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Room to breathe in a busy world

22 March 2019

Anne Farmer continues a series on parish initiatives with an account of one that offers an antidote to the 24/7 lifestyle

Richard Castillo

“BREATHING SPACE” is a simple ministry that offers rest and quiet in a church setting, encouraging us to slow down and seek God in silence. It began (as “Sanctuary Mornings”) ten years ago, in a rural setting at Wick St Lawrence Church in Bath & Wells diocese, where I was then Team Vicar. God’s voice was clear to me: “I want this to be a place of sanctuary.”

Although the church was already open during daylight hours, we formalised the setting on the first Saturday of the month, offering refreshments, heating in winter, a guidance leaflet, reading resources (both spiritual and secular), and making tea lights available. The invitation was to drop in any time during the morning, emphasising that “Nothing will be asked or required of you — stay for as little or long as you like.” A welcomer greeted visitors, handed them a leaflet, pointed out the refreshments, and left them alone.

I am now Vicar of St Paul’s, East Molesey, in Guildford diocese and on the fringes of London. “Sanctuary Mornings” here follow the same pattern, but have been given the more explanatory name “Breathing Space”, and — with a good Wi-Fi connection — also embrace online meditations and reflections. We advertise locally, and through social media, with the strapline “Offering rest and quiet in a busy world”.

WE PROVIDE the space, and the Holy Spirit does the rest. We don’t always know what goes on in individual lives, but we do hear some encouraging stories of the way in which God works when we give him the opportunity.

Patricia* no longer needed to spend £200 on a planned retreat to address overwhelming anxieties; the morning in God’s presence sorted them out. A deeply traumatised person came very regularly to seek peace, literally finding sanctuary from accusers, and working through trauma.

Adam, an over-extended businessman, used the monthly space regularly. Although not a man of faith, he recognised that, in his fast-paced life, his local church was offering the regular renewal that he needed, and earmarked it in his diary. Joan, living alone in her eighties, had all the quiet that she needed, but preferred the setting of a church, explaining that it made a difference to be sitting in silence with others.

Very poignantly, there was Alan, suffering from an incurable illness, who came regularly over three years for the whole session, giving his wife respite and himself precious time with God. His deep faith and trust were an incredible witness to our welcomers, who came to know and love him — and that he took two sugars in his coffee, please.

THIS pattern has been taken up by other churches. They recognise that there is something special about offering rest and quiet in a small way, locally, where people don’t have to go far to be able to escape interruption. It is easy to organise, and costs little. One church offers this in an evening, followed by a simple communion service.

We are all familiar with today’s pace of life — our 24/7 existence. We know that stress can be devastating. We feel pressure to achieve in all walks of life. What can we do? As Breathing Space has developed, I have become convinced that God is calling us to offer this vital ministry of quietness and trust (reflect on Isaiah 30.15).

A COMMENTATOR on BBC Radio 4, who was working in a remote location, described having to manage without his broken phone for a week and rely instead on a basic £10 mobile that only offered calls and texts — and a torch. Newly aware of his compulsion to check his phone constantly, he rediscovered the beauty of life without a smartphone, and described himself as having been “conned into a modern digital immediacy”.

The journalist Hannah Betts had a similar experience when she decided to try living for a day as a 15th-century Tudor (as recorded in The Daily Telegraph, 14 November 2015). She wrote: “I am supposed to start with prayer, something of a challenge for a dogmatic atheist. . . Dinner at noon is a formal affair, the biggest meal of the day, featuring prayer. . . After more prayer, supper is at 5pm, so one can eat in natural light. . . What have I learnt? After initial twitchy fingers, sans mobile, sans laptop, I certainly feel more relaxed. I may be a prayer-resistant, froth-mouthed heretic, but carving meditative spaces into the day certainly has a soothing effect!”

Robert hadn’t realised how busy his mind had become until he came to Breathing Space for the first time and found that it took a good 45 minutes for his mind to stop whirring. When, for two months during works to reorder the church, I was without access to these quiet mornings, I realised how important they had become to my personal rhythm of life. There is something special about retreating in a sanctified and holy space, and God blesses that intention.

WANTING desperately to know how to improve his spiritual health and well-being, the American pastor John Ortberg asked advice of his wise spiritual director. The answer was succinct and to the point, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”

Ortberg jotted that down and waited for the next point, only to be told: “There is nothing else.” He subsequently recorded his discovery that “Hurry is the great enemy of the spiritual life in our day. Hurry can destroy our souls. Hurry can keep us from living well. As Carl Jung wrote, ‘Hurry is not of the devil; hurry is the devil’” (The Life You’ve Always Wanted, Zondervan, 2002).

When we slow down, we give God the chance to be heard in that quiet whisper. What we receive is as precious as gold. I offer you a simple, stress-relieving ministry that is easy to implement and turns our churches into “saving buildings”, as well as a community that offers the greatest Saviour of all.

The Revd Anne Farmer is Vicar of St Paul’s, East Molesey, in the diocese of Guildford.

*names have been changed to protect identities

To think about:

  • Find a time that is appropriate for your setting and works for you.
  • Make sure you have at least two pastorally sensitive welcomers.
  • Refreshments are always much appreciated; consider decaffeinated and gluten-free options. One lady was delighted to be offered gluten-free Christmas cake.
  • A short explanatory leaflet offering reflections, prayers, and/or insights is helpful, both as a “welcome” tool and an initial resource for visitors.
  • Build up resources, prayer anthologies, reflections, and printed materials to offer for use during the session (secondhand books are very useful).
  • This is not about numbers: don’t panic if only two people come — they will have benefited, and so will you.
  • Be ready to offer gentle support, as sometimes there will be tears; but don’t be discouraged if the person declines: honour their personal space.
  • Any conversation should be out of earshot, in a vestry, side chapel, or even outside. If you have just found silence, chatter can seem extremely invasive.
  • After an in-depth interview with George Lings, formerly of “Fresh Expressions”, this ministry is described as “A fresh expression of church without community”.

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