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.