(article published in the Church Times 7 May2010)
THE latest statistics from the Archbishops’ Council suggest that half of those in our pews are pensioners. Some rural congregations were, on average, older than 65, while the youngest Anglicans were found in London, where the age of the “standard” churchgoer is 54. It compares with the population as a whole, where the average adult age is 48.
Soon after these figures were released, earlier this year, the Equality and Human Rights Commission said that people should be allowed to work beyond the age of 65, and with more flexible hours. There is one theme here that should be tackled head on. It is the ageism that exists in both Church and society. There are forces that combine to keep older people on the margins, to make them redundant, useless, a statistic to be feared as part of the picture of decline. We need to ask why we have so few positive images of ageing. We need to stop apologising for older people. Age is a reality both around us and within us: older people can liberate us into a different perspective on living and faith.
MANY congregations are being encouraged to be more reflective about the shape of ministry and resources for outreach. Some members of congregations are now being required by dioceses to audit their life as part of an exploration of how best to use time and resources for evangelism. This is partly a financial imperative that is a result of our steady decline. The question here is whether in the process of reflection we see older people as a resource rather than a problem.
So, take stock of the age-profile of your congregation, with a view to celebrating the contribution that older people make to the life of both Church and community. Consider who holds positions of responsibility. Reflect on the hidden work of care — unpaid care of older family members, the love and encouragement of grandparents, and the acts of kindness expressed by neighbours who have time to consider the little things that help life along, such as shopping, advice about heating, benefits, or a difficult letter.
Go further, and see these people, grey and slower as they may be, in the time-line of the past decades of your church, and imagine their sustaining presence amid all the changing fortunes of history. Once we have built up a picture by listening to what older people have so freely shared, then find a moment to value and celebrate age in your cycle of worship. An interview that opens up the shape of a person’s faith-journey might replace a sermon and require us to reflect on the nature of our own spiritual journey. Older people can play their part in all-age worship: the farmer at Harvest, the war veteran at Remembrancetide, the married couple at celebrations of love and commitment, the teacher and pupil on Education Sunday.
All have stories to share. As we listen and learn, we might become more aware of the prejudices we all have that stereotype the older person and prevent us from befriending the older stranger within ourselves. Age can be a wise and challenging teacher. Older people can show how little time we give, in all our bureaucracy and busyness, to consider what substance and depth mean in being human. It is no accident that older people become more spiritual, and that they can help us to perceive that age is essentially a spiritual task.
This making of the soul takes shape when our human life is expressed in and through our stories. These narratives need pondering, retelling, organising, in the light of our faith in a God who is both the judgement and mercy. In this spiritual growth there is much potential and power. Seeking to integrate age and its gift into the spiritual body of the Church should be one of our shared essential tasks. One of our abiding concerns is a vision of the Kingdom of God as a hope for the transformation of this world. The work of transformation makes demands upon us, especially as we shall all be asked to consider how best to make provision for the common good in the coming election.
Ageism has a detrimental effect on older people, but this is not often acknowledged. Some examples of ageism in society are: being refused interest-free credit‚ or a new credit card; receiving a lower quality of service; age limits on benefits such as the Disability Living Allowance; not being referred to a consultant; losing your job because of your age. The lack of economic investment in the provision of care for older people shapes the quality of lives and communities. We should bear in mind the human stories behind these facts: more than half a million older people spent last Christmas alone; 11 per cent of older people describe the quality of their life as “very poor”; and pensioner poverty continues to rise.
How might the Churches work together in moving age, older people, and our responsibility to them further up the political agenda? How can those with the power to engage with ageism deal with the impoverishment of living that some older people embrace? We might act as advocates for older people in helping them to negotiate the complex world of health and social services. All Churches should help people to voice their concerns to professionals.
We can work in partnership with agencies, health-care practices, and organisations such as Age UK to develop better practice. We can ask those who set policy how older people might enjoy all the benefits of a modern society. In this way, we can ensure that the needs of older people are moved up the political agenda. We are all getting older. We all have a stake in this subject. Can we find practical ways of combating ageism in both Church and society before it is too late for us?