The sociable hermit

Medieval England was full of religious solitaries. Brother Harold Palmer is among the last of the breed. After leading a reclusive life for five decades, he wants some company.

This article was published in the November 2018 issue of The Oldie.

Photo: Mark Greaves

Photo: Mark Greaves

My car bumps up a bridal path, pushing past overgrown ferns. I open one gate after another, pass a crowd of sheep, then arrive at the top of a hill. There is a cluster of buildings, a ruined wall, a very old caravan and a church. Brother Harold Palmer, whose place this is, is nowhere to be seen – until, that is, I look in the church, and find him sitting there completely still, as if transfixed.

Brother Harold has lived on this hill in Northumberland since 1971; first in a caravan, then in a house he built with the help of friends. In the decades since then he has raised enough money to build a church and four monastic cells, designed by Harold with architects Ralph Patisson and John Sanders. The church, built by two builders over seven years, won a RIBA award in 2015.

Built in a Romanesque style, the church looks like it could be 1,000 years old. The view from the cells is breathtaking: a patchwork of green fields all the way to Scotland.

After a minute or two of silence, Brother Harold gets up abruptly to say hello. He has a missing tooth, and leans heavily on a stick, but his eyes sparkle. ‘Have you come to see me?’ he asks, sounding amazed. He shows me my cell, where I will stay the night. There is a paraffin lamp (electricity only came recently) and a hatch to put food through. He asks me to keep doors closed – swallows have a habit of flying in.

Brother Harold, who is is 86, has followed the same monastic routine for more than half his life, singing plainchant and reciting prayers in a church seven times a day. His approach is described as semi-eremitical – that is, he is somewhat a hermit, but not a full recluse. He has guests fairly regularly. He gets driven by a friend to the shops. Although he may go for weeks without seeing anyone, he has a mobile phone. His singular achievement is not solitude, but the place itself, and his decades-long dedication to praying in it alone.

Harold is, I think, a little uneasy about his journalist visitor. ‘I don’t know what you are going to make of all this,’ he says. His place is certainly more sociable than I had imagined. Just as we sit down for tea, an Anglican bishop and his wife pop in with cake. Another man, Frank, also appears at the door – he has come to walk his dog.

This is an excerpt. The full article can be read in November 2018’s issue of The Oldie.

New monastics stay in the world, but walk into great silence

Communities based on old monkish orders are springing up all over the country to answer a yearning for spirituality

This article was published in The Times on November 17, 2018

The Peckham Pelican in south London is perhaps an unlikely place to tune into God. Yet, on Sunday nights, the trendy arts bar is host to a friendship group with a difference: a dozen or so people, aged from 20 to 70-odd, who, in-between working normal jobs, aim to live a life similar to that of monks and nuns: praying together each day, living in community, and trying, in various ways, to help the world around them.

The Wellspring community was founded by the Rev Ian Mobsby, vicar of St Luke’s. Three members live with him at the vicarage. Another has moved into a flat across the road. The rest commute. Their shared life consists of services several times a week, a weekly meal, and, of course, Sunday night at the pub. Unlike traditional monks and nuns, they do not commit to a life of chastity. Instead they make yearly vows, dedicating themselves to a “rule of life” focused on prayer, hospitality, learning and service.

Wellspring isn’t unique. Similar communities, offering a part-time version of monastic life, have sprung up all over England, from south London to Leicester, Oxford and Ipswich. Supporters say they answer a hunger for community and a search for a deeper spirituality without the severe lifelong obligations that entering a monastery would require.

One Wellspring member is Simon Bubb, an actor. Even though his commitment is lighter than others – he lives further away now, and only attends a meal and one weekly service – he has found comfort, he says, in having a “sense of a home, a sense of people sharing life alongside me”, and in “slowing down” for a part of each day. The regularity, far from being onerous, “enables the rest of your life to grow and flourish”, he says. A large focus is on contemplative prayer – on “finding God through stillness and silence”. Unusually, the community is open to non-Christians to try out too.

