Worth Abbey, which began as Worth Priory in 1933, stems from a line inspiration which goes back fifteen hundred years to St.Benedict and, behind St.Benedict, to the Gospel of Jesus Christ himself. From quite early days, monasticism (living as consecrated single men and women) was one way of responding to the Gospel invitation to leave all and follow Christ. Men and women went aside from normal preoccupations to devote time primarily to prayer and study within a simplified life-style. It was a life open to conversion and service.
From Egypt, Palestine and Syria, monasticism spread to the west. About the year 500, a young student in Rome named Benedict, inspired by the example of earlier Christian monks, turned his back on his material prospects in order to live as a monk in the nearby hills. By the time Benedict died at Monte Cassino (about 547 AD), he had acquired a reputation for holiness and for wise counsel. Many followers were attracted to him and it was for them that he wrote his famous "Rule". During the next two or three centuries, most monasteries throughout Western Europe adopted St.Benedict's "Rule".
A depiction of St.Benedict
The "Rule" rejects the excesses of some earlier monks and instead provides a framework that is human, adaptable, clear and complete. The monk's life is to be one of "renouncing his own will to fight for the true king, Christ," against temptations and his own weaknesses. The monastery is a place of learning the spiritual craft, "a school of the Lord's service" where "nothing is to be held more dear than Christ". Prayer, therefore, is made the focus of the monk's day before which "nothing is to be preferred". After a period of probation "to see if he truly seeks God", the monk makes a commitment to the life by taking vows. The monastery, then, becomes his home for life.
St.Benedict's monastic community provides the opportunity for friendship, encouragement, and a generous sharing of talent and livelihood. "Let them bear with weaknesses...with the most tolerant patience...Let them cherish mutual love". Monks are not expected to be angels but they are expected to mature spiritually by persevering patiently and obediently in the life.
The adoption of St.Benedict's "Rule" in Western Europe led to his being regarded as the founder of the so-called "Order of St.Benedict". In fact, each monastery or house is an independent community ruled over by an Abbot (or sometimes a Prior) and is responsible for finding and training aspirants (novices). What is common to all houses is the one central work, the singing of the Divine Office together (public prayer of psalms, hymns and readings) at regular intervals throughout the day. One big difference from St.Benedict's day one that came in quite soon, is that monks are normally ordained to the priesthood after a course of studies. Another difference is that monasteries have taken St.Benedict's advice to adapt to local circumstances. Much of the "Rule" is quaint and dated after so many centuries. So monasteries now have Constitutions which have adapted the "Rule" for modern use. Constitutions are drawn up by groups of monasteries known as Congregations.
In 1992 there were over 250 independent houses and just over 100 dependent daughter houses spread all over the world, with over 9,000 monks in them. The houses are grouped in 21 Congregations. Their active works varies but there is a bias towards pastoral work, education and scholarship.
Benedictines in England
Worth's inheritance as a Benedictine monastery in England links Worth with a tradition which stretches back to the springtime of Anglo-Saxon Christianity, the age of the Venerable Bede and of Boniface of Crediton. The conversion to Christianity of the Anglo-Saxon settlements in Britain, following the Roman withdrawal, was the work of Celtic Roman monks. It is uncertain whether Augustine's monks were Benedictines but the Benedictine Rule was known very soon and enthusiastically adopted. The Celtic monks were squeezed out but not before they had left a deep impression. During the seventh and eight centuries, the great names were Benedictine monks, Wilfrid, Bened, Biscop, Bede and Boniface, the great missionary who did so much to convert the German tribes and, in doing so, established Benedictine monasteries, both of men and of women, in Germany. The Venerable Bede has come to represent for many the model of the monk. He lived all his life in his monastery at Jarrow on the banks of the Tyne, devoted to prayer and study. Yet he had an enormous influence, tirelessly seeking to make the Gospel better known through his writings and translations.
