The APR marked its centenary in 2013. But the Retreat Movement was already over 65 years old in the Church of England when APR formed, with the first recorded retreat led by Fr Richard Meaux Benson in July 1858 for about a dozen fellow clergy.

In 1912 a Roman Catholic priest named Charles Plater published a history of lay retreats entitled ‘Retreats for the People’, which among other things recorded the great success on the Continent of three-day retreats in bringing laymen in France and Belgium back to Mass. This rang bells with many in the Established Church. Amongst other initiatives, a group of ladies and clergy formed the following year the ‘Association for Short Retreats’. A suitable house was purchased at Chiswick with 20 bedrooms, known as St Ursula’s, used for women’s retreats, to be followed by one for men in 1920 known as St George’s. The organisation was renamed The Association for Promoting Retreats because this reflected its work better.

By the end of the war, APR’s membership was halved and it could no longer afford a full time secretary. However the movement slowly recovered, and a clutch of new houses opened, some of which are still in existence such as Holland House, Shepherds Dene, Whirlow Grange and Launde Abbey. By 1966 retreat attendance peaked at some 20,500 nationally.

Since then, partly to seek to arrest the broad decline in regular retreat-going, retreat houses have begun to offer a much wider range of retreat experiences. A former Organising Secretary of APR summed up these changes in 1985 by saying: “Many people continue to value the addresses of a conducted retreat…But increasingly, it is the specialised retreats in which the retreatant is able to make the greatest possible use of the time which he or she can give.” So now we have painting and prayer, walking, and many others kinds of retreat. Since the 1970s, serving alongside the APR, the Roman Catholic and the Free Churches have formed their own retreat bodies, and there is full co-operation between them all under the umbrella of the Retreat Association.

Whether you want to make your retreat with others or on your own, APR still exists to help and advise and will gladly point you in the right direction; it is then between you and God.

Dr. Canon John Tyers has been retreatant, retreat giver, retreat house warden, and for three years, chairperson of both the Association for the Promotion of Retreats and of the ecumenical Retreat Association. His PhD thesis, of which this downloadable history of the APR is an abbreviation, was on the development of the retreat movement in England.