Sermon Preached by Archbishop Howard Gregory

At the Retirement Diocesan Service for Bishop Robert Thompson and the laying of a plaque in memory of Bishop Alfred Reid

At the Cathedral Church on February 7, 2021

Let us pray.

Almighty God, from whom every good prayer comes, and who pours out on all who desire it the spirit of grace and supplication: Deliver us, when we draw near to you, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind, that, with steadfast thoughts and kindled affections, we may worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

My Sisters and Brothers in Christ, we are met together in this act of worship for a two-fold purpose.  The first is to express our thanksgiving to God for the years of faithful ministry offered by Bishop Robert, who has now entered into his retirement.  The second is to give physical expression in a lasting way to the ministry and contribution to this Diocese of the late Bishop Alfred Reid, former Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.  We have combined the two intentions in this one Service as a way of ensuring a timely expression of these two concerns in light of the coronavirus pandemic, the protocols which they have imposed, and the unpredictable nature of any projection as to when we can return to Services with public gatherings of the pre-Covid days.

Theme: Pressing toward the Goal

Philippians 3:12- 16

12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal;[g] but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved,[h] I do not consider that I have made it my own;[i] but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly[j] call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. 16 Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.

It was shortly after 5:00 p.m. on June 29, 1973 when three young and naive young men drove out of the Deaconess House, dressed in clerical collar and black cassocks and headed toward the University Chapel to be ordained deacons in what was the first and only ordination which the Diocese held in that edifice. I can well recall the way in which the gas station attendant looked at us in a strange kind of glance as he refilled the tank of the car which you were driving.  That evening in the presence of family, friends and well-wishers, the then Fr. Don Taylor preached the sermon, using as his text John 15:16 – You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last – and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 

It was 47 years ago, but it marked the beginning of your ordained ministry, fulfilling what has been understood and appropriated in a personal way as a calling by God.  During our sojourn in the UTCWI it was customary for us to make our comments about each other as seminarians and what sort of ministry we thought would characterize each member.  Over the years, we have seen colleagues drop out from the vocation, some dishonourably; others have migrated; while others have moved into other vocational pursuits.  You have been consistent in your commitment to ordained ministry over these 47 years.

Accordingly, you have exercised ministry faithfully over these 47 years in a variety of contexts in Jamaica and overseas while pursuing further studies in Canada and the United States of America.  Here in Jamaica you have left your mark on St. Mary’s Church, Molynes Road, and the Duhaney Park congregation where you served your curacy; St. Jude’s Church, Stony Hill, where you assumed your first assignment as a Rector; St. Andrew Parish Church, where you served the most protracted assignment in your ministry; and from where you were elected to the office of Suffragan Bishop of Kingston.

The impact of your ministry was felt beyond the boundaries of your ecclesiastical assignments and led to your appointment to serve on a number of national boards and institutions, among which have been the Police Service Commission, and the YMCA.  More recently you have been honoured by the conferring of the National Award of Commander of the Order of Distinction, Commander Class.

Your ministry has also impacted the life of the wider Province and the Communion as you have been a member of various boards and committees and have played a leading role in the staging of Provincial Synods, the Bishops’ retreat, and the development of our relationship with Trinity Church, Wall Street, among other contributions.  Having served in the capacity of Suffragan Bishop of Kingston for the last 15 years of your active ministry you have now come to the point of retirement.

There are some persons who spend their working life thinking about their retirement.  Indeed, I have learnt from some young millennials that their dream is to make enough money to be able to retire by 35 years of age.  There are others who simply arrive at the age of retirement without having given much thought to it, and then accuse the organization of pushing them out, and who, in worst case scenarios have been known to find a reason to turn up every day at the workplace, or at best, every week.  There are, however, those whose approach to work and retirement is one of continuity, and in which they continue to find meaning and channels of expression of their creativity and process of growth toward wholeness and maturity.

It has been the custom to present retiring persons with an arm chair.  Clearly, there is more than symbolism here, suggesting that active life is over, and all of the creative moments and contributions are behind you. This is all consistent with a worldview of retirement which is not consistent with a Christian spirituality. The text chosen speaks to a view of life which suggests that the best moments are never behind you but reside in every day of life, even in retirement.   It is not a rejection or devaluation of the past.  It is an acceptance of the achievements and contribution of the past, but that we cannot live in the past.

