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.

Web Address Update (ie boring but short)

IN A FEW DAYS the hughosb.com domain will expire. It makes the blog easier to find but it is an extra for which I cannot justify the expense in these straightened times! It is $18/yr, which does not sound much but… it all adds up.

So if you have been using that handy form of the web address, you will need to add in wordpress from 16 February—ie, hughosb.wordpress.com.

Sorry for the inconvenience to those who found it convenient!

Fools Rush In—Brexit

On Facebook I decided to repost an article which reported on the Liberal Democrats’ extreme, and highly odious, policies on abortion. Therefore I advocated against voting for the LibDems. In response some have been enquiring as to whether I now support Brexit. It is something of a non-sequitur but not totally illogical, since the LibDems are explicitly committed to reversing Brexit.

However, responsible voting must allow for the fact that there is more than one issue involved in general elections; they are not single-issue referendums. That so many elections often revolve around single issues is another matter. That the LibDems advocate abortion with the barest of limits, and desire to export their anti-life advocacy overseas, represents a single issue which acts as an effective veto on their desirability. What good is it staying in Europe if we condemn our unborn, and therefore powerless, fellow human beings to arbitrary death? To vote for a single issue is usually unwise; the foregoing notwithstanding, to vote against a single issue is sometimes morally necessary.

Labour is no pro-life party either but Labour’s current advocacy of a second referendum should not be allowed to entice Remainers into its camp. The first referendum was a grotesque mistake; another wrong will not make it right.

The problem is the mechanism of the referendum in the British system. It is a glorified, and vastly expensive, opinion poll of those who can be bothered to give their opinion. It requires only a simple majority across the entire United Kingdom. A referendum is not legally binding and there is no mechanism to balance regional variation. Such a referendum is a recipe for discord.

In Australia, also governed on the Westminster system, referendums are required to change its written constitution. Ordinarily the proposal must pass both houses of Parliament (and always at least one) before it can be put to the people. To pass, the question posed at the referendum must be supported by a majority of people in a majority of the six states; that is, there must be a majority of votes in at least four states as well as a majority nationally—a double majority. Moreover, if the proposal being voted on affects specifically the constitutional rights or status of a particular state, that state must return a majority vote for the proposal to pass. Voting is compulsory in Australia. Thus the result will authentically reflect the opinions of the entire nation.

Only eight out of 44 such referendums have succeeded in changing the constitution. There is a high threshold to surpass, and this acts as a brake on ephemeral, or merely regional, enthusiasm. But when a proposal does pass, it has the secure support of the majority of the nation. It is not a perfect system, but it superior to what transpired in 2016 in the UK.

By contrast the Brexit referendum of 2016 required a simple majority among voluntary voters taken as a whole across the Kingdom. 51.9% against 48.1% does not represent a sufficiently wide margin to ensure widespread acquiescence to the result. In total 33.6 million people voted out of a registered electorate of 46.5 million. Thus the referendum result can only be said to have reflected with certainty the opinions of 72.2% of the registered electorate across the Kingdom. Moreover there is no mechanism to take account of significant regional variation. That is why Ms Sturgeon cries foul on behalf of Scotland, that its No vote was disregarded, as in one sense it was since a simultaneous majority of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom was not required in addition to the overall simple majority.

Another referendum will duplicate this situation, and no doubt exacerbate it. Having had the referendum, and the government of the day having pledged—unnecessarily—to act on its result, that referendum needs to be respected.

A further tragedy is that, absent a referendum system fit for purpose, it is not fair to dump all the blame on Parliament for the failure to enact, as yet, the referendum result. Parliament was not legally bound to do so. It is unlikely that MPs were elected solely on their opinion about EU membership. They were elected not to conform to the latest opinion polls but to act and vote in accordance with the principles and policies on which they campaigned to be elected, and also according to their conscience (St Thomas More could teach us much on this point). That is representative democracy. The referendum has set up a rival authority to Parliament, and one that is not countenanced in the British constitution.

In all this can we surely find the roots of the current debacle.

I am not pro-Brexit, but neither am I do-or-die Remain. Another referendum would be pure and destructive folly. The bitterness that has been injected into the British body politic is appalling. The sooner Brexit is done and dusted the better. Then we get on with trying to make the best of it.

No more politics hereafter, but it does at least save me writing at length to all those who suspect a change of opinion on Brexit. And it took my mind off the Church for a while…

Saving the New Mass?

This is being written on an iPad Mini screen, which makes writing anything beyond small gobbets a penitential work. But perhaps life could do with some more penance. Anyway, prepare for typos while I prepare for slings and arrows.

