Public lecture given by Canon Dr James Woodward as part of the Theology and Modernity series of lectures given at St Bride’s Church Liverpool delivered on Monday 23rd May 2016.
Between Remembering and Forgetting: Exploring the Narratives of Age in our Faith Communities.
We live in an ageing society embracing the reality that life expectancy increases year on year leading to an increased number of older people. This lecture will explore the narratives that surround age especially within our churches and challenge us to think about our own ageism as a barrier to compassionate inclusivity and social outreach. What might it mean to value age and see within our spiritual landscape the wisdom that comes from remembering the gift of years?
Canon Dr. James Woodward is Principal of Sarum College in Salisbury. He is a Practical and Pastoral theologian who has written widely in the area of human vulnerability, age and the end of life.
look you guys that's very generous of you very much the guy that's very generous indeed for those of you who know guy gut guy was in my small group in in Windsor we have 10 days together Ellen I think and paul also participated in this particular intensive experience of education and I confess I don't know if I've ever confessed this to you Paul but I will compare guy but I will confess it now confess to you as well Paul later guy that we spent a long time over this ten days in small groups and so that first experience of sitting there as the group facilitator was quite important as i cast my eye around I couldn't quite make I couldn't quite us sort out in my mind what to make of guy you probably feel this already I had known that he'd gone to a very in a particular evangelical college so part of my prejudice was to pigeonhole him accordingly but seriously what emerged was a quiet and genuinely humble person with enormous intellectual capacity to see things and to cut through the grass to get to the heart of the matter I rather thought a guy as a silent but deadly person and I mean that affectionately general because most of the clergy i know are silent but boring so I know I know which at which I'd rather have but so I'm glad to be here and also I want to say this by way of introduction the witness of places like some brides are absolutely fundamental to the life of the breath and the diversity of the Church of England and it's ministry and mission and since those windsor days guy have kept in touch with the life of the place as far as you can through your your social media and your web page and I want to say to you who will maintain and keep this tradition of generosity of creativity of inclusivity and of calling us all into a more risky interesting hinterland of the spiritual living and being I want to say to you I hope that you will keep that tradition alive and guys legacy will be cashed out as the next chapter of some Brides unfolds so there we are I hope you all feel stroked careful just very careful we haven't had a drink yet for that kind of behavior but there we are now what I want to do in the next 35 to 40 minutes or so that clocks a bit fast perhaps that's deliberate is ever the first thing I've got on the list affirm the Roman place of an inclusive reflective and outward looking community I hope I've done that the problem with the church is it's too inward-looking the gravity is too in words and self-preoccupied and what you do and witness is a constant pushing outwards towards the world and its shape and its life the second thing I want to do in this short lecture is to challenge even those of you who are over 55 and there might be a couple of people here who fall into that category I want to challenge you to think about your own ageism and I want to try to show that ageism both in ourselves at whatever strike the stage of our life and living were in is a barrier and how that ageism take shape in our community is a political barrier a justice barrier to building what I would want to call compassionate inclusivity and anything that is a barrier to that compassionate inclusivity in the case of this lecture age and ageism is always a barrier to growth and I think it's particularly interesting connection and bridge between this particular bit of a gender and some writing that guy has been going through the through various mechanisms about liberal churches and church growth and thirdly I hope I might be able to be practical but you'll be the judge of that in asking how valuing age might teach us something about the nature of discipleship and the nature of our spiritual journeys at every stage of our life so what I'm going to do is I'm going to tell you a couple of stories and then i'm going to offer you to pieces of just going to try and summarize if i can clearly two pieces of fundamental professional research in the area of gerontology and psycho gerontology the rebbetzin researcher much more interesting than that suggests i promise and then i want to open open the thing up to some questions and challenges about what we learn when we seek intentionally to include older people and their experience within the spiritual economy of our mission and our ministry so let me tell you to little stories the first is from 2008 when I happily had a sabbatical in Chicago and if you're going to have a sabbatical choose interesting places to go to and I went along to the Science Museum not actually to see this particular bit of the exhibition but to look at the architecture of the building as it happens but bumped into this booth really which was on like one of those booths it used to be in Boots the Chemist where you had to go to have your