The Gift of Years: Human Flourishing and Ageing

Eley McAinsh, editor of the Bible Reading Fellowship’s Reflections for Older People interviewed Sarum College’s Principal, James Woodward, earlier this year. The BRF’s Gift of Years programme aims to inspire, equip and enable church across the UK to meet the spiritual needs of older people wherever they may be.

Here’s the full text of the interview: James Woodward is the Principal of Sarum College in Salisbury. He’s an Anglican priest and has spent the whole of his working life in the Church of England. He was ordained in his early 20s and has been working in a variety of ministries since 1985. He has a particular interest in ageing and the experience of growing older and has lectured and written widely on the subject.

The interview began with Eley asking how he came to be doing what he’s doing:

I’ve always felt called to a pastoral ministry; I think people are important and I think making connections is important. Allowing people to tell their stories – engaging with how people make sense of who they are and what they are – is a fundamental part of the shape of who we are as human beings but also of our distinctive call to live this out within the kingdom. So, pastoral would be one strand.

Secondly, I’ve always been interested in what theology means in practice and how we put our theological wisdom and tradition to work. I’ve been keen to try to understand in a variety of different ways in our lives what it means to be faithful to the Christian tradition, and how the Christian tradition might help us to flourish as human beings.

And thirdly, I get very bothered about people and groups with whom I feel we don’t engage with enough energy and imagination, and who find themselves on the edges or outside of the care and the love of the community of faith. I do feel, along with others, that the real life and energy of the Christian faith is often at the liminal edge or outside the church and not in the ‘churchiosity’ within which we can get so trapped. So: pastoral, theological and a concern for the more vulnerable parts of both ourselves and other people have been the key strands that have brought me to where I am today.

I’m interested in your mention of story, and story at different phases of life. Does the telling of one’s story change with the different phases of life?

I should say that, like all people who think they want to help people, of course in part we need to be honest that, in that process of helping and engaging, we are having our own needs met. I don’t think there’s enough honesty about that. I think we all have a very complicated relationship with our age and there is part of me that would like to have all of the experience of 35 years of ministry and all the security that early middle years brings – but still be 30 or 35. I’ve asked this question of many, many groups over the past 25 years and I would say that most people have quite a gap between their birth age and how they feel inside. That’s reflected a little bit when older people say that one of the most difficult things about being older and hair greying is that people don’t see them as an individual anymore. ‘I feel invisible.’ ‘I feel overlooked.’

Some of the theological and pastoral literature says we go through stages in life and there are tasks associated with each of those stages. I think there are values and beliefs that shape what we think are more important or less important stories at different stages, but as I grow a bit older I’m much more interested in synergies and connections and overlaps. I’m much more interested in how telling our stories in the light of our faith experience helps us cope with ambiguity, contradiction and paradox.

Some less healthy forms of religion seek to resolve all those things with certainty and security, by telling people, ‘Don’t be afraid of being older because you’re going to a better place’ or ‘It will all be all right because God loves you’. Our religion, at its best, helps us to hold our fears and anxieties rather than deny them. We need to find a story with which we can celebrate the limitations: a story that can help us – whatever our age: 35, 45 or 95 – live with the texturedness of life at its most paradoxical and ambiguous.

We do live, particularly within church life today, under a number of tyrannies. One of these is the tyranny of feeling that we always need to be certain. We need to let go of that by telling a different story of ourselves; a story that gives us a good-humoured, loving and caring sense of the glory of who we are and what we’re growing to be; which takes ourselves seriously but not too seriously; and which doesn’t develop rigid edges that become impervious to things we want to push away because we’re frightened of them.

It’s one thing for you, who has the time and tools to do this reflection, this work, but how can these insights be more widely integrated and applied to enhance not just our own journey but that of others, as well as social policy and care?

