The Downside Decision—A Hasty Reflection

ON WEDNESDAY THE COMMUNITY at Downside Abbey, the oldest community in the English Benedictine Congregation (the EBC itself the second-oldest congregation in the Benedictine order), elected Dom Nicholas Wetz as the next Abbot of Downside. Dom Nicholas is a monk of Belmont Abbey and has been serving as prior administrator at Downside in recent years. The previous abbot’s departure was unhappy, and the burdens of the school—its expense, its governance and ongoing demands of safeguarding—have taken a further toll on the brethren at Downside. Separating the school from the community has been a complicated task.

Today the community at Downside announced that it has decided to move from its impressive home in the west country. Its new home is yet to be decided. There will be many factors to be taken into account in reaching a choice of new home. In the few hours since the announcement the reaction has principally been one of dismay. Downside is effectively synonymous with its glorious abbey church, with its soaring neo-gothic nave, exquisite side chapels, and a sacristy that is truly remarkable. With Dom Oswald Sumner it became noted in the twentieth century for its vestment making and most EBC houses will have sets from Downside, Douai included. Their design was very much in the monastic stream of the liturgical movement: conicals, semi-conicals, semi-gothics, in fine silks and adorned with elegant orphreys.

It is a community with a strong scholarly tradition, again very much in the monastic way of things. Downside was the heart of the movement a century ago to bring a more monastic ethos into the EBC, beginning with itself. It was not wholly successful and there were casualties, many of which were fruitful in their own way, as with Dom David Knowles. The community had provided its monks as the first leaders of the Church in Australia, in the persons of the young vicar apostolic Bernard Ullathorne, succeeded by archbishops Bede Polding and Bede Vaughan. Dom Gregory Murray was perhaps the pre-eminent monastic musician in his day. Dom Hubert van Zeller was a popular spiritual writer, a talented sculptor and his caricatures of monastic life under the nom-de-plume Brother Choleric remain a delight. Its school has long been at the heart of the English Catholic establishment.

I could go on.

It is undoubtedly heartbreaking news. Yet is it all gloom and doom?

In electing an abbot, indeed a monk of another community, as their abbot after a period of administratorship, the Downside brethren have decided to resume fuller responsibility for their destiny. An extended term of administratorship, and an extension of all the congregational structures of support, would have been little better than lying at anchor near the shore. The inevitable decision either to return to the difficult terrain of the shoreline, or to put out into deeper water (cf Luke 5:4), would have been evaded. Prevarication can only endure so long.

In deciding now to move, the Downside community has chosen to put out into deeper water. We must pray their catch be great.

It is heartbreaking that they will leave their historic, and beautiful, home. Yet, a monastic community is far more than its buildings. Its buildings are very important, of course, and a monastic stability ensures that a community feels wedded to its place. However, all the ancient houses of the EBC have moved before, sometimes for a positive reason, sometimes compelled by circumstances. Douai’s return to England in 1903 was not a free choice. If not for the French government’s association laws perhaps we might still be in Douai, near Lille, with our lovely Pugin church and an un-despoiled library. But we are not, and in fact we flourished for decades on our return to England. We made the best of our emergency accommodation, and indeed we are still living in it. It was the second time we had been forced from our home; the French Revolution forced us from our small but significant monastery in Paris, in the church of which lay the exiled James II’s tomb. In many ways Paris was the site of my community’s glory days. But time and circumstance move on, and monastic communities must adapt as necessary, or die. Who knows but Douai may yet move again one day.

While its buildings are a glory of the Downside community, they are also a burden to it. They must be maintained, at great expense. The burden of popular esteem and attachment, as well as their own sense of being at home in them, weigh heavily on the community without doubt, and such a weight limits a community’s freedom of decision, both practically and psychologically. In setting aside this burden, beautiful and historic though it is, the Downside community has decided to make itself freer to make the necessary choices for its future. Monastic life has to be guided by more than the need to be curator of historic buildings.

There is a parallel in the tradition of EBC schools. All the EBC monks’ houses had schools; it’s what we did, along with working on the mission in England and, later, beyond. Yet the world has changed so much, as has education, that running a school now is not something that a monastic community can easily do any more. The burdens of modern administration and financing, maintenance of plant and appointment of staff—quite apart from the modern recognition of the need for enhanced safeguarding—are beyond the capacity of monastic communities. If we are brutally honest, tradition notwithstanding, running a school in the modern sense is not easily accommodated to the Rule of St Benedict. But more prosaically, running a school is now beyond the practical capacity of the modern EBC houses. Some of us closed our schools long ago, and have in many ways prospered because of the decision to do so.

