Adam's ancient and modern vision for Whalley Abbey - a place where everyone is welcome

When Rev Adam Thomas was announced as Director of Whalley Abbey it was a signal change is coming. Fiona Finch discovers what lies ahead for the historic Abbey site.

Friday, 29th January 2021, 12:30 pm

Not so very long ago Adam Thomas had a job in Cumbria working for the Lake District National Park.

Today the 52 year old former Park programme director and head of commercial services is on the brink of taking up a new post as Director of Whalley Abbey.

He is heading straight into the demanding role fresh from his post as assistant curate at a Lytham church.

Rev Adam Thomas pictured in Lytham where he is currently assistant curate at St Cuthbert's church Photo: Dan Martino

Go back further and Adam had a key role in creating a new stadium for Salford City Reds RLFC rugby team and was its Community Development Manager. He was also involved in the creation of radical Manchester football club FC United.

Add in working for the Methodist church as a scheme development and funding manager and roles at Salford and Manchester city councils and it is a CV which helps indicate why his church bosses feels he is the man to take up the challenge of repositioning the ancient and ruined Whalley Abbey as a thriving place of welcome for people of all faiths or none.

His task will be to ensure it becomes a distinctive place of prayer, renewal, reconciliation and spiritual development and reconnects with parishes in the diocese.

Rev Adam, who grew up in Swansea, had long had a sense of vocation. The former Catholic, who converted to Anglicanism eight years ago, had seriously considered the priesthood in his youth, noting “I originally did join a religious community a long time ago.”

The Abbey site - panoramic view of the grounds, ruins and main building

He opted instead for marriage and family life, but that sense of vocation remained.

The vicar was ordained some two years ago. He and wife Cathy are relocating to the Ribble Valley and will live in a cottage in the Abbey grounds.

Rev. Adam is to establish what is described as a modern monastic community centred on, but not exclusive to, the Abbey site, which is located on the banks of the River Calder.

It will be the first time in nearly five centuries, since Henry VIII’s Dissolution of monasteries, that such an intent has flourished there.

Rev Adam Thomas will be leaving his role at St Cuthbert's, Lytham, to become Director at Whalley Abbey

The community will be open to lay and ordained, resident and non-resident members. It will, he said be very different from the traditional communities which demand vows of poverty, chastity and obedience from recruits: “They don’t want to give up their married life or even their jobs but want to take seriously a deepening commitment to God and want to do that with the support of one another.”

There will be some residential and mostly non-residential members. He said: “Mostly people will be part of the community wherever they live, wherever that is in the world. They’ll commit to a rule of life - (it’s about) encouraging people to a discipline of prayer and charity, particularly looking at what we do with our skills and resources. It’s a new way of living.”

Rev. Adam has been inspired by communities ranging from the Anselm Community, Shemin Neuf (New Way) and the Iona Community.

It is intended to start with six full time residents on the historic site - two retired and widowed priests have already signed up.

Part of the Whalley Abbey ruins

He is also seeking two other people willing to give a year of their life: ”We’re going to advertise for them and interview - it’s a hard life to live on site, to serve others all the time, to be here as well as meet, greet and study,clean, prepare meals...”

Non-resident members will contribute as they can, with some perhaps volunteering for a day a week.

He continued: “There will be a cycle of prayer, morning, midday, evening and night prayers each day and there will be a daily eucharist as well and everyone is invited to join in with the prayers - and some will be online. We’ve all learned how to do online worship in the past 10 months.”

Cathy, headteacher at Ellel St John’s CE school at Galgate and former head at Ribchester St Wilfrid’s CE school is retiring from teaching to join Adam in building the community. He said: “If you feel God is calling you to something like this it has to be the two of us. This is something Cathy feels drawn to do. We both feel this is something we as a couple are drawn to do.

“We are very much taking inspiration from the Benedictine and Cistercian charisms of work, rest and play. We’re seeing prayer as work and seeing work as prayer and seeing rest as work and prayer. You order your life and in each part are doing God’s work. I’ll be a director of community - in the olden days it used to be called a warden or further back an Abbot."

The couple like walking, skiing and cycling, and Adam, who also teaches ordinands leadership and theology, enjoys cooking, music, guitar playing and singing.

The Great Hall in the Abbey House at Whalley Abbey

Leaving St Cuthbert’s at Lytham, where he has also chaired Churches in Lytham since January 2019, will, he acknowledges, be hard. The father of two grown up sons said: “I wasn’t ever expecting this. I expected to be a parish priest, a vicar and I’ve absolutely loved my curacy in Lytham. We know it’s coming to an end but it’s a hard thing to leave.”

But the couple, who used to live in Fulwood, near Preston, are used to change - at one point Cathy spent three years as head of a tiny school in the Isle of Harris. Adam commuted there each weekend, while working on the Salford Reds project during the week.

The monastic community will underpin the Abbey site’s other new role - as a Centre for Christian Discipleship and Prayer, serving the entire north west region. The intention is, pandemic permitting, to fully reopen the site from September. Bookings can be made from Easter.

The centre will be based at the existing Abbey House with has 17 rooms for those on retreat and a chapel.

Rev Adam takes up his new post on March 1 and acknowledges the Abbey’s new beginning comes at a very testing time: “This journey of Covid has reminded us what matters.”

Whalley Abbey will, he predicts, become a venue: “for all people of faith and without faith to have a place where they can come and make sense of their life ... you will feel welcomed, you will not be judged. Cathy and I feel privileged to be a part of this new community and hope that everyone who comes to Whalley Abbey, for whatever reason, feels in their heart that the Abbey belongs to them.”

Adam is sorry to leave Lytham, but is looking forward to his new post at Whalley Abbey Photo: Dan Martino