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Clergy on retreat

16 May 2014

CLERGY in the Church of England are expected to go on retreat once a year. The 2003 report Guidelines for the Professional Conduct of the Clergy states that "the officers of the parish. . . should ensure that their clergy have . . . an annual opportunity to make a retreat of at least a week's duration." In theory, the cost - including travel - should be claimed as a legitimate expense.

There are no statistics on how many clergy actually go on retreat. One priest in London says that he has never been on retreat in more than 30 years of ministry, and he does not know anyone who had.

"The demands of inner-city parish life make it very difficult to take time off," he says. "Even when I go on holiday, I get calls every day from parishioners asking for help, and if I didn't respond, it would alienate me from the folk I serve. Most of them never take holidays, let alone go on retreats."

In contrast, the Revd Bruce Batstone, currently Rector of Hornsey, in north London, has made a habit of going on a four-day retreat every January, with a longer, individually guided retreat every two or three years. He also tries to go to a retreat house for a day every month or two, "to be immersed in a bit of silence".

"To me, it seems essential to have some kind of 'desert time' when you go away and are alone with God. As a priest, I would feel that if I wasn't doing so regularly, I would be letting down my parishioners. The important thing is to be open, and allow God to do with you as he wants."

The Archdeacon of Hertford, the Ven. Trevor Jones, believes that regular retreats are a necessity for the clergy. "When I am dealing with parishes in vacancies, they give me a long list of their expectations of their new priest; and I always ask them: 'So, if you want all this, what are you going to give them in return?' If clergy are expected to give so much, they need to have time for spiritual nourishment themselves."

The Revd Liz Baker, director of The Well at Willen, recalls the very first day at The Well of a group of Evangelical clergy who are now regular visitors: "None of them had ever been on a retreat. We sent them out on a two-hour prayer-walk with some texts, mainly from Thomas Merton, and by the end of the day they were completely converted to the idea. They all said: 'We were just exhausted by trying to feed everybody else. We need feeding ourselves.'"

The Revd Alison Christian, who became warden of Launde Abbey after 20 years as a parish priest, says: "Very often, when clergy get exhausted, they don't pray any more. We also give up on prayer because we haven't been helped to pray, and then we tend to try to run faster and faster - as if we could get anywhere by running faster."

Sheldon specialises in a "12,000-mile service" for clergy, to keep them on the road without breaking down. The deputy warden, Dr Sarah Horsman, says: "Sometimes, clergy come here who are really not on speaking terms with God any more, and it's very common for people to have quite a strong experience of renewal."

The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Revd Christopher Chessun, who is president of the APR, says: "I believe it is vitally important for Christian people to go on retreat, and make space for spiritual recreation through prayer and discernment. In a culture of obsessive busyness, it creates space for God to break through into our lives - to transform and remould us with different priorities."

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