When a monastic community feels it must staff and maintain a school, especially one of historic esteem, then its monastic vocation is to that extent constricted. St Benedict did not envisage a community of school masters; nor, indeed, of parish priests. It is almost certain that the monks of the EBC will have to face up to these historic inheritances and determine whether they give life still to their communities, or whether they have become burdens too great, too distracting, too constricting to bear fruitfully. They are happy burdens while they can be easily borne, but when they cannot the brethren surely must take priority over their buildings, their schools, their history, their traditions and their public profile.

Sad as it is, I cannot help but wonder if this is the first of many hard decisions to be made in the EBC over the next few years. In 20 years, there will be no monks in schools, and maybe there will be none in parishes either. Without schools or parishes, the monasteries of EBC monks will either scramble to find another “mission,” or they will embrace the mission already given them in the Rule of St Benedict—to establish a school of the Lord’s service, to live by the work of their hands and to sanctify each day with the worship of God in the Opus Dei, to welcome the pilgrim and offer a spiritual oasis in the desert of secularism, and above all, to prefer nothing to Christ (RB 72)…nothing whatsoever.

It’s a tough call.

21 thoughts on “The Downside Decision—A Hasty Reflection

  1. Your post makes me sad Father— sad in many ways.
    It seems this is just one more bit of loss in a current sea of both loss and change.
    I very much love the ancient edifices that are often attached to the varying religious/ monastic orders— throughout Christendom, they have been the safe havens, the beacons of light and the tangible representations to those mysteries that are so much greater than our own.
    No more monks in schools or even parishes— no more schools to be tended to or overseen by these particular religious members…change for better or worse—
    Christianity needs, more and more those who will embrace the list and suffering and the persecuted— of which those numbers I fear will be growing exponentially over the coming years, if not months

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  2. If only they had listened to the ideas,suggestions and spiritual teachings of Dom David Knowles who wanted to establish a new more fervent foundation which would be fully contemplative; instead of domination by the classroom,compulsory games and CCF. They ignored him and would not listen to this saintly monk. He saw that the traditions of the modern English Public school got in the way of a properly Benedictine life. Maybe it will “all come out” if and when they publish his manuscript autobiography – isn’t it still in a safe ? He has been dead for about forty years and so any kind of 50 year rule could be swayed. I am sure that we would learn a lot – probably not to anyone’s credit.

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  3. @Julie, I could not have said it better myself. It really is so sad that this is happening. I hope that they are able to find somewhere they can continue to carry out their lives.

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    1. Thank you Leila— and I meant lost rather than list.
      These are such difficult days and we so very much need visible anchors lest we find ourselves feeling around in the dark, lost, unable to reach out and grab our one True invisible anchor—

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  4. Is the current set up ‘fit for purpose’, is it a ‘school of the Lord’s service’, does it help those in the monastery, and those beyond with its prayers, to become saints?

    Whatever the problems of monasteries – issues with buildings, balancing the books, errant brethren, the apostolate, etc. it should all be in reference to the one end we are all created for – the only thing that matters, to become saints.

    The answer to all the problems that we are presented with is Christ – our personal sanctity matters far more not only for ourselves but for all – most certainly in ways that we could not dream of.

    This is all far more important than a building – the riches of this world are only for this world and may ‘get in the way’ so to speak.

    Good luck to the brothers of Downside – like all of us they need God’s love and mercy. I for one will offer my prayers for them today.

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  5. Dear Fr Hugh. What a sad day. My connection with the Benedictines began with Fort Augustus & my good friend Dom Gregory Brusey who, on the closure of FA, moved to Ampleforth, where he is buried. I met Dom Gregory through his sister, Sr Genevieve of the Sisters of St Vincent de Paul. He was a wonderful musician & composer who studied in Prague. I have attended retreats at Fontgombault & Flavigny in France & still count Dom Pius Mary as a friend even after his transfer as Prior to the new monastery in Australia. My prayers are with you & the community & I know that with the guidance of God & St Benedict your community will make a good choice & continue to prosper. AMDG.

