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Retreats: Quiet days, but not inactive

12 June 2020

Huw Spanner finds out how retreat centres are coping — and adapting — during the lockdown

A closure notice at Launde Abbey, Leicestershire: a sign of the current lockdown

A closure notice at Launde Abbey, Leicestershire: a sign of the current lockdown

THE Revd Trevor Miller, who oversees the Northumbria Community, has described a spiritual retreat as “a deliberate act of stepping outside of normal routine by withdrawing [from] the immediate and insistent claims of our social, domestic, and workaday responsibilities”. How ironic it would be if the coronavirus crisis, with its imposition of physical distancing, if not self-isolation, were to result in the demise of some of this country’s retreat centres.

To find out how they were coping, we contacted 24 of the larger centres, and received a response from 14. All are currently closed — many of them at least until September— and, where appropriate, have furloughed almost all of their staff. Most are managing to carry out essential maintenance, either in-house or with individual contractors working alone. Where some centres have resident communities, such as Minsteracres in Northumberland, and Wydale Hall, on the edge of the North York Moors, the communities remain, but keep their distance.

For some centres, the lockdown has expanded rather than contracted the range of their ministry. Launde Abbey, in Leicestershire, having had to disappoint the ten people booked on to its Holy Week retreat, instead posted the daily reflections online, and had “an extraordinary response, with anything from 700 to 1500 people viewing the different days’ input, and something like 80 emails and letters thanking us”, its Warden, the Revd David Newman, says.

Epiphany House, an ecumenical retreat house on the outskirts of Truro, is using the video-conferencing service Zoom to complete a 30-week Ignatian retreat in daily life. Parcevall Hall, in Wharfedale, North Yorkshire, is staying in touch with past and future guests principally by posting “Thoughts for the day” from its chaplain on its website, which, it says, have been “really appreciated”. The chaplains at the diocese of Chelmsford’s retreat house at Pleshey are posting prayers and meditations on both Facebook and Twitter.

Many centres report that they have continued, if not intensified, their function as “prayer hubs”. Wydale Hall, the diocese of York’s retreat house, has about 25 people joining a daily Zoom community prayer meeting.

Foxhill House “is now, basically, the diocesan house of prayer”, its director, the Revd Jonathon Green, says. “We are sending out a twice-weekly prayer briefing to more than 1500 people, with points for prayer from the diocese [of Chester] and our two linked dioceses in Melanesia and DRC. This had been part of our long-term vision, but Covid-19 has made it happen.

“We’re also sending out a daily briefing to a team of 20-plus intercessors, as people send us their requests, in confidence, by email, phone, or text.”

On Holy Island, where many people are particularly vulnerable owing to old age or ill health, Marygate House, an independent retreat house, has worked with the parish council and a newly formed support group to turn its dining room into a shop, to serve people who “cannot, and should not, go into town”, and to make deliveries to those who cannot leave their homes at all. “It feels right,” its wardens, Don and Sam Quilty, say. Fifty years ago, the house had been a shop. “This seems a profound way of remembering the roots of this place, and maybe why it feels so special.”

Robin HawkinsThe Ven. Roger Preece chairs an online workshop on “soulful leadership”, from a meeting room at the Royal Foundation of St Katharine, in Ratcliffe, London

In Poole, the Greenhouse Christian Centre, an independent retreat house, has opened its gardens “as a space to reflect and pray”, to be used by people in the area who live in flats. It has also offered its now empty bedrooms to the NHS for the use of key workers and to people needing a refuge from domestic violence or are otherwise in crisis.

In the same way, the Royal Foundation of St Katharine, near the Tower of London, is supporting the NHS by providing “step-down care” for people leaving hospital. “As soon as the lockdown happened,” its new Master, the Revd Roger Preece, says, “we started to ask the question: how can we serve in this crisis?”

Its community café now operates as a takeaway, and also hosts a convenience shop selling fresh food and other supplies (for a while, it was the only source of lavatory paper in the area). The Foundation is also acting as an operations centre for Limehouse Aid, a network of more than 230 volunteers who are supporting isolated people; and has run a five-day series of online workshops for leaders of organisations, “to help them through the crisis”. It expects to reopen for meetings, personal retreats, and “staycations” in July.


NONE of this new activity, of course, can replace the income that retreat centres are inevitably losing while they are closed. Most at risk are the independent centres. Epiphany House faces “an uncertain future”, its director, the Revd Janette Mullett, says. Much of its financial reserves were committed to a building project, which the lockdown has interrupted, and the trust that owns it expects a fall in the value of its investments as the global economy shrinks.

The Greenhouse’s “healthy” income has fallen “close to zero” in the space of a few weeks, and yet it still has substantial costs, even when closed. Can it survive? “Humanly speaking,” its director, Mark Strand, says, “it depends how long it takes for social-distancing measures to end, and how quickly people recover the confidence to come away. However, we are convinced that God still has a purpose for this site as a Christian centre; so we hold on to that.”

