I have never been very happy with the word
"retreat". It can easily be regarded as some kind of
escape, but that is not what they are about. They're opportunities
to encounter the deepest realities - about God, ourselves, and our
world. At their best, they will open us up and tear us apart, and
so give us renewed spiritual vision and understanding.
My worst experience of retreats is when they fail to
connect with the realities of living in our world
I have been part of the Retreat Association for many
years, in one way or another. So when the RA decided to
identify individuals from different denominations who might be
willing to serve as Patrons, I was privileged to be one of those
approached. I guess we're only beginning to work out what the role
might mean, but I hope I can be some kind of ambassador for the RA
as well as supporting its work in practical ways.
I'm particularly anxious to explore what might be termed
"political holiness" - a recognition that spirituality has
to do with issues of justice, poverty, racism, globalisation, human
rights, and the care of creation. If you're serious about deepening
your journey with God, then you have to be involved with these
I was involved in leading a retreat in
Coventry, which had a particular emphasis on the
peace-and-reconciliation ministry of the cathedral, and dealing
with issues of violence, personal and national, and how we respond.
The Baptist Union Retreat Group has done retreats in inner-cities
which also engage with these issues directly. I'm sure other
denominations do similar things.
Again, spiritual direction, which is a more
individual form of retreat, is less about making people comfortable
with the way things are, and more about challenging them with their
engagement with the world. This is used a lot by people.
My full-time job is as President of Luther King
House [a theological college in Manchester]. In the
spirituality module I teach, it's exciting to see people of all
ages and backgrounds discovering what the Rule of Benedict and the
Ignatian way of reading the Bible can do for their own spiritual
lives. These are rich resources that speak into our own culture in
very new and relevant ways.
Luther King House is ecumenical. I help give
direction to the spiritual and educational life of the community,
alongside the principals of our constituent colleges: Baptist, URC,
Methodist, and Unitarian. LKH is a wonderfully diverse place to
Our aim is to enable theology to be in creative dialogue
with the different contexts in which we all find
ourselves. Unitarians are a long-standing partner here,
and very prominent in this area, though their presence here creates
interesting debates. They're a very small presence - a couple of
students a year - but they are extremely gracious.
URC students and Baptists are the largest
groups. We have a growing Open College, which embraces
Eritrean Orthodox to Black Pentecostal and everything in between -
usually not training for ordination but lay ministry. There are
about 150 students in total. Some are quite conservative, others
less so, but we've always tried to stretch people's
I have been there two years now, having
previously served as a Baptist minister and, more recently, as the
National Ecumenical Officer for the Baptist Union of Great Britain.
I'd struggle a little bit if I was working in a very narrow
As a child growing up in a Baptist family in south-east
London, I remember regularly walking past a German church
dedicated to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It is still there. That provoked
my curiosity, and no doubt it played a part in my decision fairly
early on to seek ordination. Bonhoeffer has remained a formative
influence on me - a great example of what political holiness is all
I fell in love with Anglican liturgy,
particularly evensong, when I lived in an Anglican chaplaincy in
Wales. But I remain a Baptist because I like the radical equality
of congregational government; and believers' baptism makes sense to
I love the later chapters of the book of
Isaiah. They are beautiful and poetic. Alongside their
deep hopefulness is a passionate call for justice, and I find the
linking together of those two themes deeply moving and
The work of Christian Aid has been a big part of my
life. I was a trustee until recently, and I often saw that
commitment to hope and justice lived out by our partners around the
world. I am less inspired by the Apostle Paul. I prefer story and
poetry to doctrine.
One of the most important choices I made was to study
for an MA in Christian Spirituality at Heythrop College in
London. I learned much from studying with Christians from
different traditions, and, even though I was the only Baptist, I
felt entirely at home. It was there I began to explore the ways art
can resource the spiritual journey. This is where my writing and
research interests lie.
I use the visual often, both in retreats and
teaching. Great art has to do with issues of ultimate concern, and
so inevitably it brings us into touch with the spiritual. It
doesn't have to be what many would describe as "Christian art". In
fact, I prefer to engage with art that appears to have no Christian
The Rothko Room is a favourite place of mine.
It invites contemplation as you sit surrounded by his huge, dark
canvases, which invite you to peer into the mysterious depths. It
is somehow limitless. It is a place just to be.
Our daughter is at college in the United
States. When I hear about the opportunities open to her to
study, travel, and explore, I can't help but be envious. If I have
regrets, it would be about not taking more risks earlier in my
I'm not sure I have a desire to be remembered.
What matters is the integrity with which we live the present
Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev is a
particular favourite. I love R. S. Thomas's poetry, the
novels of D. H. Lawrence, the diaries of Thomas Merton, and the
biblical writings of Ched Myers.
The failure of institutional ecumenism makes me
angry. I hear a lot of rhetoric, but there's little
evidence of real commitment to seeking the unity of God's people. I
do try to prevent my anger resulting in a loss of vision - and I'm
glad that Luther King House continues to be a wonderful example of
what can be achieved together. Linked with that is my anger with
the consistent discrimination of the Church against women that
shames us all.
Karl Rahner said: "The Christian of the future will be a
mystic or he will not exist at all." I think that is a
powerful and important message for the Church to hear - and it is
one that guides my own prayer. The beauty of the liturgy means much
to me, but I need silence and space, not least in order to hear the
cries of the world.
I'd like to be locked in a church with Georgia
O'Keeffe. She was an artist who knew how to see, and I'd
like her to teach me to do the same. Though she wouldn't have
described herself as a Christian, she had a deep spirituality, and
it would be an immense privilege to get to know her.
Graham Sparkes was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.