When is a retreat not a retreat?

When it’s a pilgrimage that encompasses over 200 miles of travelling; includes three churches, one ruined Abbey and one minster; and eight separate acts of worship – all in the space of 48 hours.

Pilgrimage Places of WorshipPickering Parish Church, Lastingham, Old Bydale, Rievaulx Abbey & York Minster.

Retreats are meant to give you space away from the rigours of ordinary life. Often, they involve extended periods of silence; time in prayer; meditation; focusing on icons or Bible passages; and generally getting away from it all. But not this one!

Each year, as part of the vicar school programme, we get to choose a retreat. In my first year, I went ‘fingerpainting for God’ [my title, not theirs] and inadvertently created a pair of heavenly orbs. Last year, I was on the only retreat that wasn’t cancelled by snow, a retreat in daily life that lasted the whole of lent. This year, partly owing to some epic diary clashes (all my own fault and largely theatre related), I was prompted to go for the mid-week retreat, rather than a weekend. Plus, this particular retreat looked right up my street. It would be a return to Wydale Hall near Scarborough (where we got creative 2 years ago), which is in a stunning location. And, it involved travelling around North Yorkshire, visiting churches and learning lots of history – basically, what all Clutterbuck family holidays were made of.

There wasn’t much time for sitting quietly, reading and meditating – but there were a lot of other things that you wouldn’t necessarily find on a typical retreat…

1) Steam trains
Sitting in the parish church of Pickering, listening to a talk on its historic wall paintings, I heard the unmistakable “peeeeep” of a steam train whistle. A moment later, I noticed the friend next to me checking the map on their iPhone and  wondered if they were checking to see where the train line was. As we left the church for a short break, it emerged I was correct in my wondering – so we set off to locate the train. Turns out, Pickering has a gorgeous old-school station for the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. ‘School’ was the operative word, as it looked like a location for many of the school stories I hold dear.

Pickering Station

2) Lambs
You know you’re not in London any more when you find sheep in a church graveyard. You’re definitely outside any kind of urban environment when you find a farm next to a vicarage! Up in the tiny village (hamlet, possibly) of Old Bydale, we met brand new lambs, some just minutes old. (In fact, we met a few lamb placentas too, but I decided they didn’t need photographing.)


3) Lectures on the history of spirituality in north-eastern England. As I sat upon the ruins of Riveaux Abbey’s Chapter House, listening to our Assistant Dean tell the story of St Aelread, I reflected that twenty years earlier, I would have strongly rebelled at such behaviour. In fact, I might have stropped back to the family car in protest of my Dad’s (because it is always our Dad who reads aloud from guide books in this way) über embarrassing actions!

4) Ruins
I love a good ruin. Especially on a sunny day and with 90 minutes to spend amongst the stones. (This was the most meditative point of the retreat. I spent a lot of time sitting on stones.)

Reivaulx Abbey

Reivaulx Abbey

5) Actual saints. Some of our contemporaries spent time contemplating icons. We spent a morning taking communion in the crypt of a church built upon the tomb of St Cedd. You can’t get much closer to an actual saint than that…

Lastingham Crypt

All in all, it was an excellent experience – albeit one that I’ve come away from realising that in my life I need both interesting, historical pilgrimages and space to meditate and reflect. At the end of the 48 hours I could have done with a retreat from the retreat!


This morning, I did an exceptionally British and Anglican thing:
I was 3 minutes late for the Ash Wednesday service I’d planned to go to, so I didn’t go in – just in case I looked foolish.

(My flatmate got up an hour earlier than usual and was in the shower when I got up. Then a lost tourist asked me for directions…)

Utterly ridiculous, but in retrospect, a good thing.

For one week only, Wednesday was a study day, not a working day, and I’d decided to make the most of it by attending an Ash Wednesday service at a church I’d never been to before. [Also, my church doesn’t have one, but I’m rather fond of the tradition. This would be yet another example of my excellent, high church Methodist upbringing…]

Having missed the 8.30am eucharist with ash at St James’s Piccadilly, I decided to stick around in the area and get on with my work until the 1.05pm service. As a direct result of this decision, I had a very productive 3-4hours of studying (Amos and Hosea essay notes are very, very nearly done) in a lovely Starbucks and the giant Waterstones (always good to have a change of scenery in between books), knowing that I had a set end time. After all, I didn’t want to be late again.

It was a good decision. No, an excellent one. I was at a table studying far earlier than I would have been at home (8.40am); I didn’t get distracted by household chores; and most importantly, I didn’t give up on my plan to get ashed.

AshedBrilliantly, I’d taken this before I realised that #ashtagselfie had become a thing this year.

For the unfamiliar, as a way of marking the start of Lent, on Ash Wednesday, the previous year’s palm crosses are burnt, mixed with oil and used to make a cross on the foreheads of those at the service – known as the ‘imposition of the ashes’. As the ashes are imposed, the following words are spoken:

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.”

