Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Oases in the Desert

I've just finished reading this book by Peta Dunstan, The Labour of Obedience, a history of the Anglican Benedictine monks of Pershore, Nashdom and Elmore. It's a fantastic story, beginning with the defection of Abbot Aelred Carlyle of Caldey Island to the Roman Catholic Church in 1913, telling how the Order survived just through Denys Prideaux, who was then a mere oblate but was convinced to take full orders so that the Benedictine life could be maintained in the Church of England, an aim to which he devoted his life and, arguably, sanity; of the personalities not just of Denys but his successors as Abbot and their battles with the less Ultramontane hierarchy of the Anglican Church; of the monks' gradual acceptance; of the dislocations of the 1960s and 70s, and the marginalisation of the monastic tradition since then. It's very well done.

It made me reflect what's happened to the religious life in the Church of England as a whole, particularly the Benedictine tradition. The Sisters of West Malling we know about and indeed hopefully I will be off there for a retreat in a few weeks' time. The six brothers of Alton Abbey, where we had our pre-ordination retreat from Staggers, are holding doggedly on to their gigantic plant in the Hampshire woods, and Edgware Abbey is still there with its atrocious buildings, but elsewhere religious communities have had to relinquish their grand premises and occupy more humble settings. The Sisters of the Holy Cross are now based at Costock:
... having sold the rather well-appointed Rempstone Hall for £2.5M. The brothers and sisters of Burford are now at Mucknell Abbey in Worcestershire, which in its starkness seems to reach back beyond the Middle Ages to something even earlier:

And what of the great foundation of Pershore/Nashdom itself? Well, the brothers made the move to humbler surroundings at Elmore in Berkshire in 1987, unable to keep up the gigantic Lutyens mansion which had been their home for sixty years. Last year they abandoned Elmore in turn, and this is where the remaining brethren are now, St Benedict's Priory in Salisbury:

It's the former house of the Principal of Salisbury Theological College, as was; and how permission was ever granted to build it in Salisbury Cathedral close one can't imagine, but there you go.

What this represents is the relinquishing of the great medievalist fantasy of monasticism, expressed through stunning buildings, elaborate liturgy, mitred abbots and ecclesiastical politics. Instead God seems to be sending Anglican monasticism back to humility, smallness, and a ministry of prayerful presence whether in the Dark Age isolation of Mucknell or the urban centrality of Salisbury. It's something different for a different age.

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