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Downside holds back from electing abbot
14 August 2014 13:38 by Christopher Lamb

The senior English Benedictine house is considering its future after the retirement of its abbot and the decision not to immediately appoint his successor.

A Prior Administrator has been appointed to lead Downside Abbey, in Stratton-on-the-Fosse, Somerset after Abbot Aidan Bellenger, who had served a single, eight-year term, retired.

Dom Leo Maidlow-Davis was appointed Prior Administrator by the English Benedictine Congregation (EBC). Downside might have been expected to hold an abbatial election on 8 August, the day that Abbot Aidan’s term of office was due to expire.

But instead the monastery announced Dom Leo’s appointment which lasts for two years and can be extended to four years. 

According to the constitutions of the EBC an administrator is appointed if a community is unable to reach a majority decision on who should be abbot. In the case of Downside the decision to appoint a Prior Administrator took place before any election. 

Abbots can serve continuous eight-year terms but the constitutions state that they are able to submit their resignation “for a serious reason” to the Abbot President of the EBC.

In a statement Downside said: “the monastic community is now looking to the future and in Dom Leo have a uniquely qualified person to take them into the next stage. His special function is to create space and time to enable the community to reflect with greater freedom on its mission and to prepare a dynamic vision for the future, then to elect as their Abbot the person who will lead them for the next eight years.”

The community has 20 monks - of which 12 are resident in the abbey – and has a prominent independent senior school attached. Its first lay headmaster took up post earlier this year.

In its statement the monastery, which this year celebrates 200 years in Somerset, said it remained committed to “Catholic, Benedictine education” and that Dom Aidan remained as Chairman of the school’s governors.

There have been difficulties in recent years following allegations of sexual abuse leveled against members of the community. In January 2012 a Downside monk, Richard Nicholas White, was sentenced to five years for abuse of boys at Downside School in the 1980s.

The monastery is an important institution in the Church in England and Wales and runs eight parishes in the Dioceses of Clifton, Birmingham and East Anglia. Downside also helped found three other monasteries: Ealing, in West London, Worth, in West Sussex and Portsmouth, Rhode Island in the United States.

Over the years its community has included a series of eminent figures including Bishop Christopher Butler, the leading English-speaking figure at the Second Vatican Council, Cardinal Francis Aidan Gasquet, a Vatican Librarian and Dom David Knowles a scholar who was Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge.

In its statement the abbey said the monastic community was grateful for Abbot Aidan’s term in office that had included a review of Downside School governance and the restoration and updating of the monastery library. 

Dom Leo has spent the last 11 years as headmaster of the school.