No, it’s not the cheeriest bit of liturgy, but it’s important. As we all know, life isn’t all joy and laughter. We get things wrong; stuff goes badly; we don’t understand why – we are dust and to dust we shall return… Lent is a season of remembering this; of being penitent of our sins; and remembering the importance of Christ’s death and resurrection.

A lot of Christians get a little over excited about Lent. Social media becomes full of people declaring what they’re giving up (especially if they’re fasting social media itself, I’ve ranted about that one before); what books they’re going to be reading; or what good deeds they’re going to be taking on. I sometimes wonder if we make too much noise about it – after all, isn’t our fasting meant to be done in humbleness? Or perhaps it’s just many people’s way of being accountable and marking Lent in solidarity with others?

Lent has been a long time in coming this year (hello, Easter on almost the latest date it can be in the year…) so we’ve had plenty of time to work out our plan for it. So, as a means of staying accountable, here’s mine:

  • Read the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent book. Obviously, this decision was in no way influenced by the fact that the author of the book (Graham Tomlin, Dean of St Mellitus College) gave me a signed copy back in December…
  • Give up chocolate. I’ve NEVER done this for Lent before (I gave up meat for years, chocolate always seemed too obvious) and I know it’s the archetypal Lenten fast, but I suddenly decided yesterday that it would be a good thing. Partly because it’s a go-to comfort when I probably ought to be praying; but also because I’m preaching on fasting in a few week’s time and I figured I ought to practice what I preach – literally.

As a season, it’s a pretty important time for me. Academic deadlines are looming (two big pieces before March is out); decisions need to be made regarding curacies (this may be the root of my current emotional connection to chocolate); and by the end of Lent there will only be a few short weeks left of Vicar School. I get the feeling that Lent 2014 is going to be a time of preparation in several, rather important, ways!

“A new generation of vicars…”

One of the more random moments of this week took place yesterday morning, at my friend’s flat in Hemel, barely an hour into a day off with some of my favourite friends. My phone rang, and having already seen an email that had suggested this call was imminent, I went off into the next room to take it.

As suspected, the withheld number turned out to be a journalist from The Independent, who wanted to interview me about being a ‘young’ trainee vicar. Recent statistics released by the Church of England had shown that the number of under-30’s entering ministry is at a 20 year high (23%),  [I count as ‘young’ because I was under 30 when I was selected – no rude comments please!] and The Independent had been keen to write an article featuring the experiences of a few of the people who made up this statistic. When preparing the press release on this news, the Church of England media team had collated a few case studies, so I was already prepped for such an eventuality.

The journalist and I had a pleasant conversation, but all the while I could hear raucous noise from the next room where my friends were getting stuck into some seriously good brunch. Occassionally, I heard snatches of conversation about me –
“It’s Wednesday, this is normally a working day for her, maybe something’s come up…”
“You don’t think it’s that interview with The Independent she mentioned? I thought she was joking! No, I’m sure it’s not…” *More raucous laughter*

Miraculously, I got through the call without too much distraction and rejoined the throng keen to make up for lost time (and lost pastries). Upon hearing what the call was about, the girls collapsed into even more laughter – of excitement, rather than derision – and asked questions about photos and the like.

So now it’s online (and will be in print tomorrow) and it seems to have turned out ok – I hope the other youthful ordinands and clergy feel it has too.

A new generation of vicars Personally, I’m very glad that the chosen photo is of the curate from Call the Midwife. An interesting choice, as it also harks back to the last era in which those in their 20’s were regularly selected for ordination. 

However, I do have a few clarifications. (Always the way, when talking to journalists, especially on the phone while there’s noise in the background!):

1. Not ‘all’ my lecturers are on Twitter. The vast majority are, and there is theological banter (looking at you Lincoln Harvey, in particular!), but there are also Twitter refuseniks. [It’s my own fault, I probably forgot to say ‘most of…’]
2. I did not help to run a young women’s vocations day – I helped out at it. An important distinction that I think the true organisers of the day would appreciate. There is a huge difference between months of planning, and simply creating a few prayer stations; pouring tea; and talking to a lot of people!

Such are the joys of journalism, I suppose!

Also, anyone else baffled by the reference to ‘wing tips’ in the headline? My brief Google suggests that it’s a footwear reference, but it’s definitely not one I’ve come across in my forays into clerical wear catalogues…

Christmas jumpers and Archbishops

Let the history books of St Mellitus Theological College record that ‘St Mellitus Christmas Jumper Day’ was begun by the 2011 cohort. In years to come, when ordinands of the future don their colourful knitwear, I hope someone at the college will remember us…

Christmas Jumpers 2011Christmas jumpers, 2011. All bar three of us are now ordained. 

This year, Christmas Jumper Day took place, as is now tradition, on the final day of the autumn term. The fact that we had an extra-special guest that day didn’t appear to deter anyone, except for possibly some of the staff. (Though it should be noted that the fabulous Jane Williams, wife of Archbishop Emeritus Rowan, did wear one.) I’m not quite sure what ++Justin thought of the throng of jumper-clad ordinands in front of him, but as he managed to quote Miss Congeniality during his session, I can’t imagine he didn’t see the funny side.

