In which Ruth goes on a silent retreat but is not completely silent

Yes, it is that time again. This week was the Diocesan Retreat at Whitchester led by Barbara Glasson, Methodist minister why_botherand author. I first came across Barbara when I read her books I am Somewhere Else and Mixed-up Blessing and loved them. Barbara set up the ‘Bread Church’ in Liverpool which was a perfect example of what seems to be called Fresh Expressions – an alternative way of doing church. The title of the Retreat was ‘Why Bother?

Now, dear reader, you will know that I find these retreats a mix of agony and ecstasy. Agony because of the enforced silence and the struggle which extroverts find without an audience and unable to get to know the other retreatants better. And ecstasy because I get peace and quiet to read and knit and watch people.

Many years ago I was convinced of the notion that diocesan clergy should retreat together. You get to know a lot about people in silence. And when the bishop comes too it shows that our leaders take it seriously too. I’m told in years gone by all the clergy came – all. Those days are long gone. Each year the numbers fall as more and more clergy find their own place to retreat – some abroad, some in convents/monasteries, and some who just don’t. The venue was blamed so it was changed and that made no difference to numbers. This year there were 2 stipendiary clergy and 2 retired NSMs signed up (and one had to cancel because of ill health) and the lay retreat at the weekend was not much better, so both clergy and lay were combined with a total of eight of us.

Next year I take over as Retreat organiser so any suggestions for encouraging folk back would be most welcome.

But back to ‘Why Bother’ and Barbara Glasson… On arrival we had a discussion about how we wanted the retreat to be. In the past we have had two addresses each day along with the Daily Offices and Eucharist. The rest of the time, including meals, have been in silence. This year we were asked if we wanted the same or something different. I really had to hold back on this one. Let others speak first, Ruth (I said to myself). Don’t bully them into what you want. Someone even said that it was the complete silence which put some folk off coming – especially people who live on their own. So it was agreed by the majority that we would have a discussion straight after the address on that topic, and that we could talk at the evening meal. If you wanted silence you could avoid the discussion and sit at a separate table and I think that worked okay. Well it worked beautifully for me. What glory, what joy. Often I’ve found something in the addresses that merited a good blether after and have been left to go and journal about it instead. Not always satisfying. This worked so much better for me. And as someone who eats alone it is such a joy to have company during the evening meal and the chance to chat. (And yes, I can hear my introvert friends silently screaming at their screens.)

Barbara based her addresses on being ‘bothered’:

  • Who/what do we bother about?
  • Who/what should we bother about?
  • About clergy living with being bothered.
  • About bothering being part of the Christian vocation.
  • About bothering being caring and soothing but also unsettling and provoking.
  • About being partners in bothering.
  • Why bother to be/stay Christian?
  • How do we resource ourselves to bother?
  • How to be-other.
  • About being God-botherers and Gospel-botherers.
  • Is Mission bothering?
  • About finding confidence to bother.

There was a lot of bothering going on and it was all good. In fact, I know I will never hear the word ‘bother’ again without some of the retreat coming back to me.

I read a bit too – about Dying Well and about murder in a monastery. Perfect retreat reading. And I knitted.

book-chairI also dreamt about my dream retreat house which would have double beds, working en-suite toilets, meals on time, good decaff coffee and tea, beautiful chapel with gorgeous, cared-for things, lots of candles, decent showers and hairdriers, large fluffy towels, reclining or rocking chairs everywhere and an up-to-date library. For starters.

Whitchester Parish Weekend

In all the churches I’ve been rector, I’ve led silent retreats. They have never been over-subscribed but usually appreciated by the dozen or so who do attend. Even those who have never been silent before often become devotees and persuade others that they should try it. Readers will know that I myself struggle greatly with silent retreats. There are probably more blogs about my catastrophes than any other topic and I invite you to go seek them if you want a laugh. However, I do find that leading them is not quite so difficult for me – probably because I get to speak and listen and have enough in the organising to keep me busy.

