The monks of Downside Abbey in Somerset elected a new abbot last Thursday, according to sixth-century rules laid down by St Benedict. The next day, they sent an email notification saying they had voted ‘to make a new start and to seek a new place to live’. It was a shock to those who know the place. The monks will leave behind a beautiful abbey church built in the Gothic Revival style — its 166ft tower visible for miles around — a monastery and cloisters, the largest monastic library in Britain and a grand-looking public school with more than 300 pupils.
It’s as if a piece of English Catholicism, like a decaying chunk of church masonry, has fallen away. But it has been a long time coming. So many of the monks I knew while at school at Downside in the early 2000s — some of them towering figures, it seemed at the time — have died or left already (some with their reputations intact, others with their lives in ruins).
One is now a priest in a thriving American parish. Another is in Rome. A former abbot quit entirely and got married to one of the school nurses. For the handful of mostly elderly monks left, the decision to leave cannot have been easy. They will have prayed from dawn till dusk. They know that there were enormous failings which allowed child abuse to take place in the school for decades.
The guilty men, as in other Catholic settings, were then wrongly protected by the institution. An unwavering deference from lay Catholics towards them helped. But it was the bonds of loyalty between the monks themselves that led to disaster. These bonds were almost always prized over the safety of the boys in their care.
By definition monks aren’t worldly, but their political naivety and stubbornness in the past few years backfired badly. About eight years ago, when historic abuse at Downside was unearthed, there were calls (including from me) for the school and monastery to separate formally. They were owned by a single charitable trust — and all the trustees were monks, who held the purse strings and therefore called the shots, even after a lay headmaster was appointed. I argued my case for separation on a visit to the school and was told by a monk that they would resist such a ‘confiscation’. This was surely a mistake. Had they managed the overdue reforming of the school’s governance with a little more foresight and humility — long before several of them appeared in the dock at Theresa May’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse — things might have been different.
Nevertheless, the monks’ decision to leave is a bold move and the right one now, guided by an outsider: the new abbot brought in from Belmont Abbey. They have put lay Catholics in charge of the school and finally set it free, at great financial cost. During the splitting of the single trust into separate school and monastery trusts, Renaissance paintings were dusted off and sold at Sotheby’s, including a Bernardo Zenale depiction of St John the Baptist that went for £225,000.
It may not work in the long-term — St Mary’s Shaftesbury, a West Country Catholic girls’ school where a few of my friends’ wives went, has recently shut down after too many loss-making years in a row — but it is well worth trying. Downside, for all its faults, remains hugely popular with current parents, their sons and daughters, and former pupils who visit, especially at Easter and for wonderful midnight masses at Christmas. One American alumnus recently gave $1 million for bursaries. That’s pocket money to a school like Eton, but a significant sign here of faith in the future.
The monks will also see this move in a wider context and weather it for that reason. They are really a migrant community, founded in exile in Douai, Flanders, in 1606, where they trained priests for the English mission, two of whom were martyred and made saints. As an English monastic house with a small college, they were forced to flee back to England after the French Revolution, finding lodgings with a former pupil in Shropshire, until they bought a farmhouse at Downside in 1814.
To begin with, the chapel they built there was disguised to the outside world, with no distinguishing features. The Somerset locals were wary of these strange newcomers in their black habits. But in the decades after Catholic Emancipation, the monks began to assert themselves, building the abbey, described by Pevsner as ‘the most splendid demonstration of the renaissance of Roman Catholicism in England’, and buying hundreds of acres more land. The school began to prosper and resemble its non-Catholic rivals such as Sherborne and Winchester.
There is no question that, especially in the second half of the 20th century, there was what one former monk called a ‘heart of darkness’ at Downside, despite its outward signs of success and the positive experience of so many pupils like me. It has been a painful decade, especially for the victims of abuse and, I would add, those monks who were good men trying to live their vocations faithfully. But it feels as if the light is finally breaking through.