Spirit of the Age: The election of monastic life

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IT'S NOT something you much hear about, the election of an abbot. For a start, it doesn't happen very often. And, when it does, it takes place in a world in which the word "cloistered" applies to the more public aspect of life.

You could be forgiven, then, for assuming that it will involve the ecclesiastical equivalent of a CP Snow novel in which the plotting and backstabbing are no less deadly for being subtly nuanced and correctly parsed. Indeed, when the monastery is Benedictine you may think that dastardly deeds among the doms is obligatory. For we have the word of St Benedict himself on the intensity of internal monastic politics.

"It frequently happens," he says in Chapter 65 of The Rule, which he drafted as a primer for the cenobitic life, "that the appointment of a prior gives rise to serious scandals in monasteries. For there are men, puffed up by an evil spirit of pride, who regard themselves as equal to the abbot." The prior is the abbot's number two and in charge of the day- to-day running of the monastery.

"Benedict had it in for the prior," explains Dom Richard Yeo. He can afford to be generous about priors. He's just been elected abbot of Downside, the Benedictine abbey set in gently undulating countryside near Bath.

"I'll give you the low-down on everything," whispered a jovial old monk called Dom Francis, as I arrived in time for lunch after the sung midday prayers. The trouble was, all meals are eaten there in a silence punctuated only by the purposeful clink of cutlery on crockery. So the chances of his providing some indiscreet morsel of gossip along with the choice of cod or tuna (it was a Friday) was remote, though he did mutter some unauthorised jocularities about the apple crumble.

You could talk over the afternoon cup of tea. But, when I fell into conversation there with another elderly monk, the young priest who had been deputed to be my guide told him rather pointedly: "The abbot has given me a list of those to whom he may speak." Clearly he wasn't on it.

I had met the new abbot briefly. Abbot Richard is an odd-looking chap. His angular face speaks of austerity and the vein raised on the side of his temple makes him look as extraordinarily brainy, as he clearly was when I later interviewed him. His straight-backed walk as he glided the length of the refectory had something of a spectral quality about it. But if there was an ahistoricity to his appearance, the new abbot was modern enough to let me loose on his flock but old-fashioned enough to issue them with an abbatial injunction telling them what they couldn't say.

They were to divulge nothing that might disclose any divisions within the community which had been revealed during the election of the 11th abbot of this Monastery of St Gregory the Great, which was founded in France by English Benedictines in exile after the Reformation, and moved to Downside in 1814. Still, I pieced together an account of what had gone on there earlier this month.

The election proceedings began officially with a session called the Tractatus, in which the monastery's 36 monks met to nominate candidates and to discuss their respective merits. But the real decisions had been pretty well canvassed before that. "I think," one monk told me, "that there have been individuals who have taken other monks for walks and tried to persuade them to their candidate, although I have to say that I've never been lobbied or nobbled."

It's all a bit more oblique than that. Abbot Richard discovered that he was on the unofficial short-list only when he returned from Rome for the election. The next stage involved what the abbot conceded were some "bloodcurdling oaths". When an abbot dies or retires, the most senior person in the monastery is Benedict's dreaded prior. By virtue of that seniority, he was required to swear on a crucifix that he had engaged in no pacts or secret agreements over the election. Whereupon the other monks all touched the cross in turn and vowed: "I take the same oath."

Then, under the chairmanship of Dom Francis Rossiter, the English Order's Abbot Primate and former abbot of Ealing Abbey, 10 or so names were floated. The following day they voted, tearing names from a perforated sheet of paper. If there is no consensus after six ballots, the Abbot Primate can impose a temporary superior, for up to four years. "It has happened," confided one older monk, "but not in this monastery." Not so many ballots were needed this time, but after the vote the abbot-elect had to go off to ask Rome if he could accept, as he had for the past few years been temporarily seconded from the monastery to a key job at the Vatican, regulating enclosed orders of nuns.

Two hours later, permission came and the monks then processed to the church singing the "Te Deum". There is more to all this than ancient ceremonial. The monastery slowly takes on the character of the new abbot. His predecessor was a practical man who saw the future as a challenge. The abbot before him was a calm, patient and conservative man who knew how to bind up wounds. And what of the new man, a canon lawyer recently returned from the Vatican? The monks are open-minded. "We haven't a clear idea of the future. We hope the new abbot is the man to help us discover what that will be," one monk said. "The Rule of St Benedict is 1,500 years old, but it has to be of value to the church in each age. It's no good us following it to the letter and becoming a medieval theme park." That would certainly earn them a place in the Spirit Zone of the Mandelson Dome, but it might not be quite what the new abbot has in mind for Downside for the next millennium.

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