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Retreat houses open up at last

28 May 2021

The country’s retreat houses are slowly opening their doors. Christine Miles asks what they have in store for guests, post-lockdown

Michael Aiden Photography

A statue of St Francis watches over St Katharine’s, Parmoor

A statue of St Francis watches over St Katharine’s, Parmoor

LAST WEEK, the doors to Whalley Abbey opened to residential guests booked on to its first full-board and programmed retreat of the year.

On 17 May, the day that government restrictions on staying away from home were relaxed, ten retreatants arrived for a three-night, four-day, retreat exploring the idea of abiding in God’s love, related to St John’s Gospel, and reflecting, in part, on the difference of being in our home and on being home in God, during the past year.

“It was wonderful to be able to welcome retreatants again,” the director of Whalley Abbey, the Revd Adam Thomas, says.

As the diocese of Blackburn’s retreat house, Whalley Abbey had previously been open only to carers and NHS staff needing respite stays, in line with previous guidelines. (It continues to offer a subsidised five-day health and care workers’ “Respite and Retreat” every month, except August, and will do for as long as there is deemed to be need.)

Now that restrictions are being lifted, the retreat house plans to offer three four-day retreats every month, from June until the end of the year (except August), in addition to a programme of day retreats, evening events, and the opportunity for individuals, churches, and diocesan groups to book their own residential stays.

Pre Covid-19, most retreats were two-night stays. The longer length of this year’s programmed retreats has definitely been set by Covid,” Mr Thomas says.

“We know there are lots of people that are still nervous. We think many people will benefit from the three-night, four-days, because it usually takes you a while to unpack what’s going in your life when you’re on retreat. We think Covid means that people will need that extra space to overcome their anxieties; also to be able to express.

“Whilst the themes of the retreats are important, in reality it’s the rhythm of the retreat that we’re trying to establish, to give lots of space for people to talk about the retreat [theme], and, more importantly, about what’s going on inside them.”

Like the management of the UK’s other retreat houses, Mr Thomas has one eye on the next key date on the roadmap out of lockdown: 21 June, when the hope is that all legal restrictions on meeting together will be lifted, and retreat houses can get back to something like their full capacity of guests, and to gathering without restrictions on things such as dining together.

“It’s quite difficult to work out how it’s going to be after 21 June. We can’t accept that yet as a fact,” the warden of Parcevall Hall, Jo Craven, says.

Parcevall Hall, the retreat house of the diocese of Leeds, planned its 2021 programme last year. “We’re continuing with the elements of the programme that we can,” Ms Craven says. But because the retreat house has limited en-suites (and the guidance has been for all those staying to have their own bathrooms), it can cater for only nine guests until all lockdown restrictions are lifted.

It is currently coping with a surge in demand for private retreats: clergy “wanting some peace”; enquiries from “small family units”; and many individuals. “Because we’ve had some cancellations, because some of the events or groups [can’t run], the space is being taken up by individuals,” Ms Craven says. “It’s always good to have fresh people here.”

What remains of its programme features its staples (art appreciation, singing, literature appreciation, and rambling retreats, among others), as well as its “bread-and-butter” events for Advent, Christmas, and next year’s Lent and Easter.


MS CRAVEN feels that the need is not necessarily for a different offering, post-lockdown. “We don’t need anything new as such, as opposed to something deeper. Maybe the normal things seem more powerful now. . .

“People are saying that they want to get away, they want some time. The cost of self-catering accommodation has shot up, and maybe we’re a good price point, but I don’t think it’s just that: I think it’s that people want time with themselves and with God.”

Lesley Rigby The lounge at Parcevall Hall

Regardless of what is on the programme, retreat houses offer something unique: “Unlike normal hospitality, people come here to be on their own, but to also have others around.” They offer a “listening space — the presence of others”.

Launde Abbey, the 450-acre diocesan retreat centre for Leicester and Peterborough, hasn’t really changed its programming approach since the pandemic, either. It offers a broad range of retreats: a mix of the creative, outdoor, and contemplative.

“We want to bring as many people in as we can,” the deputy warden, the Revd Chris Webb, says. “It’s in our interest for people to come, but we think it’s in other people’s interest to discover retreats, and to discover retreats in a way that connects well with them.”

Launde Abbey’s offering ranges from a contemplative-prayer intensive retreat (28-30 June) to spiritual writing (30 August-2 September), icons (5-9 July and 6-10 December), painting (12-15 July), gardening (16-20 August and 4-8 October), and more. Whatever the theme of retreat, Mr Webb agrees that people are likely to be processing events of the last year.

His “Praying with Julian of Norwich” retreat (21-24 June) “has been in the programme for ages”, he says. But, because Julian lived through the Black Death, and received her revelations in the midst of a period of near-death illness, “there’s no way you can tell that story without reference to what we’re going through. So, in that sense, every retreat becomes a reflection of what is God doing in our lives right now, whatever the theme is.