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    1. Thank you David—you have a rich history of Benedictine nourishment. For the record, I am not a monk of Downside but of Douai, so I will have no say directly in the future of the oldest community of the EBC. Pax.

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  6. Dear Fr Hugh, I agree with all you have said concerning the great loss that a move from Downside will entail and the context you give with respect to changing circumstances and discerning the charisma of the community. The statement on the Abbey website also mentions something that has informed the decision to move, something that should not omitted, that of the child abuse that occurred at Downside. “The last six years have given the Downside Community time to reflect with sorrow on failures in the care for children entrusted to them and to discern the Community’s future.” https://www.downsideabbey.co.uk/news-from-downside/

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    1. But of course. This is fundamental to their realisation that living on the same site as the school is not really feasible. The abuse crisis will probably be the end of directly-Benedictine education in this country within a few years. The continued presence of the school at Downside would make it difficult for any other community to move in to the monastery. Pax.

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  7. There are other distinguished names one could add to your list: the two Abbots Butler, Doms Hugh Connolly (another Australian!), Illtyd Trethowan,Mark Pontifex among them. In the early 1960s Downside was one of the intellectual centres of English Catholicism and, through Abbot Christopher Butler, an institution of global influence. It, has, so far as I can tell, lost that eminence. Why? Was Dom David Knowles right in thinking that schoolmastering would eventually drag it down?

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    1. Oh there were many more names I could have mentioned, I quite concede. Perhaps the Stirs left a wound that waned without ever fully healing. In EBC houses the schools developed into tails that wagged the dog, as we all learned, or are now learning, the hard way. Knowles, who ended his days far from monastically, exposed the conundrum at the heart of EBC identity: which is more important- the monastic or the missionary life? (In the latter I include schools as they take monks out of the cloister.) Pax.

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  8. The problem the EBC seems to be facing is that of retaining its specific charism and identity. One does not need to join an EBC house in order to live a more cloistered life with a more literal interpretation of the Rule of St Benedict. Many such communities already exist, some flourishing, others dying.

    What positive statement can you make about the EBC? It currently seems to define itself in negative terms (what it once did, what it can no longer sustain, what it needs to leave behind, etc.). For what positive reason could a man called to follow the Rule of St Benedict join an EBC house rather than a community of cloistered Benedictines? And what of the existing monks in the EBC? Will former parish priests, housemasters, headmasters and the like willingly embrace a life in which their monastic work could amount to peeling the potatoes and doing the washing up?

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    1. Your remarks “peeling potatoes & doing the washing up” seems a little harsh. After all these men did not (I think) become Benedictines to be parish priests, headmasters et al but to be monks who were then called to these positions. I’m sure that, if they are true Benedictines, they will return to the cloister & undertake whatever tasks their superiors ask of them be it peeling potatoes or anything else.

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  9. All of us who live without servants (I have none) have to do such menial tasks as peeling the potatoes and doing the washing up. This is just part of everyday life and my comment was not meant to be disparaging. My point is that if a man deliberately chose a form of monastic life in which positions of considerable pastoral responsibility could come his way, that was presumably because he felt called to a monastery that is somewhat different to, say, an enclosed monastery in a contemplative congregation, where such positions would be rare or even non-existent. Men join a specific monastery with a specific tradition, which includes its work. I am interested to know how the EBC plans to hold onto its identity when so many of its pastoral activities seem to be ending. New recruits will able to freely choose, but existing monks may not be spiritually and mentally equipped to accept the change. The difficulty they may experience in this transition would not, in my view, entitle anyone to question whether or not they are ‘true Benedictines’.

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  10. Fr Hugh, I assume you’ve seen the letter from Joseph Bevan in the Tablet (I’m astounded that they published it)? Dr Shaw has reproduced it in his LMS Chairman blog – in your blog roll, so I won’t link to it. It’s very interesting.

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  11. Hi Brother,
    Could you please answer the following? I asked at the end of another article but perhaps you missed my comment. Thank you
    1. When Mass is celebrated in your parish are communion plates used?
    2. If not, why not? Thank you and God bless

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    1. I can only surmise that you know little of Downside’s history and place in the life of the English Catholic Church. That affairs have come to this pass is most unlikely to be the work of God’s active will. The Spirit, whose activity many invoke far too readily and on the scantiest evidence, may now be picking up the pieces to bring light from dark. This is my prayer.

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