The text chosen from Philippians 3:12- 16 is not a theological discourse on retirement, but a reflection by St. Paul as he recalls aspects of his past life as a person of faith, where he locates himself at the present, and what it means for him in looking toward the future.  This text raises a number of issues in terms of interpretation.  However, it is clear that Paul has been asserting his pedigree in terms of spirituality as he understood it in relation to his past, but now he dismisses any virtue in that in which he once took pride and declares that this now counts as nothing because of Christ and the righteousness which comes from God through sharing in the death and resurrection of Christ through faith.  Yet, even then, he dismisses any claim to having achieved perfection and emphasizes the fact that he is still at a point of pursuing the higher calling of God in Christ.

At this point in his life he claims that he is solely engaged on “one thing,” that is, “in stretching forward to the things which are before.” But “one thing,” says he, “forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, I press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” It is argued that Paul is here drawing on an athletic imagery to drive home his point.  What made him reach forward unto the things which are before was his forgetting the things that are behind. As one commentator expresses it, “he who thinks that he is still distant from the goal, will never cease running… for the runner reckons not on how many circuits he hath finished, but how many are left. We too should reckon, not how far we are advanced in virtue, but how much remains for us”.

So now Bishop Robert, you have come to the time of your retirement, and I know that you have indicated that you are enjoying it and are experiencing those rare moments of being able to enjoy those slow mornings while enjoying nature and life on the family farm. And some of us, still in active service, listen to your stories with an element of envy. It is here that I would like to focus for a moment.  And here I want to a speak to you, as to all our colleagues in ministry, the retired who make up a significant part of our congregations, as well as those who are afraid of getting old and facing retirement.  For a long time, retirement has been defined in terms of what is called the disengagement theory, which suggests that at retirement one surrenders the primary role which has defined most of one’s life, and retreats from the world of useful citizen and contributor to the social and religious culture, to that of some kind of second childhood and to be best kept out of the public arena.  If you do not believe that this understanding exists in Jamaica, then just get behind the steering wheel of your car with a few gray hairs showing and go on our roads, while refusing to participate in the indiscipline which now characterizes them, and then listen for the hostile expletives and instruction to go home and stay off the road which will be yelled at you.

Now I must admit that there is much more public discussion on preparation for retirement these days, but most of it centres around financial planning for retirement.  But retirement is not just about leaving a job, and protecting your financial nest egg and assets while moving into a sphere of “roleless existence” while sitting in the departure lounge. 

The psychologist Erik Erikson has suggested in his model of personality development that the final stage, which comes in the elder years, is that of Integrity versus Despair. His notion is that one can either come to the end of one’s active years with a sense of wellbeing about what one has done with one’s life, the investment one has made in the life of the next generation, and a feeling that one has given of self to the social culture in a way that gives one a positive assessment of life, or on the other hand, one can feel a sense of failure and that his/her life has been wasted, and be overcome by a sense of despair. The fact that individuals and groups from diverse backgrounds have come together to honour you in this way this afternoon, suggests that they see in you cause for feeling a sense of integrity about what you have done with your life as you pursued your career path. I am suggesting further that you may allow yourself to experience a feeling of integrity, not just from the cumulative effect of the sermons you preached, the people you baptized and married, and the various other facets of ministry which you exercised, but from a whole range of pastoral care activities and relationships which touched the lives of countless persons in good and in bad times, even as you have nurtured and devoted yourself to your wife Charmaine and Matthew and Joseph over the years.

All of us who are gainfully employed will one day reach this stage of retirement, and as persons who are part of this society and who, God willing, will join you in retirement one day.  However much those who are retiring may look forward to ceasing work and having time for other things (the disengagement theory developed in the early 1960’s), without due preparation, problems of an emotional nature are frequently linked with the passage from employment to unemployment in old age.  Long periods of unemployment have been found to have an important effect on the deterioration of their personalities and also on their involvement in antisocial attitudes and behaviour.  A society that drives the old into a “roleless segregation” also intensifies their isolation and loneliness.  This is something which should be of special significance at this time of the coronavirus pandemic, as the elderly and retired are deemed the most vulnerable, especially if possessing of comorbidities, and therefore, required to isolate and not be part of public gatherings, but only allowed to attend to essential activities. 