passport photograph taken or or when you were young and had more hair and were lively you went for me this is about fifteen or sixteen you went to have your picture taken with the person who you thought you might be marrying Julie did you ever do that you remember kind of trying to squeeze yourself together and get your photograph taken which became topped into your wallet or your purse anyway this booth was called face aging a child sits down in front of an automatic camera and their portrait is taken they wait and they're digitized bust appears on a TV monitor then tapping a button like a remote for the television each child could rapidly call up simulations of what she or he would look like at one year intervals very extraordinary piece of technology up to but not beyond the age of 69 now I could get into the physical explanation of why that was the case but that was the cutoff point so in seconds the computer added grotesque pouches like the one I'm sporting below my square chin ready skin and blotches were added to the children's familiar features their faces became elongated then wider then saggy lines became is this familiar to you lines became more heavily rutted boys lost hair hair turned gray the heads of both girls and boys grew then shrunk I bumped into this and was absolutely transfixed by the responses I don't want to get old said one child of course in an American accent while another child commented unkindly perhaps on a friend look at her she's disgusting at 42 thank you very much I thought to myself now we might come back to that but I I share it because I think it demonstrates the ambivalence at the heart of our relationship with age actually none of us I think I think probably the women may be better at this than the men and there are some gender issues here of course but none of us particularly want to spend very very long periods of time looking at ourselves in the morning in the bathroom mirror all of us at one level or other have quite a complicated relationship to age and it's that which lies at the root of ageism that which we fear we do some very queer things with to mix up my metaphors fearful people build fearful communities we're paradox uncertainty and vivillon's ambiguity contradiction are squeezed out of the scenario and what's embedded are some phobias and prejudices which become so deep-seated as we grow older they become more and more complex to shift and change and you as a community you as human beings you as a city as representatives of this city and beyond might want to reflect about the relationship of fear in and through are seeing and our ability to inhabit some of the paradoxes and ambiguities of living so there's the first story the second story is a story against myself really what's the most interesting and insightful stories i should say before i went to work at the ecclesiastical version of legoland which is windsor castle with Legoland not very far down the LA are down the road and I was 411 you as the master of some arms houses in Warwickshire so responsible for looking after older people at every stage of their their life in supported housing in residential care and in nursing care so and it was there where I began to engage in whole or writing a reflection about this issue so he is a person who kind of was beginning to get the age thing sorted in their heads very dangerous for men who think they're beginning to get things sorted in their ends well sorry very dangerous for me I'm sure you're the exception that disproves the rule so picture the scene I had to get into diocese in church house for my ministerial development review and these are the days where before management and all that kind of stuff hit the Church of England in a big way clearly something subconscious is working inside me because I managed to get in the car probably about 15 minutes later than I should have done for about a 10 or 11 mile journey into church house but through the back end of solihull and southern Birmingham where I knew the roads and the shortcuts quite well so I come down the lane into the main conurbation from the place I worked which is place called Nowell I turn by the church and as a queue of traffic and because I'm such a nice caring loving patient person I began to get very very agitated thinking this is the last thing I want what's going on why don't they just get a move on who is holding me up I'm about four cars away from a pedestrian crossing and all it requires is for me to shift myself a little bit and I see an elderly man walking across the pedestrian crossing on a Zimmer frame and I think to myself goodness sake get on with it you are making me late not it's not a great story against most officers relation to what I've just said and he takes forever I mean I am kind of gasping at whether he's going to be able to get the next foot in front of the next fort anyway eventually he crosses he finds some difficulty moving the Zimmer frame onto the pavement and the cars begin to pull out interestingly there are people passing him on the pedestrian crossing and they reflect they're not as unpleasant or as impatient as I am but they reflect a kind of invisibility of this man for whom that journey across the road was clearly quite a task one car moves off the another car moves up another car from herself i'm now at least 20 minutes late for the bishop actually incidentally was often late himself but that's another story paul will know who I'm talking about and here's what happens this is very interesting and challenging I Drive away conscious of the speed limit and I look into the mirror and that man has hardly moved