Arthur Lewis advertises a winning little number

The helicopter did not actually land. But it made an enormous noise, just over the quadrangle at the College of St Barnabas. Police cars swept in with lights blazing, and the search was on, in the neighbouring woodlands, for the missing priest.

The Warden of the College had had to make a difficult decision. An old priest had apparently disappeared from the face of the earth. He had not come into supper, and he had given no notice of his absence. He had told no-one of his movements. Residents of the College are free to come and go as they wish, but they always let someone know where they will be. This priest had said nothing to anyone.

The hours had passed, and there was no clue as to the old man’s whereabouts. Finally the Warden decided to inform the police. They had vital cases on that night, but they turned out promptly and in force – with the helicopter.

Later came the anti-climax. The old man turned up on the last train from London, having been to a meeting. He got off with a ‘wigging’.

But what else could the Warden have done? Or, for that matter, the police who responded so quickly? If the old man had been found dead in a ditch the next morning, neither would have come out of the affair with much credit.

The Warden

We are blessed with a Warden with a relaxed outlook. He does not panic whatever happens, at whatever hour of the day or night. He thinks nothing of accompanying the ambulance to the hospital in the small hours if someone is suddenly ill. He is a good pastoral priest who does the basic ‘admin’ and who turns his hand to a multitude of practical jobs too. He is assisted by a Sub-Warden who is a hard-working resident of the College and by a first-rate Bursar who keeps the College afloat financially – a big task – as well as by a highly competent Matron who, with her staff, runs the medical wing. His job is demanding, but not impossible.

There is one snag. The Warden is due to retire in June or July 2006, after the normal five-year period of office; and men suitable for the job do not grow on trees. He and his wife have a comfortable home, and the Council of Trustees which is responsible for St Barnabas ensures that any Warden is very adequately housed and remunerated. The job can be done equally well by a married priest or an unmarried, and if the priest is married his wife is entirely without responsibilities except for those which she voluntarily assumes for herself.

So the hunt is on for a new Warden. Ideally he will be a man in his early sixties, for the five-year appointment can be and sometimes is extended. The hunt, like the work itself, is difficult but not impossible. And for the yet unknown candidate it will be an answer to prayer.

Priests approaching retirement age often do so with very mixed feelings. They have given a lifetime of selfless service either in this country or overseas in the mission field. Some are determined to die in harness, but many look forward to retirement with something like longing. They want to lay down the burden of responsibility, though the best of them will not wish to hang up their cassocks for good. They are all fed up – we are all fed up – with the attempted secular invasion of the Church, with the campaign to hijack the Catholic tradition of the ages and replace it with the secular agenda of the contemporary world. But they do not want to flee the battle, and realize the huge extent to which the work and the effectiveness of the Church depend on the continued loyalty and service of the retired clergy. In many cases the feelings of their spouses are much the same as their own.

The Pensions Board

This is where the Church of England Pensions Board comes to the rescue in a big way. Not only does it provide a good pension but it offers the opportunity to live (and work) in a part of the country of one’s own choice. It will even buy a house where you want, rent it to you and finally sell it when you no longer need it.

This, of course, is when the lawn becomes too much, the garden becomes a burden and the cooking a grinding chore. At this point the Pensions Board will offer you a place in one of its own retirement homes. One could hardly ask for more.

Yet more, in fact, is to be had. The College of St Barnabas (which is entirely independent) offers a permanent home for priests and their wives and widows, a home which is run by a Warden, himself a priest, and which centres on the chapel with its daily mass and offices. The spirit of the community is happy and friendly, the refectory rings with laughter (all meals are provided), the library is well used and those who like playing games have ample scope. You have your own flat and you bring your own furniture (and car and computer if you have such things) and immediately find yourself surrounded with friends.

All the College asks is that you arrive young enough to take an active part in the life of the place, saying mass and officiating in chapel and contributing in one way or another to the social life of the College. (You can serve and worship outside the College on Sundays if you wish.) Then, whatever your maladies, the College will look after you till the end.

St Barnabas is not a knacker’s yard and it is vital that you come in time.

A chance for you

But for a priest contemplating retirement there is an alternative. If you have initiative and adaptability and good humour you could, when you are approaching your sixties, apply for the job of Warden! It is work, certainly. But it is vastly rewarding work. You have the task of guiding priests with a lifetime of achievement behind them but who have now reached the evening of their lives. Whether or not that evening is happy and profitable will depend largely on you. Whether it is still a life of prayer, a fit preparation for eternity, will at least partially depend on you. And the peace and well-being of the widows whom they sometimes leave behind will be your responsibility. But you will have a huge amount of help and cooperation, and when finally you yourself come to retire it will be with a sense that you have lived the priestly life to the full. The job asks a lot, but not more than a man can give – with God’s help.

At least it will be worth a visit to the College. That involves a letter to the Warden. And then, if you are interested in the challenge, possibly a letter to the Chairman of the Council, Dr Dundas Moore. (In either case the address is Lingfield, Surrey RH7 6NJ.)

Nothing venture, nothing win. We shall need a new Warden. It might even be you.

After forty years in Africa Father Lewis now lives at the College of St Barnabas