A new group starting in Leicester has a similar focus. The Community of the Tree of Life, as it is called, will offer a kind of “gap year” experience of monastic life. Fourteen members will live in a refurbished Georgian building on the site of Greyfriars, a friary dissolved by Henry VIII – thus picking up where the Franciscans left off 500 years ago. (The site is just next to where Richard III’s skeleton was found.) They will study scripture, take part in community projects, and have an hour each day to pray on their own. They will become practised in silent prayer. “Silence isn’t an easy thing,” says the Revd Rachel Bennett, the prior. “It’s like building a muscle.” Members will learn to use prayer beads and meditate on scripture. “When you become still, you become attentive – you are able to hear what God is saying to you.”

The Tree of Life is not quite a pioneer: it follows the model of the Community of St Anselm, set up by the Most Rev Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, at Lambeth Palace three years ago. That has seen dozens of Christians from all kinds of denominations around the world, from Serbian Orthodox to Pentecostal to Open Brethren, living together for a year on the palace grounds, studying the traditions of (largely Catholic) monasticism.

Welby is a strong supporter of such communities. His first priority as archbishop, announced shortly after his appointment, was the “renewal of prayer and religious life”. At a synod debate earlier this year he said it was “almost impossible” to find a period in Christian history where there was a “renewal of spiritual life without renewal of religious community”.

The Bishop of Manchester, the Rt Rev David Walker, a Third Order Franciscan and an expert on new religious communities, says the revived interest shows that, even in a largely secular society, people still have “strong spiritual yearnings”. Informal religious communities, he says, allow people to embark on a spiritual journey accompanied by others and as part of a tradition. “It’s not just buying a few books from the Mind Body Spirit shelf of Waterstones,” he says. “Almost inevitably it is life-changing and leads to a deepening of life.”

Part of the story, he says, is about evangelicals rediscovering traditions that once would have been regarded as suspiciously Catholic. “A previous generation would have felt quite reluctant to look at the monastic traditions in that way,” he says.

For Mobsby, the vicar in Peckham, the effect of having a prayerful community around him has been profound. “I could not be a parish priest if this community wasn’t in the parish,” he says. “It enables me to do a really tough job.”

For centuries after the Reformation, monastic life disappeared from Britain. Then, from the 1840s, a wave of Anglican communities of friars, monks and nuns were founded in England to meet the needs of the poor. At the same time Catholic convents and monasteries began to be established, prompting alarm in Parliament. Sir Thomas Chambers MP called for an inquiry, fearing nuns were being held against their will.

New monastic communities are unlikely, of course, to provoke the same anxiety. But supporters like Welby hope they are the start of something just as far-reaching.

Ministers all dressed up with no one to listen

As a result of falling attendances, the Church of England is having to adapt to one-person congregations in rural areas

This article was first published in The Times on February 3, 2018.

Carolyn Brawn had prepared everything for the Sunday service — the sermon, the prayers and the readings. When she arrived to lead a service at St John the Baptist church in Achurch, a village in Northamptonshire, only the warden turned up. It’s an increasingly common experience in village churches across Britain. “It was very peculiar,” says the Church of England reader who is authorised to lead certain services. “Instead of delivering a sermon I just talked to my friend.”

Villagers gathering in church on Sunday is how many of us like to imagine rural life, but owing to a decline in churchgoing, this vision is under strain. Rural parishes are serving ever-dwindling handfuls of communicants. In some cases ministers are turning up to lead a service only to find there is a congregation of one — or none. After all, what is the point of an empty church?

At Achurch it was decided that a change was needed. A family service was introduced once a month involving craft activities and children acting out parts of the Gospel. Average attendance increased to 15 people, with families coming from other villages.

The parish committee never considered closure. Mrs Brawn, who has been a warden there for 20 years and a reader for nine, said she would be devastated if the church were to close. “If you lose the church you lose the heart of the community,” she says.

