whose Son is Risen and makes all things new.


Perhaps I’m the last person to raise the issue of retirement. I am now seventy-one, fighting cancer and a broken leg has me wheel chair bound. In a year’s time the church decrees that I retire. Now despite my infirmities, I am not ready for retirement. Perhaps I should be eager to rest on what ever laurels I have and take up bee keeping or some bucolic activity. I don’t play golf, can’t afford to take cruises and I’m still a priest. Like Queen Elizabeth, and she is eighty-five, my priesthood wasn’t a temporary assignment. It’s not a job.

Not too many years ago bishops and priests only retired when infirmity made functioning impossible. No one claimed thirty years on the books as an excuse to lay down the plow. Many of the clergy who cared for me when a child were well past “three score years and ten”. Then following secular examples it was swiftly decided that quitting time was 72. After all how could an old person effectively do the job, relate to children, and how did one rid oneself of clergy past their prime?

No one guessed that economic circumstances would create a pastoral world in which more and more parishes could no longer afford a younger full-time parson. Yet here we are now facing that reality. So hurried schemes are adopted to ordain locally ordained or mutual ministry clergy while a large pool of retired clergy remain “on the shelf” capable of pastoral ministry, with pensions to underwrite them who could soldier on effectively in small parishes. Ageism is a prejudice!

I am glad to note that a number of dioceses are re-visiting this issue. I am surely not the only priest who would gladly take pastoral responsibility?

Selling off rectories has deepened the problem. Once parishes had a vicarage which a “retired” priest could inhabit in return for pastoral duties. Yet parishes could rent property for use by such priests who believe that ordination is for keeps and not something one discards at a canonical age. The very idea that ordination is a job is insidious.

Our church should take this problem and its solutions up intentionally and not piecemeal. “Retired” clergy should be recruited and enabled and encouraged to continue in their vocations. Annual licensing or variations on that theme might preclude clergy hanging on when no longer capable of weekly duties. Older clergy bring to the church a wealth of pastoral experience and honed preaching techniques.

I am not against locally ordained ministries. Indeed I participate in their training.

It is also true that many dioceses can no longer staff diocesan offices. Retired clergy might well assist a bishop in those areas which are now staffed positions, or unfilled staff positions such as deployment and recruitment. In our computer age, such tasks can easily be performed from “home”.  Clergy mentoring is an area seasoned priests can effectively perform.

As we live older and productive lives it is high time the church took advantage of this growing pool of older clergy.


A friend drove me to Rush University hospital in Chicago last Thursday. There I met the team which will supervise preparations for me to have a cell stem transplant. They propose to take my own cells, clean them up, kill everything but me, and then return the gleaming washed cells to my body. It all sounds like science fiction.


In preparation I will have two sessions of chemotherapy this coming week, and probably the same in early May. Once they have my rogue protein in some sort of retreat they can begin working on me.


It’s a nuisance that Chicago is two hours away, particularly as I am still wheel chair bound, unable to put weight on my broken right leg. I hope for better news about that when I see the orthopedic doctor on May 5. The nuisance factor is that the first stage of the treatment is out-patient, and I must either get someone to drive me there and back, or stay in an expensive hotel.


At first they will dose me with all sorts of potions, do a bone marrow autopsy, get the dentist to make sure I don’t have mouth infections, and then bring me in to install tubes above my heart. The tubes have three sections in order to give me concoctions and draw out and later return stem cells. Once the tube is in place they will harvest cells. Shortly afterwards I will be admitted to the hospital and put in isolation. Massive doses of chemo will be administered to kill any bad protein and for that matter anything much else. Then my cells will be returned. Because my immune system will be gone, I will be given all sorts of prophylactic drugs to ward off infection and after a week or so drugs to stimulate the production of white blood cells. Thus begins the healing process.


Three weeks later I will be released after receiving anti-pneumonia drugs. The next few weeks will be spent in virtual isolation at home until the time comes when I am assessed to be healthy and strong. If all goes well my disease will be gone. Waldenstrom’s is a rare cancer and thus there’s not the amount of clinical work and evidence about treatment. However a new procedure is now being used which gives hope of a complete recovery, or at least for some years.


I look forward to the next few months with hope, excitement and trepidation. It is tough being alone and tackling all this. But the doctor and nurse practitioner at Rush U couldn’t have been more thorough or more encouraging. So do pray for me. I intend to blog through the whole process so you will all know the gory details. Ora pro nobis.