Anglican Abbot: Dom Denys Prideaux
Anglo-Catholic History Society £18*
*Copies can be obtained from www.achs.org.uk
THE Benedictine life in today’s Church of England is hidden in plain sight for those with eyes to see. This engaging book charts the life and work of the man whose broad scholarship and wise doggedness made its continuation possible after the secession to Rome of most of the monks of Caldey Abbey in 1913: Dom Denys Prideaux, first Abbot of Nashdom.
Gostwyck Prideaux came from a privileged and complicated background full of colonial derring-do and children born on the wrong side of the blanket. Although he was never a monk of Caldey, he was given the name Denys by Aeldred Carlyle while resident on the island between 1907 and 1912. There he wrote his seminal defence of the place of Benedictinism in the life of the Church of England, concluding that, because St Benedict had written his Rule before the division of Universal Christendom, it rightly belonged to the whole Church, and not just to Roman Catholicism.
In 1913, Prideaux was able to deal with a more biddable bench than his forerunners; but, like so many monastic founders, he mainly succeeded because he was possessed of three vital qualities: persistence, pragmatism, and private means. Prideaux imposed no extreme asceticism on his fledgling brotherhood at Pershore, and his own terrible cooking was incidental. Instead, he interpreted the Rule of St Benedict as calling for the keeping of such organic communal observances as might arise. The brethren abstained from meat; but Vigils was recited immediately after Compline, and they slept through the night.
Unlike the other established brotherhoods, a Benedictine community required an abbot. When the brethren at Pershore were quorate — at least by their own lights — they duly elected Prideaux. Although he was not always persona grata with the Establishment, he ruled with an “unusual ability and religious power”; and his spiritual insights and writings, which had their origin in his sharp mind and catholic reading, were widely appreciated and disseminated. He also proceeded with a good deal of financial nous and practical shrewdness, which culminated in the move to Nashdom Abbey in 1926.
Fr Aidan Harker was professed at Nashdom in 1961. He would have been well served by a diligent sub-editor (the many typos range from the irritating to the endearing), and an index would also have been helpful. These petty niggles notwithstanding, he is to be commended for having brought a long-neglected giant of the Catholic Movement back into the light.
Dr Serenhedd James is Director of the Cowley Project, and an Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.