Tony Roake experiences the consequences of recent ecclesial decisions at a monastery in France
THE BENEDICTINE ABBEY of Our Lady of Bec, and its sister community of Benedictine nuns of Sainte Françoise Romaine, occupy the same beautiful valley midway between Rouen and Lisieux in Normandy in close proximity to one another. The monks and nuns have a special link with the Church of England having provided three archbishops of Canterbury following, the Norman Conquest: Lanfranc, Anselm and Theobald. Consequently, ever since the present monastic communities returned to Bec fifty years ago, they have been hoping, praying and working for the reunion of Rome and Canterbury. Since 1949, they have welcomed countless Anglicans to their guesthouses, and for the last twenty-two of those fifty years, I have been an annual visitor to Bec.
In the heady days when the key ARCIC agreements were still on the table, unity seemed only a short distance away, but now that those same agreements have been consigned to cold storage by Rome, that much hoped-for, longed-for and prayed-for unity is as far away as ever. This cold reality was brought home to me during my recent stay, in the week when the communities celebrated both the Feast of St Anselm and the fiftieth anniversary of the restoration of the monastic life at Bec,
When I received my invitation to share in the anniversary celebrations, I little realised that I would form part of a gathering of Anglicans, most of whom were from Canterbury and Cambridge, and which included the Bishop at Lambeth who was representing the Archbishop of Canterbury. The communities had organised a full programme celebrating the past link between Anselm and Canterbury, and the present link between Canterbury and Bec. There was a wonderful symposium at which Esther de Waal was one of the contributors. She spoke most movingly of her growing, awareness of Benedictine spirituality during the time when her husband was Dean of Canterbury and their home was part of the medieval Benedictine buildings (her talk being translated into French instantly and spontaneously by Roger Greenacre, in a linguistic tour de force that had even the natives gasping in admiration!)
There were lavish meals in the refectory, taken in silence but always in an atmosphere of great cordiality. However, on the last day of our stay, there came a moment which brought all this conviviality to a shuddering halt.
The climax of our stay was the Eucharist on the Feast of St Anselm, at which the Bishop of Evreux was principal celebrant assisted by the Abbot of Bec. Most of the Anglican clergy (all male) were in choir robes, and all the Anglicans were seated together between the altar and the rest of the congregation. Bishop Llewellyn from Lambeth and those representing the Dean and Chapter of Canterbury were seated in a prominent position of honour amongst us. As is always the case, the liturgy was celebrated with great solemnity and deep joy. At the time of communion, there came the moment of truth. After the concelebrants had communicated around the altar, the sacrament was taken swiftly past us and down to the rest of the congregation, and we were left sitting high and dry, looking and feeling very isolated and very foolish – all dressed up but with nowhere to go, as it were.
I was used to making my communion every time I went to Bec, so I found this moment really painful, though understandable, in view of the presence of the local bishop and the semi-official nature of our visit. Nevertheless, even those of our party who were there for the first time, and who probably did not expect to receive the sacrament felt shocked by the suddenness of an act which was in such marked contrast to the tenor of the rest of our visit. I turned to Esther de Waal and tried to break the awkwardness by asking her how it felt to be a pork chop at a Jewish wedding.
Later, over aperitifs in the cloisters, still feeling quite disturbed by what had taken place, I remarked in a stage whisper, which was intended to be overheard by my Anglican confreres, that we only had ourselves to blame for what had happened that morning. The harsh reality of the consequences of the unilateral action taken that fateful day in November 1992 for Anglican-Roman Catholic relationships were never so apparent as they were on that feast day of St Anselm in the Abbey of Bec.
Tony Roake is Vicar of Fernhurst in the Diocese of Chichester