“We’re going to be processing this on every retreat, as long as there’s something to process. And if you asked a dozen retreat houses, you’ll get the same answer a dozen times: it doesn’t matter what we put in the programme, this is going to be big in everybody’s mind.”

One definite nod to Covid takes place in the form of a retreat for educators. The “Educators’ Rest” retreat (23-26 July) has developed out of conversation with the C of E’s deputy chief education officer, Andy Wolfe.

“A lot of Christian teachers feel very stretched,” Mr Webb says, and Launde was wanting “to do something that connects with them particularly. We’re in conversation at the moment with a few folk about whether we can do something similar for hospital chaplains.”

Their “Living with Loss” retreat (3-6 September), “for people who have experienced recent, close bereavement”, is a retreat that has been run several times before, but takes on a new poignancy. “In the current circumstances, there are going to be quite a lot of people tackling grief and loss,” he says. The retreat is led by Abi May, who runs the “Living with Loss” project, and is herself a bereaved mother.

Individual and group retreats take place every week at Launde, too, and there is always the opportunity to meet a spiritual director, and to join in with the rhythm of prayer: morning, midday, and evening services take place in the chapel with an Anglican service.


AT ST BEUNO’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre in Denbighshire, Wales, the offering remains largely unchanged. Individually guided retreats (IGRs) and the full Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius — undertaken either together (30 days’ duration), or in stages — takes up about 80 per cent of the programme, the centre’s director, Fr Roger Dawson SJ, says.

Launde Abbey Launde Abbey

“The beauty of those is that you’re always working with what the person brings, and discerning with them where God is at work in their lives. Pre-pandemic, we were doing that, and post- and during pandemic.

“We’re trusting our tradition. Ignatian spirituality has been around for 500 years, and is a tried and tested way for finding God in our experience, and also discerning what God’s will is. I don’t think we’re looking for a new type of washing powder that washes whiter.”

Fr Roger says that they “don’t really know what the need at this time is yet. But what we do know is that people want to come on retreat. And those people who know us are desperate to come back here.” Bookings are already “very strong”.

“When we opened up in September,” he continues, “the thing that we found was not that people were really talking about the experiences of the pandemic so much as they just really wanted to make contact with God again.”

It is not that people cannot encounter God in their ordinary lives, but that “coming to a retreat house, we just make these things easier. What we try to do is set everything up so that all the distractions are taken away; we try to create the conditions where God can get through to people.”

He thinks that the pandemic “will have raised big existential questions about meaning and purpose, and God or not God. How people engage with those, and whether they will respond to them by coming to a place like this, I don’t yet know.”

Their challenge is to attract a younger and wider demographic, from less privileged backgrounds, he says.

To that end, they are working to launch a new website soon. And, at Jesuit UK level, there is a project going on in digital marketing using social media. “The work has already started. One of the retreats is a mindfulness retreat. That’s the sort of retreat that might attract a different audience, and that may well then lead to someone coming on to an IGR here.

“People understand that mindfulness has been used for its mental-health benefits, but something we are keen to do is to say that this is not just something that comes from the East: the contemplative tradition in Christianity is strong, and anyone who knows about silent contemplative prayer will recognise much of what mindfulness is teaching.”

Whalley AbbeyWhalley Abbey

They are also offering a series of 20 beginners’ retreats, some midweek and some weekend (including budget retreats for those in their twenties and thirties), offering periods of silence, individual meetings with a spiritual director, and workshops on prayer and discernment.


OTHER retreat houses are also responding to a sense that Covid has made more people outside the Church consider spiritual things.

“We’ve noticed that a lot more people who are not churchgoers have had this existential look at their lives in the past 14 months, and are looking to spend some time exploring what spirituality might be; what faith might look like,” Mr Thomas says. In response, Whalley Abbey will run a monthly supper club, starting 24 June.

The club will feature a 20-minute talk — “be it the Olympics starting in Tokyo; or it could be Meghan and Harry” — then given the chance to discuss the topic over dinner, and end with Night Prayer. “It’s a gentle way for people to come together, explore something, and what God might be saying about a particular situation.”

Whalley Abbey will be using Facebook marketing to advertise it. “Churches run enquirers’ courses; this is a pre-enquirers’ enquiry. . . It’s easy for people to come once, and easy for people to make the next step if they want to.”

Worth Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Crawley, Sussex, caters for male and female visitors in its retreat house, St Bruno’s. “We have a backlog of people who want to come here for church retreat groups particularly,” the director of Open Cloister, Fr Peter Williams OSB, says.

The retreat house opens for a few individual retreats in August, and for retreat groups from September. In the monastery’s guest accommodation, men-only stays are also available from September.

Church groups and visitors aside, Fr Peter senses a new interest in the solitary, contemplative side of Benedictine spirituality, the Desert Fathers, and the mystics.

In 2005, The Monastery, a BBC TV reality series, followed five men selected to spend 40 days and nights living with the monks at Worth Abbey and experiencing their 1500-year-old monastic tradition. “People still get in touch with Worth Abbey, having seen The Monastery with Abbot Christopher [Jamison]: it’s on YouTube; so it’s not forgotten.”