While this may reflect cultural values or prevailing attitudes in the society, it does not reflect a Christian understanding of life and retirement.  Older Christians have no mandate to retire from stewardship of the world and from the life-enhancing struggles to better the lot of their fellows.  It is for this reason that the work you are currently seeking to publish is of special significance.  To show that every stage of life, in its temporal passage, can be imbued with meaning and value becomes a special responsibility for the elderly. And this is not only consistent with how Paul views his life in the text, but how he exhorts the faith community at Philippi to live.

Several years ago, I was privileged to study with one of the leading figures in the study of Ageing and the development of a Spirituality of Ageing at the time, Eugene Bianchi, at Emory University.  Among the things he advocated in his text entitled, Ageing as a Spiritual Journey, is that in opposition to the centrifugal hurling of the elderly to the periphery of life, there is need for a new coalition of elderly persons to resist the fragmentation and dispersal of the old to the pastures of disengagement. 

In what may be perceived by some as a kind of revolutionary language, he argues that a new politics of the elderly needs to take shape and to find a significant voice in the strongholds of power.  And believe me, the banks and other financial institutions understand this power and its potential very well, and that is why they give senior citizens certain privileges, not because they are sorry for you, but because they know that the people with the financial resources are not those showing off with the most expensive SUVs, but the elderly who have garnered and protected their resources for this stage of life.  The mere state of being elderly confers no special wisdom or talent.  But if more persons in midlife and elderhood could embrace the spirituality and commitment being advocated, older persons would be in a specially privileged position to make unique contributions to important issues vexing nations, communities, and individuals.  Bishop Robert, I believe that I heard you say at some point since your retirement that you can now make trouble.  In light of what I have just observed, and the manuscript of your text, Redemption Song, which I have had the privilege to read, we can say, watch out Jamaica, watch out church, Bishop Robert is now retired!  So, social involvement is a crucial part of the elderly spirituality.  Without spiritual renewal of the self, the contributions of older people to humanity would suffer in quality.  No wonder Paul makes it clear that he has not yet achieved his spiritual goal but is pressing on like an athlete. Likewise, it would not be unreasonable to assert that the vows you made at ordination are still on the way to perfection even in retirement.

What is being called for here is not just financial readiness for retirement, or even psychological and emotional embrace of the fact that one is ageing, but a spiritual engagement and renewal which is able to give to retirement and ageing a holistic definition which will replicate among the elderly an ever-growing rounded person.  Religiousness is therefore central to defining a spirituality of ageing. 

Bianchi, who incidentally was a religious monk for many years, and who later left the order to get married, advances the notion that development in old age focuses on at least three areas: interior growth through psychological and spiritual methods, a deeper bonding of love and service with other persons, and a commitment to the greater causes of justice, peace, and ecology among humankind.  Unlike those who have a fear of getting old, a positive orientation can be embarked upon in the mid-years of life.  An inward route ideally begun in midlife, can unleash new potential in elderhood.  It involves a process of dis-identification and re-identification.  Dis-identification speaks to a person’s disengagement from identification with social roles of youth and the working years.  While re-identification involves:

  1. Getting in touch with one’s true inner voices which may have been stifled or ignored in the busy years of youth and midlife.
  2. It springs from the ability and desire to serve others.

So, while it is customary to hear much talk about life review, and which many of us as clergy are accustomed to hearing from the elderly and the terminally ill, in which they keep looking back on their past life, what is being called for here is what is being designated “life preview”.  In a sense life has not ended with retirement, it has only just opened a new future.  Like Paul in his epistle, it speaks of looking to the future as if it is an athletic undertaking with laps still to be completed.  The elderly have a profound responsibility and vocation to build the future, both for their fellow elders, the church, and for the whole humanity, and of course, for your granddaughter.

My brother, Robert, we have come together this afternoon, to give thanks to God for calling you into this vocation as a priest within the church of God for 47 years and which you have served well in the last 15 years as the Bishop of Kingston; to give thanks for the service which you have offered to the Diocese and beyond, and to assure you of our support and good wishes as you move on to another phase of life and ministry.

As we have observed, the text from the letter to the Philippians speaks to a view of life which suggests that the best moments are not behind you but reside in every day you live in retirement.  It is certainly not a rejection or devaluation of the past.  It is an acceptance of the achievements and contribution of the past, but that we cannot live in the past.

It is our prayer that the gifts and abilities that you have exhibited during your active service will be refined and re-defined by a spirituality of ageing and be available to the church and the nation in a new way. So we look forward to your contribution from your reflections and the acquired wisdom, as well as your blessing as you live in your retirement.

May God bless you in your retirement.  AMEN.