Since I’ve been at Christ Church many have said that they wouldn’t come on a silent retreat and that’s fine (and quite understandable). And often the feedback after a retreat is that people just wished they had got to know one another better. Mind you, I think you can find out a lot about folk watching them in silence but that’s another topic… So this weekend we had a Parish Weekend. Not a retreat. Not silent. Just a weekend for us to get to know one another, enjoy conversations, and have fun. Hopefully.

We went back to Whitchester Christian Guest House just outside Hawick because they are trying to encourage more visitors and it is a lovely house. A bit too close to nature for my liking but I know others like that sort of thing. I’d planned to go from Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon so that any who worked could join us. The majority were probably in the 70-80 age group but that was offset with one family with 3 year-old Eleanor. I’d planned on worship morning and night, and took along some crafts for those who didn’t want to go out hiking or whatever folk do when they go off into nature.

Unfortunately it rained all day on Saturday and although some did go out (mostly looking at overpriced cashmere) the rest of us learned how to do encaustic art and produced some masterpieces. We also made our own labyrinth which took up most of the day but everybody painted at least one leaf on the fabric. It can now be used in our own church – or if you would like to borrow a 12′ square labyrinth, do let me know.

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Worship didn’t go as well as I’d planned because I’d printed the booklets incorrectly. Page 1 was at the beginning and the correct way up, but Page 2 was at the back of the book and upside down, and so on. It was a test of ingenuity and caused some pauses in unexpected places as some shuffled back and forth with puzzled expressions. On Sunday we had a Eucharist to remember the beginning of WW1 and everyone was invited to bring a flower from the garden and lay it on the altar. (We’d pretty much got the hang of the booklet by then!)

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The only problem was nature, and I feel just a little smug about this. Breakfast was delayed by some time while the staff leapt around the dining room with a net trying to catch the two bats who had swooped in. At night they were back and forth like busy bees and this rector certainly did no wandering about outside after dusk.

We had a lot of laughs and did indeed learn more about one another. Perhaps every alternate year we ought to forgo the silence and just have fun instead.

In which Ruth is really disappointed with a new book

A few weeks ago I had a phone call from someone at Radio Scotland asking if I’d like to review a book for them and then appear on a show with Richard Holloway to discuss it. Bit of a no brainer, really. Free book. Chat to +Richard. What’s not to like? Especially as the book is called Archbishop by Michele Guinness, set in the future when the first female Archbishop heads up the CofE. Wow! Sign me up now!

The book arrived some time later and was the size of a small country, or a coffee table at least. And none of your big print rubbish either. This woman has written a novel to beat all big novels. So I took it on Retreat with me and settled down in my reclining chair in my cosy wee room and… promptly fell asleep. This happens on retreat, I’m told, until you’ve caught up with all the lost sleep you’ve suffered since the last holiday. Sometimes you read absolutely nothing at all but sleep for 4 days! In my case, it lasted about 24 hours before I managed to keep my eyes open for more than a page or two. That was when the anger kicked in.  My wrath kept me awake, oh yes. For this book was not what I expected at all. Your dream of the first woman Archbishop? Strong, witty, self-deprecating, feminist, liberal, charitable, pastoral … you see I’m describing myself here.  Joke! Well that was not to be this Archbishop, oh no.

The following review contains spoilers to the story so don’t read if you don’t want to know that she resigns in the end. Oops! Sorry!

The book is set in 2020 although there are flashbacks as we discover, bit by bit, Vicky Burnham-Woods’ journey to priesthood and up the slippery ecclesiastical ladder. Her predecessor is found dead in a hotel bedroom with a pair of ladies’ underwear, not his wife’s. Oh dear! Stereotype Number 1 (and so it went on). Then the Committee for Appointments can’t find a suitable replacement and put her name forward as the wild card. Men are against her. Women are against her. Her family are none too chuffed either. In fact, the only person she seemed to really get on with was the Queen in a most unbelievable storyline ever. (Yes, it was the current Queen but in her nineties and still going strong.)