from the edge of the pedestrian crossing I mean almost as if he's catching his breath and his energy and here's a thought that comes into my mind that man isn't a stranger that man is me that that man's story of frailty and vulnerability and slowness and aloneness is not detached from my little psycho drama about being late for a meeting where I'm going to tell the bishop what a good job I'm doing that's the definition of MDR by the way I suddenly realize that his story and my story are inextricably bound up but he is what I will become and his frailty and vulnerability is already part of my loving and growing and changing and struggling and moving as it happens down no high street not very quickly can you see it was very very surprising that a flash view in the wing mirror of that man still on the pavement brought a collision of the two narratives together and it was absolutely completely transformative and why was it transformative I mean I don't know some of you looking a bit bemused only if you thought you think I'm gone completely mad but there was a spiritual awakening at that at that particular point which led me to see that there was some profound connectivity between us and that what was needed around age and ageism and our life together in an intergenerational community was the realization that all of us like those children in Chicago had to befriend the elderly stranger in ourselves and that's true of all of us as I said whatever stage of living and loving and aging we are so those those are those are two stories hang on to those if you wish I don't know we'll see if you make anything of them in a moment let me now explain to you to bits of fundamental guiding theory which I would be interesting to see how you connect or otherwise with this these two thinkers but the long and the short of these two thinkers there are English writer and researcher and psycho gerontologist just recently retired at a Southampton University called Peter Coleman the Swedish gerontologist called Lars torn stem who was writing out of his particular research and experience of retirement communities in Sweden in as early actually as as the late 70s what are these two writers have in common the two writers basically say this the older we get the more spiritual become so Peter Coleman over 30 years interviewed tens of thousands of older people starting at 40 and going through the whole cycle up to 70 and he mapped out fascinating reading huge volumes he mapped out their spiritual lives in their 40s their 50s 60s and their 70s sometimes a bit later sometimes a bit earlier and what he demonstrated and I don't if it reflects in your own life was that the older we get the more open to the numinous we become the more ready we are to embrace the non physical dimension of life in terms of what it looks like the shape of it and its meaning and it led Peter to say that this means that the older generation are the church's natural spiritual constituency because they have a stronger taste for the spiritual a stronger awareness of the spiritual than younger people and it's led me to believe I usually say this when there's an Archdeacon present or an Archdeacon and waiting this means that we should sack all youth workers jews whose ministry is largely a triumph of process over content and we should employ people to engage in older people because older people are our natural spiritual constituency what why and the reason for this very very straightforward and all the Peter did take four volumes to describe the thesis he said people become more spiritual a because they're closer to death than they are birth and that focuses the mind and secondly post 55 he uses but it's an arbitrary cutoff point the older we get the more cognizant we are of how much we've messed up in our lives and that those two realities give us a stronger sense of the spiritual now the fascinating thing I mean in this link sing with a lot of these modernity lectures is how you translate that sense of the Newman has that sense of a spiritual into some religious narrative which is liberating and meaningful and important so let me now move to Lars torn stone who talks about this in a rather wonderful phrase you can tell this to your friends of the pub tomorrow night he calls this these moments jarrow transcendence I think it's a rather interesting and i'm just going to map out because i can't hold all of these in my head just going to map out the main findings from torn stones again very substantial piece of work in this came from observing people in retirement communities that are long period of time the first thing that Taunton says is that and I've indicated this from Coleman's work is that there's a certain amount of self confrontation occurs you know when you get to my age you can't run away from how much of a you are sometimes just excuse the fringe we better edit that out Malcolm that's possible and then actually that self confrontation makes one realize how flawed and fragile and complex and wonderful we are as human beings and this is a process of discovery that reveals often previously hidden aspects of the self which are both good and bad and that leads to a certain sense of transcendence interestingly as well and Thorson argues that there's a decrease in older people in self-centeredness with increasing awareness that the individual is not at the center of the universe and there is a change from egger ism to altruism and I think this is very interesting around how we view older people in relation to the growth or otherwise of the churches thirdly and I've been enjoying this recently how with a recent visit