Monks call halt to abbey habit: Free lunch with the Benedictines proves to be a great temptation

'THE POOR,' according to the Rule of St Benedict, 'should be treated as Christ himself.' And so the Benedictine brothers of Prinknash Abbey in the Cotswolds have always ensured that any 'wayfarer' who arrives at their door gets to share their meals.

The trouble is that the Prinknash Benedictines eat rather well, and nowhere in St Benedict's teachings is there a rule about the treatment of gourmets.

In recent years, more and more people have been arriving for lunch at the abbey - some of them are not very poor at all.

'What we're geared up for is the man passing through, the gentleman chap who can't get digs, maybe because of alcohol or bedwetting,' the abbey almoner, Brother Antony, said yesterday.

'People were arriving in late- model cars, sometimes bringing two or three friends with them. One of our neighbours met one of them in the grounds recently, and he said, 'I wouldn't bother to go up there today, mate, it's a lousy dinner'.' Usually it is a full three courses, with roast beef on Sundays.

But Prinknash has now taken the abbey lunch off the menu - the wayfarers can have a bowl of soup, a cup of tea and a slice of bread.

'It's made a remarkable difference,' Brother Antony said. 'In the old days, I had as many as 16 or 20 to feed. Today there were only two.' This causes him some regret. He has been a Benedictine for 47 of his 70 years, and is in charge of the abbey gardens, the source for many of the ingredients of the celebrated lunches. 'It's a great pity that it's been abused,' he said.

In the abbey refectory yesterday, the 25 monks of the community sat down to soup, vegetable risotto, grilled tomatoes and potatoes.

If you had turned up - 'no one is turned away,' Brother Antony insists - you would have got the soup. 'But it's a very good soup - thick, filling, more like a stew really.'