Marygate House is a “donation-only” retreat house, Mrs Quilty says. “We have always lived by faith that we will receive enough to pay our bills, and we have always, just, balanced our books. This year will be a challenge, but we do have some funds in the bank, and we do not have any debts. All our guests who have had to cancel this year have booked for 2021.”

Gramarye House, in Somerset, “only just breaks even, anyway; but, somehow, the money is always found to continue”, its owner, the Revd Melanie Hall, says. “I have some savings I can draw on for another month or two; but now, more than ever, I have faith that all will be well.”

More secure are those retreat centres that are underwritten. For St Columba’s House, Woking, for example, this year will be “a big hit”. “We will survive,” its chief executive, Marguerite Hutchinson, says, “but only because our parent charity [St Peter’s Charity] has proceeds from land sales which cover our losses every year.”

In north Wales, St Beuno’s reports that its finances are “disastrous”. Even with furlough, its monthly shortfall is about £60,000, and, having refunded all bookings up to the end of this month, it has exhausted its reserves. “Fortunately,” its director, Fr Roger Dawson, says, “we are supported by the British Jesuits, or we would have folded.”

The empty hall of Wychcroft House, the diocese of Southwark’s retreat centre

Minsteracres, another Roman Catholic retreat house, is losing “a considerable sum” every month, its director, Fr Jeroen Hoogland, says. “Our survival will depend on how long this episode is going to last, and the impact of ongoing social-distancing measures. Will we be able to use the centre at its full capacity in the ways we did before the pandemic? We are having conversations about this, but it is too early to be clear about it.”

Wydale Hall has already lost more than £150,000 for the four months from March to June, and is likely to lose as much again before the end of September. “We are surviving on a mixture of the government job-retention scheme, our previous surpluses, support from the diocese of York, and a number of very sacrificial gifts from our supporters,” its general manager, Mark Rance, says. He does not expect to be able to resume normal operations this year.

The retreat house of the diocese of Leeds, Parcevall Hall, has a small amount of reserve funds, its Warden, Jo Craven, says, and has recently launched an appeal which so far has had “a good response”. Given the support of the diocese, she adds, they can be confident enough to plan for the future — and most of the people who have had a booking cancelled have opted to “roll their deposit forward” to a secure later date.

“I think we will survive the pandemic, even if it wipes out our reserves,” Mr Newman says of Launde Abbey. “The good news is that the furlough scheme has been extended, at least in some form, until October, and we have received quite a lot of generous donations; but the bad news is that many groups and individuals are cancelling for the rest of the year.”

Richard Ellis, who manages Wychcroft House, the diocese of Southwark’s retreat centre in Surrey, is confident that it will survive, and “will be back to some normality once restrictions are lifted”, although it will be “a huge challenge” to ensure social distancing and to reduce contact points throughout the building. None the less, he says, the calendar for 2021 is already almost full.

The retreat house at Pleshey, which is also supported by the Friends of Pleshey, has a similar outlook, while Foxhill, in Chester diocese, is in “a fairly robust position”, Mr Green says. “A lot of our business is repeat business, and we’ve moved the people who had booked for this spring to later dates.”


“I DON’T know how people will respond to the end of the lockdown,” Fr Dawson admits. “There could be a manic reaction of wild partying. People may not want more silence — or they may have discovered the virtue and value of silence. Certainly, the crisis and the experience of isolation may have led people to think about what is of ultimate value in life, and retreat houses are one of the few ‘spaces’ in which more serious questions can be asked.”

Miss Craven believes that there will be “a strong desire” for what retreat centres offer when restrictions are lifted — including, perhaps, in people who “would not have considered that this experience was for them before the crisis. There will be myriad ways that people have found to get them through enforced isolation, but it’s possible that many will have tapped into a different quality of time, and discovered something new in themselves that they want to explore.”

A volunteer undertakes maintenance to a room at the Greenhouse Christian Centre

“I think there will be a lot of trauma to process,” Mr Newman says, “not least among those who have been on the frontline in the NHS and so on. We will give thought to how we might try to address some of those needs.”

Ms Hall expects to run “reflective retreats to think about how we can use what we have learnt to make positive and lasting change. I have already been asked for grief and bereavement retreats for individuals, and there are many who will have been confined, cooped up in difficult situations, and who would love to get away.”

She is offering ten free places on a weekend retreat to frontline workers from hard-pressed hospitals, once the pandemic has subsided. There would be absolutely no faith agenda, she says, “other than to offer peace and space, glorious countryside, and home-cooked food”.

Mrs Quilty believes that “finances will play a big part for many, and we wonder how confident people will be at first about travelling far from home. People will rightly be cautious.” Fr Hoogland, too, wonders whether financial insecurity will be a deterrent, “and also the fear for coronavirus, that will be around for some time to come”.

