The new Abbot of Downside has spoken of his hopes for the community after it announced the monks are to leave their Somerset monastery after more than two centuries.
Dom Nicholas Wetz OSB, who was elected Abbot last week after serving as the Prior Administrator for two years, said that the community of eight monks made the decision to leave its current home unanimously, after years of discernment.
The community is now considering various options that include moving in with another Benedictine Community or moving to a new location. Teaching in schools is “in the past now”, Abbot Wetz said, and the community faces the secondary challenge of rediscovering what it can offer the modern Church.
While the decision to move was made unanimously, Abbot Wetz acknowledged it had been “quite a wrench”, particularly for those monks who have spent most of their adult lives at Downside. The community is optimistic for the future, however, and felt confident that this was the right decision. “This place is just far too big for the eight of us to be rattling around in, and the sheer cost of that is phenomenal. So there is a sense in the community that this is the way forward. They’re positive about it being a new start, a fresh start,” he said.
The decision to leave Downside was made shortly after the Abbey split from Downside School, which is now operated by a separate trust, in the wake of a damning report into historic abuse at Downside by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. The legacy of historic abuse has overshadowed Downside in recent years, and Abbot Wetz stressed that moving out of the building was not “walking away” from the issue.
“I think this is something the community will be thinking about for the rest of their lives,” he said. “The people here aren’t the perpetrators, but they were members of their community. So there is a great sorrow for what happened. We’re not just trying to forget it: it’s always on their minds. It was a very sad period in the history of Downside, and they’re very conscious of that.”
There is currently no timescale for the monks to move out of Downside, and Abbot Wetz spoke of the importance of protecting both Downside’s heritage assets and its parish community. Possibilities include establishing a trust to look after the church and the library, for example.
“There are certain issues that might arise, but we’ll look at anything that comes our way. But I don’t think we’ll be turning the Abbey church into a nightclub or anything like that. It’s a beautiful church and we want to make sure it continues to be used by a church,” he said.
With eight monks remaining, the monks at Downside are also facing the reality of a dwindling community. Moving away from the monastery might also help to encourage new vocations, Abbot Wetz said. “People who might be thinking of a vocation come to stay here, and come to a very large, drafty old monastery and think - what’s going on here? We need to find the right balance, to enable people to think about their vocation and meet and talk with the community - which is very difficult here when they’re running around trying to do so many other things.”
This week a former Abbot of Downside, Dominic Aidan Bellenger, welcomed the community’s “decisive action”, and said that he and other recent superiors had “struggled to keep the show on the road.”
“A less ambiguous monastic life, not tied up with the socially divisive private school system or an increasingly professionalised educational world, seems more appropriate,” he said. “I know the last six years have been hard not least in being honest about past negligence in safeguarding and making amends to victims . At a community level Downside has not stood still and the rediscovery of a specific monastic spirituality found in lectio divina has been a great help, I am sure, in the discernment of a new way ahead. It should regain its simplicity and holiness and continue its long service to the Church."
Abbot Nicholas also spoke of the need to rediscover the rhythms and purpose of monastic life in the modern Church.
“I think we need to re-group and refocus. Certainly for us Benedictines, we need to go back to the core values. Smaller and declining communities need to think about how they live their lives: we’ve all seen communities dwindle as numbers have gone down until it’s too late to do anything. This community wanted to do something while they were still young enough to do something different, rather than just age gracefully and give up. This isn’t giving up at all - this is a positive decision to get back to offering the church something again.”