THE word "retreat" sounds oddly retiring for something that many
people see as crucial to the growth and progress of the Church.
The warden of Lee Abbey, Devon, the Revd David Rowe, defines a
retreat as "taking time out to replenish resources and renovate the
heart, which enables you then to advance into the world". For the
Revd Liz Baker, director of The Well at Willen, it "gives people
the food they need to continue their journey with God".
The Revd Tim Blewett, who chairs the Association for Promoting
Retreats (APR), says that going on a retreat is "for absolutely
everyone and anyone who wants to take stock of where they are, and
where God is, in their life".
The retreats movement in this country had its heyday in the
1960s, when as many as 40,000 people a year were going on retreat.
In 1955, the APR had declared that it promoted "retreats conducted
on definite principles", and even in the late '70s retreats used to
be formal and stylised.
The Archdeacon of Hertford, the Ven. Trevor Jones, recalls:
"You'd listen to a retreat conductor, and then go away and have a
time of reflection; you might sign up for a conversation with him,
and there would be time for both silent and corporate prayer."
Today, there is much more variety. Retreatants can garden, read,
draw, write, embroider, walk a labyrinth, contemplate icons, and
listen to poetry or music. There are preaching retreats, and
Enneagram retreats. Some retreats are led by resident spiritual
directors or local clergy, others by sometimes celebrated writers.
And there are themed retreats, on everything from mindfulness to
"There are lots of different ways in," Launde Abbey's new
warden, the Revd Alison Christian, says, "because the life of
prayer and spirituality is so extremely rich." There is also
something for every temperament. "What I find liberating, someone
else might find stifling," Archdeacon Jones says. "Some people find
they need to have a guided retreat, but others feel that their
lives are already full of words, and they just want to be quiet by
At Sheldon, in Devon, the Society of Mary and Martha "creates an
environment in which God is likely to be encountered, without
prescribing the manner or nature of that encounter", the deputy
warden, Dr Sarah Horsman, says.
Some degree of silence is a staple of most retreats, though not
all. At The Well, Mrs Baker emphasises the importance of
conversations over meals with members of the community, in a place
where people can speak freely without being challenged or
Retreat houses are often found in countryside settings, whether
it is Launde Abbey's 450 acres of Leicestershire parkland, or The
Well's three acres of garden, paddock, and orchard on the edge of
Milton Keynes. Certainly, the beauty of nature helps to bring
people nearer to God, but that is not the whole story.
"A place that is itself set apart is already on the way to being
a thin place," Mrs Christian says, "and if you set time aside there
for God, God appears to honour that."
Some non-diocesan centres are run by communities, but the
emphases differ. Mr Rowe, whose 90-strong community is mostly young
and international, says: "We have our own rule of life, and our own
rhythm of worship and prayer, and guests are surrounded by that
rhythm while they are here."
The Well is run by the Society of the Sacred Mission. "When
people come on retreat, they are invited into our lives, to join us
in our daily worship and our meals," Mrs Baker says. Of the five
people who run Sheldon, on the edge of Dartmoor National Park, Dr
Horsman says: "We are fellow travellers with the people who come
Some retreat houses have a particular character, such as Iona
and Holy Island, which are both strongly Celtic; and St Beuno's, in
north Wales, which specialises in Ignatian retreats. St
Katharine's, Limehouse, is located in the East End of London, and a
retreat there is a retreat not from the world, but almost deeper
into it. "There are people who come here because they want to be
real," the Master, the Revd Mark Aitken, explains. "They want to
learn to pray not in the countryside, but in the very heart of the
Not that retreats even need to be building-based. The journalist
and writer Brian Draper offers half-day spiritual "saunters" in the
grounds of Mottisfont Abbey, in Hampshire, and one-day "active
retreats" that combine running or mountain-biking in the Bedgebury
Forest with guided reflection.
The Retreat Association has made grants to universities to have
weeks of guided prayer on campus, often for people who have no
church affiliation but who are longing for something deeper in
their lives. At last year's Greenbelt Festival, it even ran a
virtual retreat on Twitter. And the APR is developing an app that
will enable people to access quiet-day material via their
"There's a whole host of new spiritualities bubbling up," the
Revd Ian Green, who chairs the Retreat Association's trustees,
Clergy are still undertaking the majority of retreats and quiet
days, and the lay people who do so are overwhelmingly middle-class
-principally, perhaps, because they are not cheap. Mrs Baker notes
that, because the church is less and less the centre of people's
social lives, there has been a huge decline in parish weekends
At Sheldon, Dr Horsman says, perhaps half of those who attend
its "open-to-everyone" ministry are clergy or Free Church
ministers, or their spouses, and most of the laity are aged over
50. "Generally," he says, "when you look down the list of people
arriving for a week, probably half of them have been before."
The general manager of Wydale Hall, Barry Osborne, says: "We get
an awful lot of regular visitors who come every year - sometimes
twice a year, sometimes a lot more."
"We have a real mix of guests," Mr Rowe, of Lee Abbey, says,
"but one of the things that has been very noticeable recently is
that there are more people coming from denominations other than
Anglicans and Catholics, the ones you would normally expect.
"People from the newer church groupings are coming to explore
the experience of retreat here. Lee Abbey is a bit of a crossover
point, in that its roots are Anglican, but it's always had a
connection with New Wine."
Mrs Baker recommends that people going on retreat should aim to
arrive for lunch, and then rest and have a walk. She also
recommends that iPods and iPads are left at home, if possible.
"It is amazing, the number of people who come here who get
really agitated if they can't get their mobiles or tablets to work
- even people who have come to be quiet," the warden of Foxhill,
the Revd Taffy Davies, says. "Recently, I had someone almost in
tears because they couldn't get online late at night."
At Lee Abbey, the community is still debating whether wifi
should be made available to guests at all. As one committed
retreatant, the Revd Bruce Batstone, observes, the wayto get the
most out of a retreat is to be disciplined in trying to make sure
that nothing disrupts it.