Mrs Hutchinson expects “very low take-up” for retreats until a vaccine “or other solution” has been found. “Much of our regular client base for retreats is over 60, and it may take a lot longer for them to be allowed, or to wish, to mingle in a group,” she says. On the other hand, the offer of “some quiet space” may be all the more appealing “once lives get busy again”.

Yet a retreat does not necessarily involve silence and solitude. “Ours are more interactive,” Mr Green points out. “For example, we should have had an icon-painting retreat next month, and people will still want to do things like that.”

The dining-room shop at Maygate House, Holy Island

“I think the need for live spiritual fellowship could be greater than ever,” Mr Newman says. “Certainly, the response of people to our online retreat was to say: ‘I hope we can come to Launde once this is all over.’ Even people who had never been here were saying: ‘We want to come.’”

Mr Rance is confident that “after a few weeks back to normal life, the normal need for retreat will return. I think many churches and groups will be wanting to arrange residentials to kick-start their ministries again.”


OTHERS, however, believe that life will not “return to normal”. “I think things will be different, post-pandemic,” Mr Ellis says. “Groups will be smaller, especially groups of older people, and the way they interact will alter.”

“Many of the more ordinary meetings will be done online,” Fr Preece predicts, “but, when people meet physically, it will have to be a higher-quality experience. At the Foundation, we are already investing in developing our menus, our rooms, and our activities to be even more significant for when things pick up in the autumn.”

Mr Strand is eager to embrace change. “We have been forced, as a society, to be more creative in how we have connected with each other, and churches have had to be creative in how they have shared the gospel, and supported their members. It’s opened our eyes to what is possible, and there is a role for retreat centres to embrace this, too, through social media and technology. I think we need to be working with our local churches and communities on this.”

“There may well be profound changes in our retreat houses, and in the needs of those who come to stay, which may be quite unexpected and may turn things very much on their heads,” Mrs Quilty says. “This is how God works.”

It will certainly be a different world after the pandemic, Fr Dawson agrees. “We will want not just to respond to that world but to shape it, so that it is more like the Kingdom of God: a place that is good for humans and all creation.”


Autumn and winter retreats

  • Diocesan House of Retreat, Pleshey, Chelmsford:

    Three writing workshops led by Sheila Jacobs (1 Sept., 6 Oct., 3 Nov.), £30 each or £80 for all three.

    “Waiting and Watching”, led by the Ven. Pete Spiers (20-22 Nov.), from £150.


  • Epiphany House, Cornwall

    Possible walking retreat, led by the Revd Nigel Marnes (7-12 Sept.), £525.


  • Foxhill House, Cheshire


  • Gramarye House, Somerset

    An exploration of pilgrimage, led by the Revd Melanie Hall (4-6 Sept. and 27-29 Nov.), from £155.

    An exploration of the feminine aspects of God, leader TBC (18-20 Sept.), from £195.


  • The Greenhouse Christian Centre, Dorset

    “Introduction to Counselling for Leaders”, facilitated by David Deakin, Ian Phillips, and Tanya Penn (16-20 Nov.), from £310.

    “Learning to Listen”, run by Acorn Christian Healing Foundation (27-29 Nov.), from £214.


  • Launde Abbey, Leicestershire

    “Seeing through God’s Lens”, led by Morna Simpson (14-17 Sept.), £340.

    “Seeking Some Small Heaven”, led by Ian Adams (23-26 Nov.), £355.


  • Marygate House, Holy Island

    Maygate does not run organised retreats, but provides full board and a listening ear and encourages its guests to “let the island in. . . God’s creation just shouts in this place.”


  • Minsteracres, Northumberland

    “On a Journey with the Northern Saints” (14-18 Sept.), £395.

    “Sacred in the City”, led by Margaret Silf (23-25 Oct.), £155.


  • Parcevall Hall, North Yorkshire

    Open quiet day, led by Canon Flora Winfield (12 Oct.), free, no booking required.

    “Waiting, Longing, Hoping, and Praying”, led by Prebendary William Scott (1-4 Dec.), £245.


  • Royal Foundation of St Katharine, London

    “Releasing Resilience, Finding Vision”, led by the Revd Will van der Hart (12 Sept.), £40.

    “Seasons of Life”, led by Grace Owen (2-4 Oct.), £258.


  • St Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre, Wales

    Ignatian Individually Guided Retreat: many opportunities, from a weekend to eight days, from £58 per night, full-board.

    “Life before Death: The psychology of flourishing”, led by Fr Roger Dawson (27-29 Nov.), price TBC.


  • St Columba’s House, Surrey

    “Introduction to Soulfulness”, led by Brian Draper (22 Sept.), £25.

    “The Power of the Cross in Art”, led by Marguerite Hutchinson (10 Nov.), £25.


  • Wydale Hall, North Yorkshire

    “Gospel, Culture, and Discipleship”, led by the Rt Revd Graham Cray (22 Sept.), £25.

    “Autumn Retreat: Bethany — a place of rest”, led by Joan Sargent (19-22 Oct.), £290.


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