Abbot Alfred Spencer

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The Independent Online

Raymond Spencer, monk: born Scopwick, Lincolnshire 28 June 1915; professed as a Capuchin friar 1935, taking the name Alfred; ordained priest 1941; solemnly professed as a Benedictine monk 1952; Prior, Pluscarden Priory 1966-74; Abbot, Pluscarden Abbey 1974-92 (Emeritus); died Pluscarden, Morayshire 25 September 2001.

In 1966 the monks of Pluscarden Priory elected Dom Alfred Spencer as their Prior. He was dismayed, having no desire for authority and being repelled by the prospect of the Scottish climate. Persuaded that it was indeed the will of God for him, he put aside his own desires and proceeded resolutely to Pluscarden.

The monastery, near Elgin in Moray, had been given to Prinknash Abbey in Gloucestershire by the owner, Lord Colum Crichton-Stuart, with the intention that monastic life be established again there after a lapse of nearly four centuries. Founded originally in 1230, Pluscarden had ceased to function as a monastery at the time of the Reformation. When Prinknash monks arrived there in 1948, the church was in ruins and the conventual buildings were barely habitable; but, by 1966, monastic life was sufficiently well established for Prinknash to grant Pluscarden independence, and the right to elect their first Prior.

When Spencer took over, there were 15 monks in residence and no novices. It was the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council and there was unrest and uncertainty within the Roman Catholic Church. Spencer, however, suffered no such uncertainty, preaching and maintaining the essentials of Benedictine monasticism: a Christian life of prayer and work within the enclosure of the monastery, with priority given to the daily celebration of the Mass and Divine Office.

At the time when most religious communities were introducing vernacular into their liturgy, Pope Paul VI circulated a letter to the Benedictines expressing his hope that they would maintain as much of the Latin Gregorian chant as possible. Spencer and his monks took this very much to heart, and, when the liturgy at Pluscarden was fully revised according to the norms of Vatican II, the full use of Latin and Gregorian chant was retained.

Since 1970, there has been no shortage of applicants for monastic life at Pluscarden. In 1974 the monastery was raised to the status of Abbey, with Spencer confirmed as its first Abbot. By the time he celebrated the golden jubilee of his priestly ordination in 1991 the community had almost doubled in size, and Pluscarden had a daughter house in Massachusetts.

Restoration of the monastery buildings proceeded alongside the growth in numbers. Most notable was the restoration of the chancel in 1981, which enabled the monks to use again the ancient monastic choir. The effort to raise funds for restoration involved the wider local community, of several Christian denominations: Pluscarden Abbey is now seen as part of the heritage of Moray, and local residents are proud of it.

In 1988 Spencer was made Pro-Visitor of the monasteries in the English province of the Subiaco Congregation, of which Pluscarden is a member. This entailed numerous trips in Britain and as far afield as the United States, Mexico and Ghana to carry out official inspections of the monasteries there. Spencer was a reluctant traveller, but was greatly valued for the wisdom and encouragement he imparted.

He was born Raymond Spencer, the elder son of a Lincolnshire farmer. Brought up as a Catholic, at the age of 19 he joined the Capuchin Franciscans and made his first vows in 1935, taking the religious name of Alfred. He proved himself to have a maturity beyond his years, being ordained priest in 1941. A variety of priestly work followed, including a school chaplaincy and some difficult inner-city work; following which he was entrusted with the formation of Capuchin novices.

The desire for a more contemplative life led him to join Prinknash Abbey in 1951, where he became a Benedictine monk, taking solemn vows in 1952 and retaining his religious name of Alfred. Although he relished his new freedom to pursue the life of prayer, he soon found that freedom from responsibility was not to be had: his spiritual maturity was quickly recognised and utilised in teaching the novices. He was also put to work in the monastery garden, where he demonstrated a purposeful energy and a real love of natural beauty, qualities he retained until the end. He still yearned for a greater freedom for prayer, although in later years he maintained that the Benedictine life has all the ingredients necessary for a fully developed Christian mysticism.

When he retired as Abbot in 1992, Spencer chose to spend his last years without any change to his monastic regime, taking part in the life of the monastery he had done so much to build. He maintained a lively interest in the Christians of the Eastern Churches and in the Holy Land.

In the early hours of 25 September, Abbot Alfred died peacefully in the monastery infirmary. By his bedside was the brother infirmarian who had attended him throughout his final illness, together with his successor, Abbot Hugh. Abbot Alfred's editorship of the abbey newsletter continued until his death, and through this medium he fostered aid for monasteries in the Third World. In his memory, a substantial donation is to be made to a new hospital in Senegal founded by the local Benedictine monastery.

Michael de Klerk OSB