Chris Wood Foxhill House

In recent years, the monks were focusing on the Church and people with faith. “Before lockdown, we were finding the market was shrinking a bit, and we were struggling to fill the place. I think the idea of trying to be a threshold place for people discovering faith and the spiritual is definitely on my agenda, and to see where it leads from there.”

He acknowledges that these will take some time to develop, but expects that, in 2022, “there will definitely be retreats for people searching for the spiritual” (although he is clear that these will not run “at the expense of our regulars”).

They are continuing an online retreat every two weeks that started during Advent last year, on the themes of Benedictine spirituality and a variety of other subjects, including the Salvadorean martyrs and the Turin Shroud.

They also plan to offer something of a “hybrid” retreat as the country emerges from lockdown: some people will stay at St Bruno’s, and others will attend online. “We will explore that option and see how it works,” Fr Peter says.


SCARGILL HOUSE, Wharfdale, in North Yorkshire, is opening slowly to guests again (no retreats are advertisedn past August) with a series of “Renew, Refresh, Restore” stays through June and July: “A gentle retreat with some input and spiritual reflection, workshops, and walks,” the director of Scargill, the Revd Phil Stone, says. “I’m hoping that the community will just enfold people — as much as you can in Covid-times — with some peace, love, and some laughter as well. We’re offering a place to relax and feel renewed.”

These retreats have been held at Scargill for the past 11 years, but seem more timely since the pandemic. One is specifically for lay and ordained church leaders (28 June-1 July), and, as Scargill has had an offering online throughout the pandemic, one is also available as a hybrid retreat, with online and house guests (16-18 July).

“Our online programme has been surprisingly fruitful,” Mr Stone says, enabling them to connect internationally and with a wider age group during lockdown. They will continue to offer more hybrids, and some exclusively online retreats and quiet days. A weekly service will continue online, and the monthly online forum, featuring a guest speaker with time for questions, will continue, but become quarterly.

Their “Time for God” beginners’ retreat (30 July-2 August) also responds to a sense of change. “We’ve done it before, but recognise there is an awakening, coming out of Covid, to explore more about the things of God.” A “Walk and Talk” will make the most of exploring the Dales (21-24 June), and their popular “Summerfest” retreat, and half-term weeks will hope to have a positive effect on young people and families, post-lockdown.

New to all guests who visit Scargill is the Lament Prayer Station now situated in the walled garden. It was made a few years ago, but has only now been erected.

“There will be lots of people who need space to grieve whatever they’ve lost: jobs, a member of their family. . . I think everyone will have lost something.”

Two-thirds of the Psalms are from a place of disorientation, Mr Stone says. “It gives an opportunity to voice it, to speak out and lament before God. . . I think that might be the most used part of the estate for a while.”

Another retreat house opening slowly is Foxhill House, Chester diocese’s retreat- and prayer-centre, offering only one-day “Refresh, Restore, Renew” events (on a donation basis) during July and August.

“From September, we’re back, fully residential, hosting our own events as well as other events, as well as being open for individual retreats. So, on the first of September, life hopefully returns to some kind of normal,” the director of Foxhill, the Revd Jonathon Green, says.

Bookings for this year and next year are “very encouraging”, and a mix of new people and former guests is returning. “People are desperate to get back out again,” he says. Details of their autumn and winter retreats programme will be online soon.


AS PEOPLE appreciate again taking time out from hectic schedules, and having fellowship with others, it may be that the parish weekend will have a long-term resurgence. Previously, many retreat houses saw church weekends diminishing, and responded by offering more day events.

Jackie Reily The Lament Prayer Station, by Lizzy Ashworth, before it was installed in the walled garden at Scargill House

Scargill has a huge backlog of church weekends to cater for. So, too, has St Katharine’s, Parmoor, a retreat house in Henley-on-Thames offering grounds of ten acres and a consecrated Anglican chapel.

The former general manager of Chelmsford Diocesan House of Retreat, Pleshey, Stewart McCredie, took over as director at St Katharine’s in 2019. “Enquiries in the last couple of months have gone through the roof”, he says.

With more bookings than expected from church groups (every weekend, bar one, is booked until the end of the year, although there is still availability for individuals and small groups), they are responding to the demand by offering only a small programme of organised events this year.

These are yet to be advertised on the website, but Mr McCredie expects that there may be some “Living With”. . . events. At Pleshey, he put on a “Living With Dementia”, a “Living With Chronic Illness”, and a “Living With Poverty” event, and plans to advertise similar events at St Katharine’s.

As a keen musician, some music events are also in the offing to be added to this year’s programme, in addition to “Sing for Joy”, celebrating Christmas in song, on 4 December.

Looking forward to 2022, there are plans for 12 to 15 organised retreats or events, so that there is still plenty of availability for bookings from “parish groups, prayer groups, friendship groups”, and individuals (a list of spiritual directors belonging to the ecumenical SpiDir Network is available to all guests).

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