Arthur Lewis describes a remarkable community of faith and fellowship
That you will grow old is certain, barring a disaster. Whether you will enjoy your later years is another matter. It depends on what you intend to do with your retirement. The Church of England Pensions Board does everything it can. It provides a pension. It will help you to buy or rent a house in a part of the country of your choice. It will offer you a selection of well-run retirement homes. It would seem, in fact, that a priest approaching retirement need look no further.
There is, however, the College of St Barnabas in Surrey. And this offers older clergy something unique. It is a community of priests (with their wives and widows) which has flourished for over a century, and which goes back far beyond the days when the Church made suitable provision for its older men. For members of Forward in Faith it has a particular attraction. It has provided for male clergy and their spouses. Whether it can continue its present practice indefinitely depends, of course, on its intake of new residents.
How it started
St Barnabas started life in an entirely different world. Its founder, Canon William Henry Cooper, found an elderly priest selling matches at a street-corner to make some sort of a living. Cooper then went round the workhouses and discovered 27 Anglican priests – cultured and educated men – who were ending their days in those dismal institutions. By the end of the year (this was at the close of the nineteenth century) he had located a total of 60 men who had thus been brought low. And this after a lifetime of service to the Church, whether in this country or overseas.
Canon Cooper decided something must be done, and proceeded to do it. With the help of friends and supporters he started, in a small way, the Homes of St Barnabas. He transformed the lives of English priests worn out by a lifetime of ill-rewarded service, and of missionaries from overseas who had come back exhausted by their labours. The present impressive buildings, and its glorious chapel, go back to the beginning of the twentieth century. They lie deep in the Surrey countryside, but adjacent to a railway station. They are surrounded by lawns and gardens and shrubs and villages and woodland walks, but are only an hour from London.
The St Barnabas of today is completely transformed. Gone is the image of poverty with which it began. The Homes have become a College, stressing not only the common life of the community but the individual freedom and independence of its members. In these days of clergy pensions most residents can pay their way, though there is still provision for special cases such as missionaries whose lifelong work has been done on the smell of an oil-rag. The College is a charity, though it is realistic to recognize that legacies and large donations are likely to become less frequent in the future than in the past.
Residents vary as much as do Anglican priests themselves. There is still a Catholic tradition at St Barnabas, though not to the exclusion of some Evangelicals who make a valued contribution to its life.
A worshipping community
The attraction of St Barnabas is that it is a worshipping community, whose life is centred round the chapel and the daily round of Mass and Offices. All the priests who are physically able take their turn in offering these services. The latter are neither compulsory nor obligatory, but in fact are well supported every day of the week. St Barnabas is for those who expect to continue the priestly life after their retirement. It is definitely not for those who think they have done their bit and now can leave the life of devotion behind them.
Each resident, or each couple, has an independent flat with ‘all mod cons’. Some go out to take services in the churches of the locality, and many attach themselves to one or other of the local congregations. Some keep their own cars, while for the others there is twice-weekly transport into East Grinstead, the nearby town. There are very few rules, and there is freedom to come and go. Independence and freedom, as well as community, are the hallmarks of the place. Meals (good ones!) are served in the refectory, which normally rings with the laughter of men and women who are obviously enjoying life. The Nursing Wing provides for those who fall ill and is visited regularly by a doctor: and there is residential care for those who need it. The whole College is supervised by a Warden who is himself a priest and a pastor and a member of Forward in Faith.
Anglican priests tend to live long lives, but with all the care in the world they are not immortal. We have said farewell recently to several of our older residents, and at the moment there are a couple of flats vacant and waiting to be snapped up by the first eligible applicants. These will be ‘younger’ men, in their sixties and seventies. Of course, we could fill the College to overflowing if we accepted applicants already on their last legs. Many men do wait too long before seeing the benefits of a community for older priests, but these may have missed their chance. St Barnabas is not a nursing home, and newcomers are expected to take their part in the life of the chapel and of the College as a whole.
There are sports and games, too, for those who enjoy them: croquet, putting, snooker, mah-jongg and bridge among them. However, those of us who have scant skill in these pursuits are not made to feel outsiders. There is a large library and ample opportunity for study, reading and writing, as well as for those who make use of computers.
A window of opportunity
Just now there is a window of opportunity at St Barnabas. There is a brief chance to move into surroundings which are almost idyllic, where newcomers find immediate friendship among like-minded clergy and where they can continue to pursue their own particular interests as in the past. But, of course, windows close. There is a tendency among Catholics as among the rest of the clergy to wait until it is too late to join a vibrant and active community – a community, however, in which they will be welcome to stay to the end even if infirmity should supervene.
There is a case for approaching the new Warden of St Barnabas now, even if retirement is some way off or even if you are already in the early years of retirement. You may not always enjoy the health and relative youth which are yours today, and it is common sense to make plans for the future that include good health and poor health too. What the Warden may suggest is that you pay a visit to the place to see for yourself that it lives up to its claims. Then you can make up your own mind. But do not wait till you are eighty!
The new Warden is Fr Patrick Campbell. The address is the College of St Barnabas, Lingfield, Surrey RH7 6NJ.
Whatever your plans for the future, the College of St Barnabas is worth a visit. Few of our visitors feel the need to look any further.
Fr Lewis served on African missions for 40 years, 22 of them in the country which was Rhodesia. He retired to England in 1987 and moved from Solihull to the College of St Barnabas. He is author, among other books, of Too Bright the Vision? (1992), the story of his African adventures.