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Alton abbot retires amid uncertainty

06 September 2013

AN EXPLANATION has been given for the sudden disappearance of the Abbot of Alton, the Rt Revd Dom William Hughes OSB, from Alton Abbey, in Hampshire (above). He has retired.

The abbey is in the middle of a financial crisis, having disclosed three weeks ago that its "critical" position meant the introduction of austerity measures to protect its future (News, 16 August).

The week after the announcement, Abbot Hughes, a member of the Benedictine community for 43 years, and Abbot for the past two, wrote to the Church Times thanking readers for their many offers of support: "We are asking for prayer to reinforce our own prayer for what will be an exacting journey to financial recovery. We have faith that all will be well, with much hard work."

The Church Times published the letter last Friday, but by that time Fr Hughes was no longer at the abbey. He did not preside at the conventual mass on the previous Friday, and the abbey congregation was told, on Sunday 25 August, that he had resigned. No explanation was given, although people were told that his departure was not connected with the financial situation.

Br Andreas Lightfoot OSB, who is supervising the abbey's response to the financial crisis, said this week: "We had absolutely no idea that this was coming. It came as a complete shock."

The timing of the Abbot's departure, its suddenness, and the lack of explanation had inevitably led to speculation among the oblates and the abbey congregation, Br Andreas said. "But I can assure you that the one matter was nothing to do with the other."

This was confirmed by Fr Hughes late on Tuesday. He is now living in a flat nearby. "After 43 years, I got to the age of 65, retirement age, and I felt I wanted to experience something else in my life, to explore other things, follow other pursuits."

His birthday had been in May, and he had been contemplating a move since then, he said. He had prayed about it, and discussed it with senior members of the community. "I'm not having any kind of crisis, a male menopause, or anything like that. I just needed a life-change. It really is as simple as that."

He agreed that the timing had been "rather inopportune", but described this as "coincidental". "I did not leave under any kind of shadow, or with any bad feeling. On the contrary. We're still great friends, and parted in Christian love."

He had had no direct contact with the abbey finances, he said. "The community gives a vow of obedience to its abbot, and so there is a safety factor built in." The money had been dealt with by the bursar, the assistant bursar, and an outside accountant. "I was just presented with the accounts."

He left confident that the community was tackling its financial problems. "I've told them that I shall keep in touch, and that I'm available to help in any way."

His plans were still uncertain, he said. He is living on a state pension. The move had certainly not been caused by anything negative: "It's just one of life's mysteries. Some things you can't explain fully." He remains in vows.

On Monday, the community re-elected the former abbot, the Rt Revd Dom Giles Hill OSB, as Abbot Hughes's successor. There is to be a meeting this weekend to co-ordinate responses to the financial position. Br Andreas said that they wanted to establish a degree of sustainability before making any formal appeal for help.

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