George Austin remembers one of his predecessors as Archdeacon of York, the late Fr Charles Forder, and reflects on the privileges and pitfalls of old age

Can it be a record in the Church of England? Until the death of Archdeacon Charles Forder towards the end of 2008 there were four archdeacons of York alive and more or less kicking, with 51 years of service in the post between them. Charles Forder, ordained in 1931 (the year of my birth), was appointed in 1957 and served until 1972.
He was succeeded by Leslie Stanbridge, who retired in 1988 and I followed him, retiring in 1999. The present archdeacon is Richard Seed (born in 1949, the year of Leslies ordination), and the four of us would meet every August for lunch at the clergy retirement home in Scarborough where Charles had lived for many years. Between us we had clocked up 225 years of ministry.

Life in retirement

Probably even 20 years ago most clergy would have had a copy of Charles Forder’s book The Parish Priest at Work on their shelves, a detailed guide book on the work of a priest in the Church of God. It was always a joy to visit him and he for his part looked forward to our coming with eagerness.
In the latter years we lunched at the new Dulverton Hall on the Scarborough cliffs, but before that in the old Hall from which we could walk to a nearby cafe. He was small in stature and then well into his nineties, but we could hardly keep up with him, walking as he always did with short quick steps.

He had become quite deaf and was unable to hear much of what was said, but with a beaming smile on his face he tried as best he could. When he was fitted with a digital hearing aid he joined in, and he had not by any means lost the sharpness of his mind.

On January 6 2007, we joined him for a Eucharist in the chapel at the Hall to celebrate his hundredth birthday and then, more sadly on 20 October 2008 for his funeral. ‘More sadly’ yes, in one way, but also with joy in recalling the long and faithful ministry of a remarkable man.
The sadness for me came as we waited at the rear of the church for the cortege to arrive. The Forders had had no children, so there was only a small group of more distant family in the front two pews, while much further back were perhaps forty residents and staff from the Hall. It could not otherwise, of course, when a person dies at such a great age.

In his book, Archbishop’s Diary, David Wilbourne describes the funeral of Archbishop Blanch in York Minster, with a small congregation huddled in the choir to mark this ‘much-loved archbishop’, as if he were a man ‘largely forgotten by a church going through the motions’ ‘The ghost of the future haunted us all that day’

Approaching old age

The Psalmist maybe underestimates for today when he says that ‘the days of our age are threescore years and ten, though when one is nearer to fourscore years one expects that each year an increasing number of friends will have died. Nor is it quite the case that at such an age our ‘strength is then but labour and sorrow,’ even though visits to doc- photo: Martin shePPard tors and hospital might become more frequent.

Leaving the York Hospital the other day after an outpatient visit, I bumped into an acquaintance who asked me if I was keeping fit and well. I thought for a moment and then replied in the affirmative, while pondering that neither of us would be at the hospital if we really were fully fit and well. I might have said, ‘Oh yes – apart that is from blood pressure, atrial fibrillation, sleep apnaea, glaucoma and gout.’ But all of this in these days – thanks to modern medicine and machinery – is under control, so that the Psalmist’s claim that in our seventies ‘our strength is then but labour and sorrow and we are gone’ is much less true than it was.

At the end of January our son has his fortieth birthday and was recently asked to write a piece for The Times on this momentous event when, he said, T will become like my parents – unable to operate the dvd player or remember why I’ve walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge.’ As if! Cheeky boy! My wife remembers not only invitations to meals thirty years ago but can describe every dish we ate, even if I can’t recall the names of people I’ve met ten minutes before. It was she too who recalled that somewhere in David Wilbourne’s book (which she had read twelve years previously) was the description of Stuart Blanch’s memorial service. Admittedly, we don’t know what an iPod

At the end of life

But whether any of us lives as long as Charles Forder or not, it is natural that our bodies imperceptibly decline, for existence is not about our bodies but our souls, not about time but about eternity. Short-term memory becomes less good than long-term, as if our mental hard disc is less able keep permanent records. We may feel like a 45-year-old when we sit and watch television, until we try to get up out of the chair. After, all retired clergy are said to spend more time on their knees simply because once down during Mattins it is hardly worth the effort to get up again before Evensong; while everyone who has indulged in violent exercise in order to keep fit is issued with new hips and knees. Perhaps jogging should be added to tobacco and alcohol as an activity to be avoided if the NHS is to save money.

Charles Forder’s inherent lightness and brightness regardless of the great age he achieved was always a reminder that life is to be lived as it comes, and he did this with joy. Of course our bodies decline, for like a car they gradually wear out. It will be the resurrection body that will make us new, like the confident 40-year-olds we once were, but more so than we could ever imagine.
I know that I enjoy my life too much to want it to end; but I know too that the best is yet to come.