home as you get older there is a rediscovery of childhood and a pleasure of recalling episodes from one's childhood and that's cause one of two of you to smile it's also incidentally why older people are much better with children and pay hence our grandparents are much much better at the delight in their grandchildren that sometimes their parents are let me go on and just then map out for thorn stand what this means in terms of relationships and folsom says that older people have an increased need for solitude and that one of the things that religion needs to offer people is an ability to live with that silence and that solitude and that reflectiveness and that older people become much less bothered about lots of lots of relationships and become highly selective about which friendships and relationships really really matter there's a distinction that happens between the self and the role this is true of almost every human being apart from clergy people thirdly attitudes to wealth change there's less a desire to go shopping and a greater sense that possessions can ensnare and confine a person and fourthly and I think I suspect as I look round the group beyond my specs this is modeled in some of you people who get older and go with the flow become more outrageous they become let Helen I know this is really difficult for to imagine in your case but I mean this is going to happen in the next ten years there's a real joy in breaking the boundaries and transcending nonsensical social norms and fifty and this is why we need to listen to older people when it comes to the ethical debate older people have a much stronger sense of the ambiguity in the peridot of life in a much much stronger ability not to be binary in their thinking around splitting absolute right from absolute wrong Thorne stem discovered this but I have not discovered this from some of the older church people i know he says this this is accompanied by an increasing reluctance to give advice to others now I think this theory is really these theories are really really important this picks up some of your work guy picks up some of the work of lindenwood bed I think we take too much for granted about what people believe and I think we take too much for granted about how people come to believe what they believe and the thing interesting thing that links thorne stands and Coleman's work is this and this is the phrase that when people become older in relation to this pattern and texture that I'm describing they come to believe less more intensely and that certainly bears out some of my experience and I think in terms of this city in terms of the model and witness of this church older people become very powerful and advocates for social justice so and what does this mean it's all right I'm kind of coming to the end so reminds me of a very naughty clergyman data Birmingham no Oxford this is 25 years ago actually box and ours conference guy when I was there and George Carey was talking do you remember the days of joy still talking we're all still talking and he was having a real go at David Jenkins who had ordained me deacon and priests in the 80s so I rather feeling a bit denser defensive about this but of course I was too well-behaved to want to stand up and challenge this he was I mean I think David Jenkins got people to talk about God in a way that you know we need to bring it all actually in so many many ways and others were right about this but there was a wonderfully naughty clergy person who was sat in front of me who just summed it up he buried his head in his hands and said really loudly oh god please make him stop so and let me let me let me offer one or two pointers and then you need to tell me what it looks like from from your perspective what might it mean for us to value age and embrace it within our spiritual landscape an American sociologist said this i think it's profoundly hopeful assertion she said this it has been widely said that whatever many may say about the future it is ours not only that it may happen to us but it is in part made by us and serve the landscape of age and ageing feels to be unsatisfactory in the way we treat older people in the way we treat older people socially in the way we treat older people economically in the way we marginalize and make invisible older people within our religious communities that need not be the final note or message to the shape of what is emerging because you can make an enormous difference by and through your desire to want to combat and engage with the shape that ageism takes both in yourself and in other people so I want to say this to you to each one of you what might it mean to become a radical activist for older people and make no bones about this this is a call to arms this is a call to struggle this is a call to both church and society to say that older people need valuing we need to engage with the spiritual geography of older people we need to be more explicit about the way in which age is taking shape in us in order to reform and transform what is for many many older women and men in this society let alone other communities and societies are very unhappy marginalizing and lonely and poor experience I mean this has been an economic challenge to consistent governments in the night that since the 1970s of whatever political shade they are in that we know given the increased demography we know that given the increased longevity of older people in our generation we know those facts yet seem reluctant to want to organize ourselves in order to ensure good care for them at every level in the Health and Social Care economy so who will be the