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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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."