She is a conservative evangelical who is anti-gay and understanding of the huge number of priests in Africa (now by far the largest part of the Anglican Alliance) who will struggle with a woman in authority over her. She immediately tells them she won’t ever do that. Throughout the book lines of Scripture pop up ‘as if highlighted in yellow’ or the Bible falls open at just a perfect verse from time to time to guide her.

She is outspoken and is a great supporter of the church offering social justice and she spends a lot of time fighting the Prime Minister and government over this issue. As a result the Govt passes a law to end religious proselyting and the church almost has to go underground. Of course, this makes it more popular. Vicky calls a Strike and really it all got so unbelievable that I cringed.

Then there is the relationship she has with her husband, Tom the Consultant. She takes on the job of Archbishop aware that it will mean more time away from her lovely handsome husband but promises to make time for him. Yeh right. If she couldn’t do it as Bishop, it ain’t ever gonna happen when she’s up on the next rung. Then yes, you guessed it, he has an affair. Then yes, you guessed it again, she nearly does – until a verse from Scripture flashes at her just at the right moment. Forgive, forgive. Resignation on moral grounds. What a heroine! Oh and we mustn’t forget the cancer thrown in to make her weak and vulnerable.

You’ve guessed I didn’t like it. I didn’t like her. I didn’t like the kind of priest she was. I didn’t agree with her theology. I thought the story was a bit Mills and Boon. There were far too many caricatures of CofE clergy: the jealous and caustic Anglo-Catholic; etc. I’m afraid I just kept thinking what a very different (and best-seller) this book could have been in the hands of Susan Howatch, Joanna Trollope, or Catherine Fox.

Mind you, it will sell. Twitter tells me so already how many clergy have purchased signed copies last week presumably because it was on sale near where Synod took place. And perhaps some will love it. It was Michele Guinness’ first work of fiction. I won’t be looking for the next one.

Archbishop

PS Oh you want to know how the radio interview went with Richard HOlloway? Awful, thanks for asking. Just awful. Nerves got the better of me, my mind went blank, I stuttered and stammered and couldn’t remember a thing about it. God bless the dear Editor Carol who managed to salvage enough for it to be okay and for me to not feel quite so sick. So why am I still waking at 2am with the perfect and witty reply to +Richard’s questions? Bah.

Art and Spirituality Parish Retreat

So, no sooner am I back from the Clergy Silent Retreat and rejoicing at noise and blethering willy-nilly, than I take some of my little flock (and some of my neighbouring little flock) on a silent jaunt back to Whitchester. This time I was leader (let’s hear it for leadership in the church!) so I got to do some talking and lead worship so that was fine. I was staying in the Buccleuch Suite which is rather grander than the other chintzy rooms with a huge white leather sofa and TV. The sofa is so that one can meet with Retreatants for spiritual guidance, I’m guessing, but it is the slippiest sofa you ever sat on. In fact, I found it perfect for afternoon naps. Unfortunately the TV only seemed to get BBC1 so my plan to get away from all aspects of the Queen’s Jubilee rather failed as they seemed to have it wall to wall all weekend. That’ll teach me.

In between talks I did manage to catch up on some more reading in the delicious recliner in the ‘sitootery’. What did I read? Well thank you for asking. I read Jesus Freak by Sara Miles which is a kind of follow on to Take this Bread. In fact, I didn’t enjoy it quite so much because it did rather go over the same ground. However, if you’ve not read the first one so recently, then I’m sure you’d enjoy it more. It is more theological and reflective I think. But you still come away from it thinking what a crap Christian you are inspired and refreshed.

I also finished How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran which is one of the funniest books I’ve read for a long time. Every man, woman and child should read this book. (But probably not on a Silent Retreat as there is a risk you will get pains from trying to stifle sniggers.)

