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To soothe and challenge

16 May 2014

What is the future for retreat houses, asks Huw Spanner

Planning for profit: Foxhill, the retreat house and conference centre of Chester diocese

Planning for profit: Foxhill, the retreat house and conference centre of Chester diocese

THERE are an estimated 70 Anglican retreat houses around the UK (including 15 diocesan ones), ranging from great estates such as Launde Abbey and Lee Abbey, and former grand family homes such as Foxhill, in Cheshire, to converted farms, such as Sheldon.

But lately there have been some high-profile closures: Offa House, near Leamington Spa, and Glenfall House, near Cheltenham - both diocesan retreat houses - closed last year; and Ivy House, in Warminster, went the same way on Thursday of last week.

When the Association for Promoting Retreats (APR) polled the wardens of 80 retreat houses in October last year, it had responses from 22 of them, and learnt that half of those were doubtful that their centre would still be open in ten years' time, if current trends continued, and five feared that they would close by 2018.

The obvious factor is cost. Five years ago, the trustees of Launde Abbey were ordered to spend £2.5 million on renovation work to comply with modern building regulations. Three years ago, something in the region of £1 million was spent upgrading the accommodation at Foxhill, a more "intimate" diocesan retreat house.

It is not only health and safety that make demands: both clergy and laity today expect their creature comforts, and people are no longer willing to queue for the use of a shared bathroom.

"Quite a few of the houses that have closed were supported by dioceses that are strapped for cash," Mrs Christian, the warden of Launde Abbe, says. "The Church has got very anxious about money, and thinks it cannot afford places for people to retreat, when, actually, they're one of those things you have to afford. I also think that one or two bishops just don't get what retreats are all about."

The number of people going on retreat has fallen since the mid-'60s. Partly this is because the Church is much smaller than it was, with fewer clergy, partly because churchgoers are older, on average, and many live on a pension and savings.

And people no longer feel they can afford the time to go on retreat. Even among committed retreatants, a recent survey by the APR found that three in five found it difficult to get time away.

Several people intimated that they were nervous of silence, and, for some, being still was not something that they would normally do. "I think people lead very busy lives, and valuing downtime and apparently doing nothing are quite countercultural; so that may be a factor," Dr Horsman says.

Most retreat houses have had to diversify in order to make ends meet: for example, by acting as conference centres, and offering their facilities to secular groups as well as Christians. Barry Osborne, the general manager of Wydale Hall, the retreat and conference centre of the diocese of York, says "We welcome absolutely anybody. We've had synagogues in; we cater for NHS training conferences."

The warden of Foxhill, Mr Davies, wants to go further: "I would hope, eventually, to run this place at a profit. I'd like to have all the local estate agents, or funeral directors, or bank managers in for a social or a training day. We ought to be much braver and get the city in here."

"There's nothing wrong with being multipurpose, as long as you don't lose what makes you special," The Well at Willen's director, Mrs Baker, says. "The caring professions come here a lot because this place gives them a sense of peace. But if you lose that, you've lost the point of being a retreat house."

Diversification presents an opportunity for a kind of soft evangelism. "Sometimes, people come here who are quite hostile to religion, and you can sense that something of the numinous, something of the holiness of the place, has spoken to them," Mr Davies says.

"People are becoming less religious, but also more aware of their spirituality; so retreat houses are in a perfect position to engage with people whom the Church finds it harder to speak to," Mr Blewett says.

The problem with matching the standards of hotels is that retreat houses then have to charge prices that, for many people, are prohibitive. "That's a challenge," Dr Horsman, at Sheldon, says. "Plus, there's a bit of a disjunct between what it actually costs us to look after people well, and what people in the Church think they should pay."

Some retreat houses now offer bursaries to enable the less affluent to come, not least to prevent retreats' becoming "merely a nice thing for middle-class people, to soothe them down when they get stressed", Mrs Baker says. This is a danger the whole Church faces, she suggests. "We have to offer things that don't just soothe people, but actually challenge them."

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