At present I am staying at the small but fervent Monastère St Benoît, in the steamy hills beyond St Tropez, and over the past week uncomfortably hot for one now acclimatised to the gentle summers of England. Of the many virtues of this house, apart from its excellent liturgical life, can be numbered its excellent liturgical library and the encyclopaedic liturgical knowledge of the prior, Dom Alcuin Reid. Both have enabled me to make some progress in preparing for a research proposal.

Yesterday was published online the text of Dom Alcuin’s paper at the recent colloquium of the Church Music Association of America in Philadelphia. The paper is entitled Reflections on authority in liturgy today. Continue reading “Saving the New Mass?”

A Little Lay Theology

When we read poetry, we turn down argument and crank up perception. That’s why theology in poetry—such as hymnody—can be so captivating, and articulate things in a way that is à point. This little nugget from Les Murray (†) strikes me in such a way:

THE KNOCKDOWN QUESTION

Why does God not spare the innocent?

The answer to that is not in
the same world as the question
so you would shrink from me
in terror if I could answer it.

Les Murray, from “Poems the Size of Photographs” (2002)

They Pretend Not to Notice

On 29 April this year Les Murray (b. 1938) died. He was the nearest Australia had to a poet Laureate. He was not from a privileged background, though neither was he raised amidst abject poverty. He was born and grew up on the rural north coast of New South Wales, not too far from Taree, in a district with the delightful Australian name of Bunyah. He was a countryman and never an urban sophisticate. His characteristic physical bulk emerged while he was at school, making this time not wholly happy for him. The death of his mother after a miscarriage when he was 12 was no doubt a trauma that marked him. He was a republican, but no one is perfect; he was not obnoxious about it, and apparently delighted the Queen when he received from her hand the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1999. He was an idealist not an ideologue. He promoted the rights of the indigenous population in Australia before it was chic, or “woke,” to do so. Having been prone to depression, the black dog left him after he endured a coma of three weeks resulting from a tumour on his liver.

What you will find it difficult to discover in the obituaries of the secular press, both in Australia and in Britain, is that Les Murray was a committed and practising Catholic. Continue reading “They Pretend Not to Notice”

Handel the Liturgist and other Reveries

One of the leitmotifs of the post-conciliar liturgical reform, present in the conciliar decree to be sure, is active participation. Unheard of before, it is a peculiarly twentieth century obsession. Claiming inspiration from St Pius X (though not as convincingly as claimed if one looks carefully at what he wrote in its context in Tra le sollicitudini), within the Liturgical Movement of the twentieth century there developed an ever more elaborated and extended advocacy for the congregation’s “active participation” in the liturgy. The congregation must be forced—not be allowed—to be mere bystanders or spectators of the liturgy, nor should more solemn liturgies become like concerts and the congregation reduced to an audience.

But why not a concert? Why the opprobrium for a concert, and the congregation an audience?

Let me come at this from another angle. Continue reading “Handel the Liturgist and other Reveries”

Pursuing a Point

IN THE COMMENTS of the post a few days back regarding the 50th anniversary of the new Mass, Richard makes some searching and coherent observations which merit pursuing. Rather than any answer to them being lost in the combox, it seems better to make my brief response to them a post in itself. You may want to read Richard’s comment first.

Richard’s reflections mirror those I elided into the word “curiously,” which is certainly not synonymous with “inexplicably.” I think the lack of mainstream recognition of the anniversary of the new Mass is certainly capable of some tentative explanation. Continue reading “Pursuing a Point”

Liturgy, Abuse and Humanae Vitae: Some Connections?

This year and next see some significant ecclesiastical half-centuries racked up. This year it is the encyclical Humanae Vitae‘s (HV) turn, and next year it is the turn of the Novus Ordo Missae (NOM)—the new Mass. There has been and will be much written on these milestone anniversaries, by many more qualified that this writer to comment. Rather than publish a parallel, and probably quite similar, commentary to theirs, it is intended here to offer a few contextual notes you might keep in mind as you read them. We need now to interrogate more searchingly and more insistently both what you read and hear, and our own current situation.

50-odd years on HV and NOM offer a study in both contrasts and congruities. What HV predicted of a contraceptive culture has been comprehensively fulfilled; the promised fruitfulness of liturgical reform has not. The sad accuracy of the one and the equally sad failure of the other share a common cause (among others): the turn to self as the standard of judgment and the focus of attention.

Continue reading “Liturgy, Abuse and Humanae Vitae: Some Connections?”