My GP is encouraging me to read Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn which is kind of a study in the Sacrament of the Present Moment for non-Christians but with the Buddhism taken out. Does that sound complicated? Well apparently many medical people are now using this method of relaxation for patients who suffer from stress, chronic pain, obsessive compulsive behaviour, etc. (I’ll leave you to decide which category I might fit in to!) It all seems jolly nice and worthy but I’ve only just started so I’ll let you know how I get on.

I also managed to squeeze in 37% of The Private Patient by PD James on the Kindle. Its ages since I read any PD James and I’d quite forgotten what a great writer she is of that genre. And yes, I do have a wee crush on Inspector Dalgliesh. Now I’ll need to finish it quickly before I forget the plot. (Or lose the plot.)

But what about the Retreat, I hear you cry? Well it was on Art and Spirituality and we looked at four paintings with a bit of history, a bit of meditation and a bit of pondering. The feedback was good but the talks could have been a bit longer, I’m told. (Note to self – don’t start writing the material just a week before you leave on retreat.) Music at mealtimes didn’t go down terribly well. Someone, who shall not be named but you know who you are Ian,  said he wanted to take out a shotgun and kill the Swingle Singers singing Bach. How can you not love them? I don’t know. It seems that behind my back there was much silent rejoicing on Sunday at breakfast when the power went off and I couldn’t get the CD player to work!

We arrived to glorious sunshine and enjoyed sitting outside with the noise of the countryside deafening us all. Yellow birds, pink birds, bumblie bees, dogs, pheasant (not turkeys I’m told), sheep, lambs and cows. What a racket! The second day was dull and cold so I made a log fire which whiled away an hour or so keeping it stoked etc. Our last day was sunny again. There were some moths (one was squished with a copy of Christianity Today) and a few bats. It is nice to be home.

11 years ago today…

On this day, the Feast of Ss Peter & Paul, I was ordained Deacon at St Ninian’s Cathedral in Perth. At this moment I think I was returning from the strangest pre-ordination retreat ever (at the Bield, Blackruthven) where I stayed in the house with the family and some large dogs. I don’t remember much about it, except that I’m sure that the Priest there seemed to be putting me off rather than encouraging me. I know I did not swim in their lovely swimming pool although I was encouraged to borrow a ‘cossie’ and do so. I do remember hanging out with some friends who were also there on an overnight conference and getting into trouble for not keeping silence. (‘Twas ever thus.) Yes indeed, it was strange.

When I left I went back to my garret, above the Bishop’s Office, to get ready for the final rehearsal at the Cathedral. I remember my new shirt was inky black, my collar hard and strange around my neck, my new trousers and blazer were black – as were my shoes, of course. (But you knew that.) I was excited about seeing all the friends who were coming and who had supported me through some difficult years of study. And I was nervous about the ceremony and the promises I would make. I didn’t know this Bishop as well as I knew my old Bishop in Edinburgh, and had already embarrassed myself (and him) by calling him Darling. Something which he referred to in the service, and became known to me as Bishop Darling for ever after!

On that occasion I was the only Deacon being ‘done’ so I had got to choose the hymns myself. They were: Sing we of our Blessed Mother; I heard the Voice of Jesus Say; Come Holy Ghost, our Souls Inspire; Who is this so Weak and Helpless; Let all Mortal Flesh and Soul of my Saviour; Tell out my Soul. The mass setting was Mozart’s Coronation Mass and many of my home parish choir at St Michael & All Saints had come to join with the cathedral choir to make a big noise. And my Parish Rector, Rev Kevin Pearson (now Bishop Kevin)  preached gloriously – and told that awful joke about the mice with skateboards in heaven.

I was going to say that was the beginning of my ministry, but of course it wasn’t really. That had begun long before and been nurtured by some very good people. So today I give thanks for them all. You know who you are. I’m still not quite sure how I got here but I do know they’ve been the happiest 11 years of my life. Mostly!