Until the sixteenth century, the monasteries of the Black Monks of St.Benedict were part of the fabric of English life, religious, social, economic and political. By then society had changed. New Religious Orders like the Friars had grown up, number entering monasteries had fallen, and there was a loss of inspiration and appeal. The ancient ruins of the monasteries are still evocative of a gracious, well-ordered, rhythmic life, but a reappraisal and renewal was overdue when Kin Henry VIII rejected papal authority over the Church in England. There were too few monks and too many houses endowed with disproportionate amount of the landed wealth of England. Instead of reorganization and revival, the Crown for its worn reasons suppressed all 168 Benedictine monasteries along with the other Religious Orders (1536-40). Queen Mary Tudor's ill-starred attempt to undo her father's actions included finding an Abbot and sixteen monks to re-open Westminster Abbey (1556). This brief revival ceased with the accession of Queen Elizabeth I who reaffirmed the Church of England (1559). It looked as if the Benedictine connection with English Christianity has ended.
Struggle for Survival
Those who refused to conform to the Church of England, established by law, experienced great difficulties during the next two centuries. Among them were the English Catholics (who recognised papal primacy). The Catholics decided to set up centres abroad for the training of Englishman as priests to return eventually to England to serve Catholics and act as missionaries. This was dangerous because under the law they were liable to be arrested as traitors and executed. It was as part of this movement among English Catholics that some men and women were keen to revive monastic life. A convent for women at Brussels was the first to be founded in 1598.
Revival of the English Benedictines
Papal approval was granted for a group of English priests and students to establish English Benedictine houses on the continent on condition that monk-priests served as required on "the English Mission". The first houses was St.Gregory's Priory at Douai in Flanders in 1607. The following year another was founded in Lorraine, St.Lawrence's at Dieulouard. These were soon followed by houses at St.Malo and Paris. A small school for English boys whose parents were able to send them across the Channel was opened very soon at St.Gregory's Douai. Others followed. In their anxiety to maintain continuity with pre-Reformation Benedictinism, two English monks even sought out the last survivor of Westminster, Dom Sigebert Buckley, and were clothed by him in the Benedictine habit. However, more importantly, in 1619 a papal document officially announced the formation of the priories into a revived English Benedictine Congregation.
The English Mission
The flow of monks to England from the priories meant that there more monks "on the mission" than in the monasteries. The monasteries were treated as "nurseries" for training young monks rather than independent "families" in the Benedictine tradition. Even if community life suffered, there clearly was a deep spiritual strength among the "missioners" for, in the seventeenth century, nine English Benedictine monks were among the Catholic priests who were arrested and hanged, drawn and quartered as the savage laws prescribed. In the face of a terrible penalty, their lives were characterised by gentleness, steadfastness and humour. Three of them have been canonised: John Roberts, Alban Roe and Ambrose Barlow. Several more died in prison.
The return to England of traditional monastic life
In the eighteenth century, the atmosphere in England became calmer. When the French Revolution broke out, the whole position of the English Benedictine houses changed. In 1793 English monks and nuns returned openly to England. They settled in various parts of the country. St.Gregory's community settled eventually at Downside, near Bath, St.Even at Ampleforth, Yorkshire and St.Edmund's (the Paris house) in Berkshire. Even after the Catholic Emancipation Act (1829), the "mission" element overshadowed the monastic. It was not until 1899 that normal Benedictine life was restored when the houses were erected into abbeys. Their schools steadily became a major work as the balance swung in favour of a return to monastic community life. Worth as a "daughter" of Downside, though now independent, belongs to the "family tree" which goes back to 1607 and beyond.
Life according to St.Benedict's Rule continues to flourish. At the time writing, there are eleven independent houses, including Worth, grouped in the English Benedictine Congregation, eight in England and Scotland, three in the U.S.A. In 1992, there were 432 monks. There are convents of women at Stanbrook and elsewhere. Several more Benedictine houses have their origins and associations outside the English Benedictine Congregation. The Church of England also has revived the Benedictine way of life since the nineteenth century.
[ For more on the Benedictine way of life and, in particular, the Worth monks, see our guide.]
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What is Worth Abbey? - The Worth Foundation - From Priory to Abbey
The Abbey Church - Some Aspects of Worth - A House called Paddockhurst
A Note on Benedictines - Acknowledgements