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‘What do you mean, no wifi?’

16 May 2014

What is the purpose of a retreat? And who is going these days, asks Huw Spanner

Time for contemplation: a retreatant reads in the grounds at Launde Abbey, in Leicestershire

Time for contemplation: a retreatant reads in the grounds at Launde Abbey, in Leicestershire

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 Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

"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 themselves."


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 condemned.

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 here."

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 city."

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 mobiles.

"There's a whole host of new spiritualities bubbling up," the Revd Ian Green, who chairs the Retreat Association's trustees, says.

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 away.

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.

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