I believe in spiritual democracy and equality. I believe fundamentally that everybody is capable of being able to tell their story in a way that is real, integrated, life-giving and affirming; that is searching and yearning and that connects with their spiritual curiosity; that is open about how at one level we’re all works in progress. Giving people the confidence to feel that who they are and what they might have to share is valuable is fundamental – but massively countercultural. We need to slow up – says he! We need to slow up and slow down and create spaces, places and communities where we are able to engage with each other. I want to invite other people in to see what happens when you look at the connections between the dots of our lives, the dots of our story, but to do it within that framework where you value older people, include older people and listen to older people because that’s absolutely fundamental for intergenerational health. We need a community of all ages in order to embrace all ages, where we’re able to trip over bits and pieces of the sharing, narrating and exploring that helps us feel we’re listened to and understood. This will help us to feel that we’re together in our yearning and our curiosity, to live lives where we can flourish and other people can flourish.

There’s something about space, pace and place which is important, and I do think that means tackling inequality, injustice, marginalisation and a deep devaluing of older people at a systemic level. As an ecclesial community, we need to stop complaining about there being too many older people in church.

We need to think about how we narrate the story of ageing in our communities. We need to think about old-age care – I’ve got a book coming out with a colleague about what it means to develop homes for older people; what it means to develop a whole-person approach to a place where older people can live safely and well, particularly when they’re vulnerable. We need to root out the outrageous way in which our religious economy and our economic and political economies marginalise and devalue people. Sorry to sound like a boring vicar on a soapbox, but I do think the church needs to call out politicians and interrogate systems to see how this can be challenged and changed.

But in order to do that, we need to get our own house in order. Let me give you an example. Here at Sarum College, we train women and men for ministry. We had a contextual weekend where we went out into the countryside around here in Wiltshire to look at what ministry means in a rural context. Eight groups of students went out into various rural churches. When they came back and fed back, one of the main observations, which was not entirely positive in the students’ minds, was that the congregations were ageing congregations. Well, that would be fine if it were a factual description, but underneath that was a sense of, ‘Oh no, all these old people, they’re soon going to be gone… the church is doomed.’ I held back and thought, no, let others comment. But luckily and helpfully, one of the other students spoke out and said, ‘Look, I think we need to stop speaking about older people so negatively. The person I spoke to over coffee was 86 and had 70 years of following Christ: a spiritual life that I can only hope to have.’

I’ve been involved in this subject area for 25 years and people have said to me, ‘I think you could have chosen a more interesting subject.’ No! I don’t think so, although I think the subject actually chose me. People just don’t want to think about it, but we all need to think about it because we’re all ageing.

You have a great concern, both personally and academically, for what you call
‘human flourishing’. What does human flourishing look like, especially in older age?

I think it’s about feeling that one’s life has been, at least in part, useful and worthwhile. It’s about the legacy of memory and relationships, and whether bits and pieces of work that one has done have been recognised, valuable and worthwhile. It’s to do with a sense of legacy, and about being able to think that I may have made a mess of x or y but, on the whole, this has been a life well lived. I think it’s about holding one’s own human boundedness, vulnerability and limitation and saying to the world outside: ‘My value doesn’t depend upon the fact I can remember everything. My value doesn’t depend on my mental powers, and my value doesn’t depend on being pain-free or being able to run about or even walk about in the way I might once have done.’ There is instead a cherishing of the soul, the spirit and the heart, of the simple things that matter, of colour and life and movement, and a rejoicing in the world around you and the feeling that you’ve done as much as you can to leave the world a little better a place, through your children or your grandchildren, or some of the work you’ve done, or where, dare I say it, you might decide to leave £10 or £20 or £200,000. The capacity for our being able to do good is infinite and some of our flourishing may be found in a capacity for generosity.

The other thing, of course, is the feeling that we’ve been faithful, that we’ve done our best on our spiritual journey to know how Christ would have us live; that we’ve prayed for others; that we’ve continued to hope as society changes and the church changes. When I was ordained in 1985, there were over three million Anglicans in church every Sunday morning; now there are just over a million – that’s a million lost every ten years. We are living in a changing church in a changing world, and I think the older generation can teach us how not to give up hope: how to keep the faith.

But if you wanted me to tweet the essence of all that, it’s living in the present moment and cherishing the present moment, even if that is simply two people being together in silence. Words matter less than presence. In the moment, presence is what matters. Learning to cherish this moment is the best we can do. Living in the moment is precious, life-giving and transformative.

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One Response to The Gift of Years: Human Flourishing and Ageing

  1. Sally Wells says:

    Hurray!

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