Slip Sliding Away: Retreats and moving Beyond neo-Puritanism. (updated)

“God only knows, God makes his plan
The information’s unavailable to the mortal man
We’re working our jobs, collect our pay
Believe we’re gliding down the highway, when in fact we’re slip sliding away

Slip sliding away, slip sliding away
You know the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip sliding away.”

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel

Ruth Gledhill, on TimesOnline posted a wonderful article titled “On Retreat.” It’s worth the read both for Ruth’s honesty and for her ruminations on the whole business of finding a community of hospitality in the rather confusing religious and social world.

At the close of the article she says,

“I'm fed up with being blacklisted for love, or becoming an unwitting lightning conductor that sparks the angst of disgruntled and unhappy women. I want some of that Zen serenity and wisdom to help me through the wilds ahead. This autumn and the ensuing months are not going to be easy times for the Anglican Communion, or anyone involved with it. Nor indeed for Muslims, or Israelis, or the Lebanese. Nor even for citizens of the US. I'm just trying to make sure that I, for one, am a little better prepared.”

Amen, Amen.

She comments earlier on the vision of The Archbishop of Nigeria bringing a more puritan form of Christianity back into style in England. She says:

“If Peter Akinola one day ends up running the Church of England, not as far fetched as it sounds, we face a prospective scenario where Christian couples will not be able to holiday together if they are unmarried and of the opposite sex. But what's to stop them going if they are the same sex - they could just book separate rooms. Who's to know? And anyway, is discrimination against the unmarried even legal in our new Human Rights nirvana? Is this really the kind of exclusive church that we in England want?”

It sure isn’t.

In the past few weeks a number of blogging friends have been on vacation, retreat, time away, to the beach, to the mountains … what ever. These are friends passionately engaged with the Church and the world, trying to make justice and peace both a reality in quite varied local situations. And what they report comes out in pictures of babies, vistas of sand and water, celebrations with good friends. It is almost as if “the nearer the destination the more we’er slip sliding away.” Some have returned to work less willing to focus on the “troubles” both in the world and in the church. And yet that is not quite true.

Ruth is finding something to strengthen her for the days ahead. I hope she finds it. Some of us have refreshment in the retreat or vacation and come back ready to work all the harder.

I am on a road trip (perhaps spiritually a walk-about) just hanging out in Maine for a week with friends. Lots of time to think, lots of time to listen, talk, mutter, wander around North East Harbor, look at boats, mountains, water… sort of a tableau version of the “perfect” Chinese painting – Sky, Mountain, Water, Land… and small and in place perhaps a house or a person.

But there is no Puritan here… this is the time that Walt Whitman talks about, the time of loafing and laying back in the grass. Thoughts go to warm bodies, languid and at rest, no passport necessary, simply associations with “thou” and “Thou.” This is a place of spirituality filled with Buber, Whitman, Blake, and maybe a touch of mad Coleridge and Anne Sexton. It is not the time or place for the neo-Puritan “orthodoxy” of mere words.

This is a time for practice. Ruth will do a bit of Zen practice. I will do not much of anything, but am practicing it as well.

And then I took heart in an entirely new way by hearing of the practice of the Archbishop of York, who got his head shaved and got anointed prior to entering a tent for prayer and fasting for seven days. All this part of a practice: the news article on this said, “The acts of preparation came as the Archbishop announced his intention to forego his seven days' holiday to Salzburg in order to camp inside York Minster where he has asked people from all over the country to join him in heart and mind to pray every hour for peace in the conflict between Israel and Lebanon, and for good community relations in Britain.” The Archbishop is on retreat to pray for peace and good will."

Stephen Bates of the Guardian has written a fine commentary on the Archbishop's retreat and fast, and the Province of York has published some wonderful pictures and prayers. Check out both! One quote from Stephen Bates' article was particularly wonderful."I tell him that his fast started on Sunday and by Monday there was a ceasefire. He shrugs. 'The more I pray, the more coincidences there are,' he laughs."

The nearer the destination, the more we’er slip sliding away… this time not from what God has for us, but from the mundane confusions of the world to the core of practice. The Archbishop of York is making the retreat TO the place we ought to go – to life closer to the bone, to the marrow. Maybe when he takes up ordinary duties at the end of this remarkable retreat he too will be able to say with Ruth, I'm just trying to make sure that I, for one, am a little better prepared.”

On my road trip I trust I am not just “gliding down the highway,” but in fact taking part in Ruth’s retreat, the Archbishop’s vigil, and maybe the essential loafing around, so that when we “slip slide away” it is to something beyond the violence we impale ourselves on in our treasonous efforts to take control of everything and everyone.

May the Archbishop’s time be blessed, and Ruth’s time be blessed, and her son’s, and those who took a break, and even I be blessed in far Maine.


  1. What drivel. A Christian retreat center was reluctant to accept an unmarried couple sharing one room! Is the church supposed to celebrate their fornication? And how,pray tell, would a "puritanical" AB of Canterbury have ANY influence over the ability of fornicators to vacation together? Does the CofE run all the vacation spots in the British isles? Peter Akinola probably wouldn't let NAMBLA run a convention in Westminster Abby (I hope the present AB would not either). Discrimination! Victimization! Get a grip will you!

  2. Hi Mark,
    This is a beautiful piece of writing, even by your high standards. Thank you.
    You know, I've noticed something about blogging. I'm aggresive, rude and downright offensive on my blog, I'll fight anybody, anytime, yet it's been a long time since the evil people have visited. On the other hand, my blogfriends who are gentle, loving, devoid of all bigotry and, well, Christian, have unwanted guests all the while.
    I doubt if it bothers you, too much, but it upsets some of my friends. I suppose that's why they do it.
    Enjoy your downtime.

  3. I sure wish I had some time for a retreat before the madness of fall. *Sigh*

  4. Thank you for this kind write-up of my blog. In response to the previous comment, I didn't intend to posit myself as a victim at all, though can see in retrospect how it came across like that. Perhaps if I hadn't been so tired and in need of a holiday I might have phrased it slightly differently, because I certainly don't see myself as a victim at all. Ruth


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