IT SO happened that our first Sunday as inhabitants of Norfolk was the very Sunday on which the annual service takes place amid the ruins of St Benet’s Abbey. I had often seen the abbey from the river as I adventured on the broads in little boats, and have, indeed, reflected on that sight in these pages (Poet’s Corner, 30 April); but this was to be the first time that I would stand, and sing, and worship among the ruins themselves. It proved to be a memorable and telling occasion.
We came to the abbey by land this time, down tiny lanes and across bumpy open fields. It’s far easier to approach by the river, and the Bishop and his party sensibly arrived in a beautiful old wherry. By the time the little procession of mariners was making its way up from the wharf, with chaplains and acolytes holding up the Bishop’s golden cope to keep it clear of various tussocks and obstructions, there was already quite a large gathering of us, perched on the remains of old stone walls and gathered around the great wooden cross, a beacon of grace across the open landscape, which, together with the abbey mill, makes a good mark for sailors.
There were all sorts there: old and young, families with picnics, and a considerable congregation of happy, tail-wagging dogs; for what better way and what better place to spend a sunny August afternoon?
The service was, as the Community of St Benet’s service sheet proudly proclaimed, “Conducted by the Prior of St Benet’s in the presence of the Right Reverend Graham Usher, Bishop of Norwich.” It turns out that, amid the general confusion and chaos of the Reformation, the abbey, though despoiled, was never actually dissolved. Instead, it was granted to the Bishop of Norwich and his successors; so the Bishop is, in fact, the abbot, and was referred to as such throughout the service.
What does one make of this? On the one hand, the ruins all around us spoke of a violent and in many respects tragic break with the past, and the current community, although a real community of Christian prayer doing good in the world, and committed to honouring and preserving this place, are not in the traditional sense a Benedictine community, as the abbey is uninhabitable, and they are a lay community, living in the world, but united in prayer and intention.
And yet, for all the rifts and folds of time, there is continuity: of place, of intention, of prayer. In that service, we prayed as the monks had done, we heard a reading from the Rule of St Benedict and from the Gospel, and reflected, as they had, on the links between the two; and we intoned in beautiful plainchant the undying words of the Nunc Dimittis, just as they had done for so many hundreds of years in this same place.
The beauty of these things is, as St Augustine said, “always ancient, always new”. On this occasion, it was the newness that struck me most. Old words lived and spoke in a new context. And that new context was the environmental crisis and our renewed care and concern for nature. Both the Rule and the Gospel spoke of the danger of over-consumption, and the need for moderation; and the Bishop gave a powerful sermon about treading lightly on the earth, living simply that others might simply live. I think that St Benedict would have approved.