A silent-ish retreat (with bats)

This year’s clergy retreat was shorter than usual and for once I could have done with some more time. Anne Dyer was excellent and used lots and lots of art for her talks. Visuals definitely work for me. I did a lot of reflecting on Prayer and Hope and Love. No doubt, these themes shall occur in sermons to come.

The one who has hope lives differently.

Pope Benedict’s quote has given me something to think about.

What difference would it make to your today if you knew all your tomorrows would be well?

That quote, which may have been Anne’s, has stayed with me too. As I wear a bracelet which quotes Julian of Norwich, you’ll know it is one of my tenets of faith.

Things that made me giggle:

  • a fellow priest who wore slippers with Mr Strong on them and often admired them while in the chapel. (He admired them, not me.)
  • readings which included ‘Esau was an hairy man…’ should never be read on retreat
  • bats should never fly indoors

I did some knitting of a prayer shawl and some reading. The first book was A Song for Jenny by Julie Nicholson. Julie is the CofE vicar whose daughter Jenny was killed in the 7/7 bombings. She subsequently found it too hard to forgive the terrorists and stopped being a priest. This is her story and was recommended by a friend. It was indeed a fascinating story of loss but there was really no mention of her struggle with forgiveness – perhaps that is another book she will write.

I also read Hide in Plain Sight by Marta Perry which was one of my free Kindle books and was billed as being about the Amish community. In fact it was a cheesy sort of love story with a bit of whodunnit thrown in set in a family who lived next door to some Amish people. So the religious bits were pretty tenuous and felt kind of ‘added in’. But it was free…!

We did have a good chunk of free time one afternoon so Mother K and I scampered off to Melrose to have a look round the abbey because it was such a beautiful day. They were Cistercians and kept silence so we kind of kept the theme going. (Ok, let me confess that too much silence is just not bearable.) The stone there is so pink it really is quite beautiful in sunlight.

Retreat

I’ve not had a retreat for a couple of years now. I suspect it shows. There are lots of reasons: finance, time, poor organisation and lack of motivation.

For a few years I went to Lindisfarne and stayed at Cambridge House and did my own thing. When I was there I always popped in to the Lindisfarne Scriptorium and stocked up on cards and lovely posters. I saw today on Facebook that they have produced a CD and on YouTube you can see some beautiful images of the island’s sunrises and sunsets with the first track. Watching it this morning made me hunger for some time off.

Did she keep quiet then?

Did she heck as like!

Back from retreat having put on at least half a stone. The food was sooo good but way too much for a sylph-like creature like myself who has been on a diet. But when you’re in silence you can’t ask for smaller portions and my mother always said you should clean your plate.

Found a fellow extrovert and we skipped off during free time in the afternoons and did some galavanting round the Border countryside which was jolly nice. But sshhh… nobody knows.

I’m not sure that the content of the Retreat was exactly up my street but I did enjoy reading John Pritchard’s The Life and Work of a Priest. Much pencil marking went on. In fact, let’s just say that as retreat material goes it was excellent. I also managed to get up to date on my Church Times reading which has suffered off late due to too much desk work. (What did our Bishop look like in the fiddle-back?!)

My only complaint is that the house was freezing cold and I hadn’t taken enough in the woolly department. Not that I was scampering about in my summer gear, you understand, but a polo-neck fleece, fleece gilet and cashmere wrap still wasn’t enough to allow me to relax. And my room, whilst on the ground floor, was tiny and should really have been named the Ann Frank suite. (Everyone else had huge rooms.)  I spent most time huddled under the bedclothes on the single bed – I HATE SINGLE BEDS! – burning a gorgeous Space NK candle to keep me warm.  There was a log fire in the sitting room but they didn’t lay it until tea-time. I was fire monitor and kept it going thereafter which was a feat in itself.

And the chapel could do with some decoration. As we sat there for hours on end I had time to imagine how I would have done it. (One of my favourite pastimes that – redesigning worship spaces.)

But all in all it was a grand time really. I got away from the phone and the pile of papers on my desk, which are still here sadly. Not sure that I’ll sign up for the next one though. When will someone do a Retreat for Extroverts?