advocates for older people in this community in our society that's the first rather broad and issue the second issue if we're to take seriously and if it's wrong any bells with you the idea that the imaginative spiritual horizons of older people become richer and textured and wiser then we need to do something about the predominant paradigm within which we are all locked when we think about and feel about age so if we were to have a flip chart god forbid and i were to map out what most immediately came to your mind when you think about aging i would reckon that predominantly but not all or but not exclusively we come up with words like diminishment we'd come up with words like decline we'd come up with words like death that the predominant narrative that were locked into and particularly the church for older people and it is a negative narrative what can we do to reshape a more positive spiritual narrative we're aging can be rediscovered as a sense of journey a sense of legacy making a time of integration a time of adventure and self-discovery a time of self-revelation and a time within which we can go deeper into the wells of love of God or the Christian tradition and from those well share the wisdom of living an authentic and honest and loving Christian life it is the most paradoxical issue of our times that we now have the extraordinary ability to prolong lie yet at the same time marginalized and fail to listen to and to celebrate the lives of older people and and how God has rooted herself in those lives and how through that rootedness so much fruit is born in and through their loving and praying and serving and faithful witness to a kind of world that they would wish us and a new generation to live in so there's something about social justice in relation to the system there's something about the reshaping of a narrative of of age and older people and so dude just to give you two examples of that before I offer one final thought and then I honestly I will shut up in the church press whenever statistics are articulated there is some profound negative narrative at work around older people often if the church press want to have a picture associated with what I would call the decline narrative it will be of an older person now the subliminal message there is that this is the generation that somehow is to blame for the decline but whenever our church leaders talk about the last chance saloon and if we don't do something radical now the church will be over there are some interesting and complex influences around the generation that have kept the faith alive around the generation that have continued to serve to engage to sustain buildings to allow their gospel convictions to spill out into corporate and communal and action I think the ageism of the statistical narrative in the church is very shocking and needs needs challenging so right finally what have older people taught me about theology I'm just going to offer you two or three very brief thoughts I think that the process of aging reshapes our relationship to time I think it I think older people ask us both implicitly and explicitly to slow up to be less distracted to pay attention to find the infinite worth of God's love in being as well of course as doing you know when I look at my nephews and nieces I worry a lot about the way in which individualism and materialism and consumerism at the pace it's going distort and disfigure what time can mean for them in terms of human well-being and flourishing so that is the first element to a healthy Christian community will always I think have within it elders and elder wisdom I mean I suppose that's a very obvious thing to say but I think it needs saying I think this the second the second the second element is that older people and this is tough show us what it's like to live with human vulnerability with human boundedness and with human limitation and you know I think that's one of the toughest lessons around I think the irunium paradox of the realization that to be set free we need to be able to embrace our fragility and our lack of capacity and our desire deep desire to feel and in feeling morn and cry I don't think as individuals or as families or as communities we cry enough for the things that we want to be different for the things that haven't gone wrong for the hurts that we've experienced for the way life perhaps hasn't dealt us the hand of cards that we would have liked and so I think that's the second area that you know isn't about strength it isn't about delivery it isn't about targets it isn't about where i bought my suit from it isn't about essentially any of those things i think it's about something much deeper and profound and fragile and precious and getting worse i'm sorry but i am home from side nearly finished i think the third area which i would want to articulate is that older people teach us how to die older people teach us how to cope with change and loss and how to let go let go of our ego let go of our self-importance let go of our record collection let go of all those books let go of I mean you fill in the gap that there's something about human beings fully set free which always always always embraces that unique spiritual charism of being ready to let go and to die and to let be and that I think again is a profoundly radical and counter cultural element within the spiritual and Theological economy of our of our life together though I promise that clock is earlier but I have I have wandered a little bit but I think that's enough I'm very grateful for your for your listening and it's over to you I'm ready to you to crack the whip and yes