The second in this interview series is with Abbot Stuart Burns from Mucknell Abbey. He has recently retired from office but remains part of the community. I had the pleasure of listening to Abbot Stuart when he visited the Community of St Anselm, but sadly didn’t get a chance to visit Mucknell Abbey like some of my fellow community members.
Abbot Stuart Burns, Order of St Benedict, Mucknell Abbey
Interview via email, February 2017
- Tell us a little about Mucknell Abbey and your role there.
Our community was founded in 1941 ‘to pray for the unity of the Church’. In1952 it formally adopted the Benedictine Rule and the first sisters made their vows as Benedictine nuns. In 1987 the first two men were admitted as postulants and made their first vows in 1989. Since then we have developed as a ‘mixed’ monastery of nuns and monks. I joined the Community in 1989, was elected as abbot in 1996. In 2008 we sold our monastery near Oxford and bought a derelict farm in Worcestershire – not knowing that it had been owned by the Benedictine monks of the Cathedral Priory in Worcester for several hundred years before the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. We had it converted into a ‘sustainable’ monastery and moved in November 2010.
At the moment we are a community of 13: 10 men and 3 women, and looking forward to a 4th woman joining us in August. Ages range from 71 – [I am the oldest at 71] – to 27. Although we are an Anglican Community we do have a life-professed Methodist presbyter who is still in ‘full connexion’ with the Methodist Church and functioning in the local circuit., and a Swedish Lutheran priest [The Church of England is in full communion with the Swedish Lutheran Church].
My role is to be the ‘leader’ or ‘father’ of the community – St Benedict gives a great deal of responsibility to the Abbot and entrusts him not only with the spiritual health of the community but also with making all the practical decisions. As Abbot, I am also to a degree the ‘public face’ of the community and its representative in both the wider Church and secular society.
- In what ways is your community both traditional and new?
The Community at Mucknell is traditional in that we live together as celibate, life-vowed people under the Rule of St Benedict and an Abbot/Abbess. We have as our principal work the recitation of the Divine Office [we celebrate 6 Offices a day] and the daily celebration of the Eucharist. We offer hospitality to whoever comes – though, for the sake of calm, we hope that people will book ahead of time so that we can ensure a bed and meals! We try to establish an atmosphere of quiet in the monastery and observe a good deal of silence. What is ‘new’ [or, rather, the renewal of a much older tradition] is that we are a mixed community of men and women. Rather than ‘top down’ government, we try to go forward by consensus – so we do spend a good deal of time in ‘conference’! We built a ‘sustainable’ monastery and try to live a sustainably. We have admitted non-Anglicans to membership, and have established an ‘alongsider’ programme whereby people between the ages of 18 and 45 can come to live with us for up to a year, but ‘contracting’ for one month at a time.
- How have you found being involved in the new-monasticism movement in the UK? Are there particular circumstances that lead you on this journey?
As a member of the Advisory Council I have been deputed to journey with several ‘new monastic’ communities as they progressed towards Acknowledgement. I have appreciated contact with a very wide range of groups, from the very traditional Order of Cistercians who pray the full monastic Office but are dispersed and have a majority of members who are married, to groups that have very little corporate life or devotion.
Before joining the Community I was a parish priest for 20 years, and was always concerned to build a sense [and experience] of community in the parish – and was saddened to discover how few parishes seem to major on the daily coming together as the Body of Christ to pray, ponder the Scriptures and share Communion.
In some of the so-called ‘new monastic’ communities I see people disappointed that they don’t find anything of this in their parish church and so form eclectic groups – but most of them are much ‘loser’ and with lighter mutual commitment than a healthy local parish community…but call themselves ‘new monastic communities.
- One of Archbishop Justin Welby’s priorities is ‘Prayer and the Renewal of Religious Life’. In the last few years, what fruit have you seen come of this priority in the Church of England?
Much as I welcome Archbishop Justin’s First Priority, I have seen very little fruit in the Church of England. The ‘traditional’ Religious communities continue to shrink in numbers and the number of people testing their vocation in them continues to fall – in fact, I believe the current number of novices is smaller than it has been since the mid 19th Century when the Religious Life was being revived in the C of E! Though some parishes/ deaneries are making efforts to help people deepen their prayer life, that was going on before. Amongst the members of the so-called ‘new monastic’ communities there are very few looking towards celibate or life commitment, and couples who start off with great intentions seem to cool down once the demands of children, jobs and mortgages increase. In the C of E there are no new communities equivalent to some of the RC communities like Chemin Neuf.
- Do you have ideas on how Archbishops and Bishops around the world can make this a priority also?
I think the important thing is to understand that to be a Christian is a “vocation” – the shift from ‘going to church’ to ‘Being Church’ 24/7. Within that vocation there are many sub-vocations, NOT JUST ORDINATION!!! And this needs to be believed and preached – and one of the vocations is the Religious Life – and that needs to be preached AND considered important in things like vocations events and by vocations directors.