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The changing face of retreats

15 May 2015

What changes are retreat houses noticing among visitors, and how are they rising to the needs and challenges of the current market? Rachel Giles reports

Time out: Epiphany House, Truro, is finding greater interest in retreats that attract non-churchgoers

Time out: Epiphany House, Truro, is finding greater interest in retreats that attract non-churchgoers

AT EPIPHANY HOUSE, Truro, the director, Janette Mullett, says that there has been a growth in the number of visitors who have a faith but who are not attending a church.

"Perhaps they don't feel they're fitting in, or can't find a church they like," she says. None the less, they are seeking time to come away.

Retreats that are not based on traditional spirituality are, therefore, finding good audiences. The house offers a retreat based around prayer labyrinths; and also "Spa for the Soul", which features walking, meditation, and creative arts. "It's still a Christian retreat, but it [takes] a more holistic approach," she says.

At Holland House, in Cropthorne, Worcestershire, the warden, the Revd Ian Spencer, has seen more secular groups using the house over the past few years: "Holland House is very popular with yoga and mindfulness groups. . . they love it here. Our food is excellent, and we're very happy to do veggie meals."

But the number of priests taking their congregation on retreat has fallen. Mr Spencer puts the fall in clergy on retreat down to the increasing numbers of priests who are running multiple parishes. The clergy, he says, "haven't [always] got the capacity to say 'Let's find a retreat house, come up with something to do, and take everybody away for the day.'" Diocesan use of Holland House, however, has grown.

THE Society of Mary and Martha, at Sheldon, in Devon, offers specialist ministry to clergy and their families, but also welcomes anyone who needs to get away. The warden, Dr Sarah Horsman, says that visitors are tending to book at shorter notice, and want shorter retreats. She attributes this to the busyness of modern life.

This presents logistical challenges, she says. "In the old days, you could print the diary for the week, and be fairly sure it wouldn't change. If it's going to change three times in a week, you need to have systems in place." Sheldon has, therefore, installed custom-built software to help manage bookings and keep the in-house team aware of any changes. "We have a specialist ministry to clergy under stress, and so being responsive is a major part of our brief," she says.

Shorter visits are also popular at Ashburnham Place, in Battle, East Sussex. It has seen a growth in the number of young professionals coming from London, often in high-pressure jobs, who need to get away.

Many are not part of a church, the general director, Paul Wenham, says; but they "find a sacred space here where they can engage with a God whom they still very much believe in". To support retreatants, there is now a spiritual director on site: "People could just come away for three days . . . and let those three days unfurl very differently, depending on who they are, and where they're at."

INDIVIDUALLY guided retreats are in demand at Lee Abbey, in Devon. Traditionally, solo retreatants would tend to be more mature Christians, the business director, Rob Kitchen, says, but Lee Abbey is seeing visitors on individual retreats "even at the exploring-faith stage", he says.

The retreat house has adapted its calendar, therefore, to accommodate more individual retreatants, and provides support from its pastoral team and "known and trusted" freelance spiritual directors.

Mr Kitchen says that there is a need to provide more en-suite bathrooms and lavatories at Lee Abbey. The main house is, therefore, set to close this November until March 2016, to let them "en suite" as many bedrooms as possible, and modernise the other ones, he says.

Rydal Hall, in Grasmere, Cumbria, has seen a large take-up in one-day quiet days. The general manager, the Revd Jonathon Green, says that "we can get up to 40 people. Four years ago, if we got a dozen, we were doing well."

Retreat weeks are still popular here, but one-day visits are more manageable, and offer a taster to the retreat experience: "Some people will come on two or three different quiet days in a year, but then on [a longer] retreat."

For some visitors to the Royal Foundation of St Katharine, in Limehouse, London, even one day is too long. "We're getting an increasing number of people asking to come for an hour or two," the Master, the Revd Mark Aitken, says.

St Katharine's runs monthly "open reflective days", which run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., but people can join for as long as their commitments allow. Such days are "primarily orientated to those desperately trying to carve out some space in their lives", he says.

Because Christian faith is not a prerequisite, more and more people are coming who are "looking for things to do with well-being and mindfulness, but who are not yet ready to move into a fully Christian retreat", he says.

THE warden at Launde Abbey, in East Norton, Leicestershire, the Revd Alison Christian, says that the retreat house has seen its programme adjusted to help retreatants meet God "in a more personal, possibly [more] intimate way".

This has resulted in fewer preached retreats. "People no longer just want to be talked at. . . Knowing that people have different personality types, you're trying, in a retreat, to give people different options."

This may involve using images, music, or icon-painting, which can be particularly useful in helping retreatants to explore meaning in their lives. "That is what has been lost for many people," Mrs Christian says, "a sense of meaning, and [of] what they're doing here."


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