In need of silence

I am about to go off on the Clergy Retreat to Whitchester, near Hawick. Our retreat leader is Canon Michael Kitchener and I am looking forward to getting away from it all. We will be in silence and those who know me well will know that I am not always great with silence. It’s an ENFP thing, don’t you know? But even if I do listen quietly to my IPod in my room it will still be a huge sacrifice for me not being able to chat to people.

Had to make a quick dash to the dentist this morning because I had the most awful toothache last night. And there’s nothing worse than being away from home with toothache – and in silence too!  So I’ve had less than a millimetre shaved off a tooth which should now make my new crown – my new very expensive crown – fit better and not give me pain. Let’s hope that’s all it was. I’m taking lots of drugs with me just in case.

See you in 5 days refreshed and renewed.

Holy Island retreat

I think I could get used to island life. There is something very peaceful about being cut off from the rest of the world with no radio, music or news. Has the world changed much in the past 5 days? Mine has, in a de-stressing kind of way which is good.

What did I do, I hear you cry. Well, let me tell you…

Day 1
Arrived in time for lunch and met my companions in Cambridge House: 3 clergy (including one nun) and a clergy wife. Three of them were obviously not there for the silence. Pottered about the village and saw the Lindisfarne Gospels. Wished I’d brought some doodling things. Wandered round the Parish Church and couldn’t understand why everyone was gathered in the porch. Followed the line of their cameras and spotted the swallow’s nest with 4 babies, mouths open and crying. Birds were to feature heavily in this retreat. The noise! Much taken with The Journey – a sculpture in wood of St Cuthbert’s body being carried by the monks. (No photo) Read a lovely poem called The Journey which was heavily marked with copyright warnings (I hand-copied it in my journal). Went to Evening Prayer and then dinner in Kate Tristam’s Library. Even found a copy of Br Ramon’s Stations of the Cross which I have been hunted for for years. Left my companions doing the crossword and retired to my room to read. Birds still singing.

Day 2
Mass at 8am. Br Damian presided like he meant it. Read in the morning in the walled garden accompanied to the cacophony of birdsong. Finished Be Near Me by Andrew O’Hagan – recommended. After lunch went to the Castle with some of my companions. Nat Trust rip-off but nice views. Evening Prayer, Supper followed by raging toothache. Compline in the Crypt of Marygate House – cosy. Back to my cell for painkillers, reading and cursing the bloody birds still screaming outside. When do they go to sleep around here?

Day 3 Feast of St Benedict
8am Mass – Br Damian again. He is good. No dentist, doctor or chemist on the island. Told I will have to take my toothache to Berwick. Decided to see if it goes of its own accord. Went to Healing Service – hot hands. Toothache abating slightly. Wandered round the Abbey ruins and museum. Found a wonderful shop – The Scriptorium. Glorious goodies in multi-coloured script. 3 of my companions left to go back to Oxford so only me and the nun now in Cambridge House. Had a nice chat with the nun over lunch. Read Preaching as Testimony by Anna Carter Florence which I am reviewing for the Expository Times. (It was jolly good.) Evening Prayer and more reading.

Day 4
Do these birds never sleep? 8am Mass – President was a retired priest, name unknown. Drizzling rain all day. Read A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes. Weird. 2 new guests arrived and I knew one of them from Coates Hall days so we had a wee blether and caught up on the gossip. Warned them about the birds. Read, dozed and pottered about. Evening Prayer. Started new book: An Infinity of Little Hours. (If you’ve seen Into Great Silence you should read this.)

Day 5
8am Mass – President Kate Tristam. Only a few of us today so we all stood in the Sanctuary. Wish I could get my 8.30am and Thursday lot to do that. Final jaunt down to the water – never did get out to St Cuthbert’s island… next time. Packed up all my belongings (you’d think I’d been there a month!) and safe journey home. Can’t wait to go back.