Benedictine Vespers at St John's

Benedictine Bath celebrations It was with joy and excitement that St John’s joined in the programme of services, lectures, displays and walking tours that celebrated a thousand years of Benedictine heritage in Bath. The number is symbolic rather than historically accurate - as the Abbot of Downside pointed out, the Rule of St Benedict has been pivotal to Christian worship in England for far longer than that.

Downside and Bath Abbey took the lead in organising the celebrations, which lasted from 6th July to 10th July. Throughout that period there was a fascinating display of photos and historic documents from Downside at the Abbey, the most precious being the Papal Bull (charter) of 1633 that revived the English Benedictine Congregation and gave it juridical continuity with its pre-medieval roots.

The history display that has been on the walls of St John’s since the 2013 Jubilee also received many extra viewers during the five days. Benedictines dominated a long part of the parish’s history as they originally had St John’s built as part of their mission to Bath, and monks from Downside remained in charge of the parish till 1932.

Two well-attended services were held at St John’s. On the second morning there was a special Mass followed by prayers at the Lady Chapel inspired by Bath’s connections with Blessed John Henry Newman. The next evening a large congregation heard monks from Downside combine with the Choir of St John’s (directed by Rupert Bevan) to sing Solemn Vespers and Benediction.

On the final day there was a Conference at Bath’s Guildhall to hear and discuss four excellent presentations on the week’s overarching theme. Dr Simon Johnson, Keeper of Downside’s archives and library, described the Benedictine presence in Bath over the century that culminated in the rebuilding of the Catholic chapel destroyed by rioters in 1780. He conjectured that the rioters had been inflamed as much by the apparent affluence of the local Catholic community as by their objection to Catholics being treated more fairly.

The second speaker, Dr Brian Griffin from Bath Spa University, maintained that during the nineteenth century there had been a strong undercurrent of Anti-Catholicism in Bath. It was fomented by certain local clergymen with Irish Protestant backgrounds who made Catholics out to be an odd and rather nasty breed.

Canon Harding followed with a characteristically erudite talk full of interesting points. He stressed the importance of the papacy’s temporal power - being heads of state made Popes more influential than they could have been simply as religious leaders. He ended his wide-ranging talk by pointing to calm contemplation, the example of the late Cardinal Basil Hume, and the treasuring of Latin as key aspects of the Benedictine legacy.

The closing speaker, Abbot Aidan Bellenger, reviewed the long connections between Bath and the Benedictines. A great regeneration of Christianity in England in the Tenth Century put Benedictines at the centre of the community. They had made a true and lasting contribution to Bath by preaching and illustrating the life of prayer and the centrality of Christ.