I HAVE just come back from leading a retreat at Sheldon in Devon, the home of the Society of Mary and Martha. Sheldon is a retreat and conference centre that runs a busy programme of events, while also welcoming people who need a break to rest, study, or pray. There is a special focus on caring for those in ministry. Sheldon produced the landmark report Affirmation and Accountability (2002), which set the agenda for dioceses to take seriously the care of the clergy.
There has always been something very sane and human about Sheldon. Accommodation is designed for comfort and flexibility. Clergy shop-talk is banished. Those who want to hide can do so; those who need companionship can find it. Sheldon is also open to ministers in crisis. Those in stress, breakdown, and disgrace are welcomed without judgement.
Together with the therapy of country walks and wholesome food, there are a trained masseuse and a bar. When I first went, the Fat Pigeon bar was often hosted by a member of the community, who put on an elegant cocktail dress to dispense the beer and G and Ts. There is no false piety. While liturgists might find the daily prayer-round unexciting, there is a strong sense that the life of prayer is meant to be grounding rather than stimulating. This works. It is striking how lay ownership of the chapel and of the life of prayer seems to leave more space for God.
The Sheldon Community is one of the hidden gems of the Church: a lay initiative that meets needs that would otherwise go unmet. Its charism comes from the heart of its community: a group of married and single people, from different backgrounds, living together for the long term. One of the most recent developments is the Sheldon Hub, a social-media platform that gives access to a range of ministerial resources, as well as online interaction and mutual support, which can be anonymised if desired. It is likely to become more and more necessary.
In my position as a Continuing Ministerial Development adviser (Comment, 19 January 2018), I found that the Church often struggled to care for its clergy. The febrile atmosphere generated by our current leadership means that ministers are not infrequently harassed from above over numbers and parish share, while at the same time being bullied by congregational factions that are determined to take control.
An alarming number of clergy have suffered unjustly as a result of the Clergy Discipline Measure, and Sheldon is currently commissioning independent research on this, besides picking up the pieces of shattered clergy lives (Features 18 October).
Sheldon, being outside the system, is not only a refuge for the broken: it offers the sanity and balance that the wider Church is in danger of losing.