Actually, given this photo, he definitely did!

Christmas Jumpers & ++JustinThe winner of the 2013 Christmas Jumper competition: Alice and this fabulous, reason-for-the-season, jumper (available in the men’s section of ASOS). The tiny jumper on her finger was her prize! [Credit.]

The day really was entered into with gusto! Even pregnant students didn’t shy away from the challenge – especially the lovely Jeni, in this home-made number:

Jeni's snowmanThat’s a Poundland Snowman affixed to a regular jumper. Genius.

There was a well-organised group shot, containing everyone (well, everyone who was still at college at 3pm after our second guest speaker of the day). Aren’t we an attractive bunch of vicars-to-be?

StMellitusChristmas2013Thanks Finch for the photo & for co-ordinating the jumper wearing! 

And my jumper? Well, I personally think it’s a fairly low-key number. After all, there are no red noses or glittering/glowing appendages – just redness and stars. This year I felt the need to accessorise with matching nails and shoes:

Christmas Jumper & NailsChristmas jumper with Christmas nails. The ensemble was completed with my sparkly Dorothy shoes.

Serious jumpersJean-Luc insisted we did not smile – I wasn’t being grumpy. Note his brilliant Christmas additions to a non-Christmassy jumper. [Credit.]

Revving it up

In the process of training for the priesthood, there a certain landmark moments:

  • Receiving your free Greek New Testament and Book of Common Prayer. (I likened it to the giving out of kittens in The Worst Witch. That may or may not be an appropriate analogy.) 
  • The first ordination (of other people) you attend having achieved ‘ordinand’ status.
  • Attending an ordination exactly a year before your own, watching people you’ve sat alongside in college wearing the full priestly regalia.
  • Receiving your interim report – the one that goes to your Bishop and potential curacies.
  • People beginning to confirm their curacies.

And then there’s the vestments fair…

There are no rides and no candy-floss, but there is an array of stands advertising and showing-off various clerical wares, from stoles and shirts to cassocks and surplices (and an awful lot in between). For many, this is a big moment – the first time they will don the clothes that in a few short months time will become their uniform. For others, in lower years, it’s an opportunity to witness familiar faces wearing unfamiliar outfits, and realise that one day that will be them too.

Ours took place on the last residential of the term, nearly a fortnight ago. Several companies crammed into HighLeigh’s old chapel and a host of apprehensive ordinands milled around cautiously examining their goods. I wasn’t actually going to go. Over lunch, I sat with a group of final year students who intended to band together in order to make the process less nerve-wracking. But I was intent on giving it a miss and spending some quality time in Hoddesdon instead (visiting Saver’s, it’s a residential tradition) – especially as I still don’t have a curacy to go to and therefore no idea of what my clerical outfitting requirements will be. [That’s a whole other, long, frustrating story which is not yet for this website.] Hilariously, I had a change of heart and ended up returning to my bedroom over an hour later clutching a cassock.

Yes, while everyone else was getting measured and placing orders, I found a cassock exactly in my size that was in the sale. The only snag was that to take advantage of it, I had to buy it there and then, finding room in my bag to get it back to London. [For the uninitiated, whatever your future church’s churchmanship, you will need a clerical shirt, cassock & surplice for ordination.]

Cassocked LizWhat you miss in this photo is the purple Converse peeking out from under the cassock’s folds. A good look I feel.

The moment when you see your friends wearing a dog-collar for the first time is very, very weird. There’s no getting over that. But the camaraderie is definitely a bonus – going it alone into the world of clerical clothing would be terrifying!

Revved up ordinands David in the jacket packed specific clothes for this occasion, so he could really look the part. That’s forward thinking!

On the train home on Sunday, I was talking about the fair with some first years who had popped into the fair just to see what things looked like. According to one of them, the moment when I emerged from the toilets clad in a cassock was a big moment. Not because it was hugely becoming, but because it was me, in a cassock – suddenly looking just like a vicar. We are all going to become clergy (God-willing) but it’s very easy to forget some of the practicalities that go with it…

The other discovery made at the vestments fair was just how awful some creations for female clergy are. I maintain that much female clerical wear is designed by men who are opposed to the ordination of women! It comes to something when the Dean of the college locates the worst of these and cheekily suggests that they might be perfect for you:

Fashionable Clerical threads I won’t name & shame, but the selection of shirts & models suggests that the catalogue hasn’t been updated since the early 1980’s.

Clerical shirts will be the breaking of me. I never wear blouses and unless Pepperberry brings out a clerical range, I’m determined to stick as much as possible to those bib things you can stick under regular dresses. If any female clergy out there have some tips on this issue, I’d gratefully receive them!

Finally, me in a dog-collar. [Or, as some wit on Twitter felt the need to point out, a ‘clerical collar’ if you’re being precise.] It’s not actually in a shirt as I wasn’t wearing one under the cassock. [For the record, there were clothes, just not anything into which a piece of white plastic could be inserted.]

Dog-collared Liz