At other churches the problem can be harder to fix…

Read the rest of the article here.

God’s management consultants: the Church of England turns to bankers for salvation

Justin Welby wants to focus on growth – and has City high-flyers on hand to help him do it. Can he take his fractious Church with him?

This article was published in The Spectator.


A new mood has taken hold of Lambeth Palace. Officials call it urgency; critics say it is panic. The Church of England, the thinking goes, is about to shrink rapidly, even vanish in some areas, unless urgent action is taken. This action, laid out in a flurry of high-level reports, amounts to the biggest institutional shake-up since the 1990s. Red tape is to be cut, processes streamlined, resources optimised. Targets have been set. The Church is ill — and business management is going to cure it.

Reformers say they are only removing obstacles that hinder the Church from growing. Opponents, appalled by the business-speak of some of the reports, object to what they see as a ruthless focus on filling pews.

Two reforms in particular have generated headlines. One is the plan to swipe £100 million from the Church’s investments to pay for more priests (target: a 50 per cent increase in trainee clergy by 2020). The other is to give business-school training to bishops and deans and, more controversially, to identify a ‘talent pool’ of future leaders — in the official language, people ‘with exceptional strategic leadership potential for Gospel, Kingdom and Church impact’.

Provoking more anxiety, though, is the emphasis on growth in numbers. Half of the central fund distributed to help poorer dioceses is to be diverted to support thriving projects. The previous system was thought to ‘subsidise decline’. The new approach, to be brought in over ten years, is meant to ‘incentivise… Church growth and innovation and flexibility’.

To many in the Church this feels like new ground. The C of E, they say, should be focused on God, not growth. The Revd Canon Professor Martyn Percy, dean of Christ Church, Oxford, says he has received hundreds of emails and letters from people worried by all the talk about ‘efficiency, success, targets and data’. Jesus, he says, ‘didn’t spend a lot of time going about success’.

Such unease is only likely to be heightened by the involvement of high-flying City execs. One report was written by Lord Green, ex-chairman of HSBC; another by John Spence, former chief executive of LloydsTSB Scotland. A third refers to a working session, requested by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, with executives at Lloyds Bank. (Success, Church officials were told, ‘requires focus, determination, organisation and adequate resourcing’.)

Read the rest of the article here.

Meet the medical experts who will be guiding Spectator Health online

This article was published by Spectator Health on 19 February 2016.

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The media’s coverage of health matters. It affects what foods we buy, what pills we take, whether or not we get our children vaccinated. Yet health reporting is confusing at the best of times. Sometimes the experts don’t agree. More often, the media goes with a fresh angle because it is interesting, and the true picture is obscured.

These days it’s not just the journalists who get blamed. The new scapegoat is the university press office, which can hype up research in a way that distorts the actual findings.

That’s why Spectator Health has assembled a panel of medical experts to cut through dodgy press releases and offer a reliable verdict about the value and robustness of each piece of research that we report on.

Our reports (as in today’s here) will contain a ‘sniff test’ from one of our medical experts which will point out if the conclusion is new, long established or obviously wrong, and, if relevant, draw attention to more robust research in the same area. Each paper will get a score out of five — zero for meaningless PR guff, five for gold-standard research.

The medics and academics who are lending their expertise are GPs Dr Chris Hall, Dr Roger Henderson, Dr Michael Banna and Dr Ryan Maginn, cardiology registrar Dr David Warriner, cardiologist Prof Robin Choudhury, obstetrician-gynaecologist Dr Tarek S Arab and pharmacologist Prof David Colquhoun — all of whom can spot a dodgy Daily Mail headline from a mile off.

That way we can combine the virtues of good journalism with proper medical rigour. And, the next time you are baffled by claims that beetroot juice prevents dementia or that bacon will give you cancer, you know where to find a bit of sense.