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Nuns of West Malling fear new housing will end their silence

29 July 2019

PA

Mother Mary David reads in the gardens of Malling Abbey, last week 

Mother Mary David reads in the gardens of Malling Abbey, last week 

A PLANNED housing development close to St Mary’s Abbey, West Malling, in Kent, could cause the enclosed contemplative community of Anglican Benedictine nuns to leave their listed building, which was an abbey before the Dissolution.

The abbey also houses the Pilsdon Community, a retreat centre for people in crisis, and St Augustine’s College of Theology (Features, 7 September 2018). Parts of the buildings are Grade 1 listed.

The developer Bellway Homes is proposing to build at least 65 properties on a field across the road from the abbey. West Malling Parish Council has launched an online appeal for funds to brief counsel for a planning appeal this month. As of Monday last week, £9000 of the £10,000 requested had been pledged.

The Vicar of West Malling with Offham, the Revd David Green, wrote in support of the appeal on Twitter: “This is a destructive proposal for the abbey’s order of Benedictine Nuns whose private and cloistered space is right next to this proposed development. This proposal would majorly hinder their ability to practise their faith in solitude as their order requires.

“Furthermore, the Pilsdon Community, who take in people who are vulnerable, homeless or recovering from crisis, need the peace, isolation and solitude of the abbey. This proposed development puts all that at significant risk.”

An abbey was founded at Malling in 1090 by Bishop Gundulf of Rochester. After its dissolution in 1538, when the nuns were dispersed, the property was granted to Archbishop Cranmer. It changed hands many times until 1892, when it was bought by Charlotte Boyd, who made it over to Anglican trustees to be restored to its original use.

Over the following decades, it played a significant part in the unstable early history of the Benedictine revival in the Church of England; but the present community, founded in 1891, has been resident since 1916. The Sisters describe their home as a “historic place of prayer” with a “heritage of peace and God-centred quiet”.

Mr Green said: “The way the nuns practise their Benedictine spirituality relies on isolation. First, there will be the disruption of building work, and then they will have a large housing development on their doorstep.

“Also, the Pilsdon Community provides a refuge and shelter for people who find themselves on the edge of society. The community is entirely built around the isolation, the peace, the solitude and rural nature of that bit of land. Now it could be slap bang next to a housing development. Nobody in West Malling thinks it is a good idea, everybody is against it.”

The Abbess, Mother Mary David, said that if the building went ahead, the community of 12 would be forced to move out. “If we are surrounded by housing with all the noise, I can’t see us continuing,” she said. “What else would we do? This will be right on our doorstep. We can tolerate a certain amount of noise, but it is just not suitable for our routine, particularly at night. We go to bed at 8 p.m. and get up at 3.50 a.m.; so people having parties and so on is not the best thing in the world for us.”

In a submission to the inquiry, the Abbess wrote that the development would affect them and the 1000 people on retreat with them each year “most directly and negatively”. She continued: “For a focused life of prayer such as ours, and for our guests, silence, spaciousness, and stillness are a necessity. This sanctuary and oasis of peace will be rendered quite useless by noise and visual intrusion.”

The Guardian of the Pilsdon at Malling Community, the Revd Viv Ashworth, said: “We are concerned about the impact the new development would have on the life of the abbey and the effect upon the village. The Sisters and guests who visit the Abbey need privacy and quiet. The Abbey has been, for many years, a special haven of peace to many, many people. Although we at Pilsdon would not be overlooked in the same way, peace and quiet is vital to the guests who live here for short and longer periods of time as they seek to recover and rebuild their lives.”

A spokesman for Bellway Homes said that, after discussions, the number of homes had been reduced from 80, including 40 per cent affordable rent or shared ownership. “Only 35 per cent of the site would be developed,” he said. “The remaining area will be dedicated to creating open space for the benefit of the whole community. There would be a buffer separating the homes from the abbey, and there are no plans to build along the boundary with the abbey.”

The company has also offered £550,000 for improvements to the town’s schools, and GP surgery, footpaths, and other community services.

PAA protest sign in West Malling 

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