Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday, 3 September 2020

Downside Abbey

Today is the Feast of St Gregory the Great in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, and it therefore seems to be an appropriate day upon which to reflect a little on the announcement last week that the Benedictine community at Downside Abbey, dedicated to St Gregory, plan to leave the monastic complex there in the wake of the formal separation of the abbey from the school. There is a report about that at Benedictines to leave Downside Abbey. The history of the abbey, founded for English Benedictines in exile in 1607, is set out at Downside Abbey

I do not want particularly to comment on the problems the community there have experienced as a result of the revelations of abuse committed by former monks on pupils at the school. A search of the Internet reveals enough of the apparent failures of the proper duty of care there that are shocking. Together with some other Benedictine houses Downside has clearly had a continuing problem with this issue, and, as far as the outside world is concerned, failed lamentably to deal with it. Reading some of the reports one feels that there has not been the rigour exercised in visitation comparable to that of medieval diocesan visitations. As a result there has been a very public washing of dirty linen.

My immediate concern is not with past scandal  but future consequences. I visited Downside just once, in, I think, April 1990, whilst on an excellent Benedictine retreat at Glastonbury. No-one could fail to be impressed by the monastic church or the claustral buildings. Outwardly it presented a face of serene spiritual life. 

For the community to leave must and will, as the new Abbot indicates in an interview which can be seen at Abbot of Downside on his hopes for a 'new start' be difficult on individuals. When communities do leave their established home the wrench is not just personal, but corporate. It is often, conciously or unconsciously, an acknowledgement that the community is finished. 

Recent years have seen the closure of several once flourishing monastic institutions due to 
declining numbers. Most shocking of these, to my mind, was when the Bridgettine Sisters of Syon Abbey left South Brent to live with other nuns in a care arrangement in Plymouth and saw it as the end of a community that had survived everything fate could throw at them since 1415.

Anglican communities have done the same - two examples come to mind here in Oxford. Downsizing and shared resources with other communities were the beginning of the end.

I wonder how the relocated Stanbrook Abbey at Wass in Yorkshire - who, it must be said, do have more sisters than many communities - will flourish in their new outwardly austere buildings away from the nineteenth century splendours of Stanbrook in Worcestershire.

Returning to male communities the Anglican Fathers of the Society of the Sacred Mission had a fine tradition of training excellent Anglo-Catholic clergy at Kelham in Nottinghamshire. The Church of England in its wisdom closed the Training College - rationalisation was the idea I think - and the Kelham Fathers soon left Kelham Hall. That is now the headquarters of Newark District Council and the new Byzantine church, by common consent one of the great twentieth century church buildings of the country, renamed The Dome, is used for flea markets and the like..... SSM still survives in London, Milton Keynes, Middlesbrough and Durham, but its great contribution to Anglo-Catholic formation is a matter for the history books, not for contemporary mission - and its brand of popular but disciplined clerical life is sorely lacking.

The late, thirteenth, Duke of Bedford, who saved his stately home Woburn Abbey - somewhat ironic in the context of this post I must admit - wrote in his autobiography that he felt impelled to do so not just as part of the urge to preserve but that he was aware of other landed families who sold up their country house and estate, moved away - and died out. He saw the ancestral home as integral to the survival of the family itself as well as of the physical building and contents. The continuing success of Woburn and his family bear him out. The decline and extinction of the Dukedoms of Leeds and Newcastle bear him out - the abandonment of Hornby in the 1920s and of Clumber in the 1930s was followed by the disappearance of the families. The daughter of the penultimate Duke of Leeds set out the same argument in an interview a few years ago about families like hers losing their purpose once they left their ancestral home.

Monastics may indeed be called to a home that is Heavenly not temporal, but their earthly home is a reminder of who and what they are, of their inheritance and their spiritual ambition. I do therefore fear for the future of the Downside community.

St Benedict Pray, St Gregory Pray

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