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The knives come out for Ampleforth and its monks

The DfE has banned new admissions to Ampleforth following a child abuse scandal. But this former pupil remains thankful to the school’s Benedictine monks

Right before the rugby match kicked off those of us in the Ampleforth team would be huddled around the 22-meter line in a circle, our arms linked around each other’s shoulders, saying The Lord’s Prayer as our teenage legs shivered in the freezing cold. Though it didn’t always work— Sedbergh and Stonyhurst usually kicked our arses—in the time since I’ve yet to come across a better incantation before facing adversity.

Ampleforth College was already on the ropes due to damage to its reputation as one of the country’s most prestigious Catholic schools following a child abuse scandal involving some of its monks and teachers. Now it has been dealt another blow after the Department for Education issued an enforcement notice banning the school from taking any new pupils.

After being opened by the Benedictine monks of Ampleforth Abbey in 1802, this boarding school went on to become one of the most sought after among Roman Catholic families in Britain and further afield, typically attracting the likes of the scions of noble and well-to-do families, but also the wayward sons of British Army dental officers, like my younger brother and I, who headed to Ampleforth after five years at its feeder prep school, Gilling Castle.

With annual school fees now topping £36,000 for boarders, even back in the 1990s, an Ampleforth education was only possible for my brother and I due to the army paying a significant portion, combined with my parents’ financial jujitsu and sacrifices (my poor Protestant father married a good Catholic woman and has been paying for it ever since—he would even convert to Catholicism—though I know he thinks it was worth it: certainly the bit that involved my mother at least).

Bar the colossal fees, there was very little that was Etonian about Ampleforth

Ampleforth is sometimes referred to as the Catholic Eton—especially in current media reports revelling in its troubles. Bar the colossal fees, however, there was very little that was Etonian about Ampleforth. No morning coats and starched stiff collars and black pinstriped trousers for us, the Amplefordian’s “uniform” was notorious for interpretation and variation, typically resulting in some sort of scruffy blazer and Tweed jacket, combined with one of the school’s innumerable multi-coloured ties and almost any shirt pattern as long as it didn’t go as far as Hawaiian or flower power, finishing with a pair of clumpy Timberland or Caterpillar boots. Just in case there was any danger of looking too conformist, an enormous mob of unruly hair was de rigueur.

I suspect the school’s surprisingly lax approach to the uniform was all part of its overarching and proclaimed ethos to recognise each individual’s unique talents and nurture that individuality while also enabling it to be part of a community rooted in the practical- and proactive-based moral values of Saint Benedict, who is known as the father of Western monasticism.

When Ampleforth beckoned for my brother and I, though, we had little idea of the vaunted educational tradition we were entering; all we knew was that we had another five years ahead in which a dank Yorkshire valley, atop which the monastery and school sat, was to be our universe.

An inquiry into historic child sexual abuse at the school that concluded in 2018 reported that the Ampleforth monks, and especially the hierarchy, were evasive with police and social services when suspicions were raised about members of the order and teachers in the school. The inquiry described a general culture of tolerance and ineffectiveness in tackling deviant behaviour when it occurred – the type of aloof, stubborn and wilfully unengaging attitude that has plagued the entire Catholic Church in past decades.

Subsequent inspections of the school raised concerns about adequate safeguarding and measures having been taken, with the Department for Education finally concluding that, despite a “willingness to improve” in recent years, the requisite standards hadn’t been achieved. Hence the current admission ban until those standards are deemed met.

Following the saga from afar, everything I have heard and read regarding measures taken by the school indicates that the monks and the hierarchy finally woke up to a true reckoning with their failures of the past, and subsequently embraced tackling matters head on. The school has said it will appeal the governmental decision. But even stricter enforcement action could yet occur, including de-registration of the school, any of which could easily drive the school toward closure.

Ten years attachment to that Yorkshire valley for my family—endless car journeys, Exhibition weekends, all those rugby matches, exeat breaks spent with my aunt, uncle and cousins who lived close by at the edge of the North York Moors—meant that Ampleforth and its monks became an indelible part of all our lives.

When my parents hung an attractive portrait of the abbey and school grounds in our home it became a source of contention with my brother who wanted no reminders of his time at Ampleforth. His dogged and continued discomfort reached a point whereby, after the child abuse scandal fully came to light, I cagily asked if something had happened to him. Nothing had, he told me, he had simply loathed being sent away to boarding school for so long and, being an artistic and rebellious type—both of which Ampleforth actually helped foster and didn’t stand in the way of—he saw fault and a hypocrisy in the monks taking an oath of poverty and then enjoying the likes of free beer and ice-cream too often.

Though I will forever remain nonplussed over the rigid posture taken by the school and the monks toward us school boys mingling with the opposite sex—the school became co-ed only after I left, and during my time, there was no mixed socials despite the demure young ladies of Queen Margaret’s, and where my sister went, being just over 30 miles away in York—I have always felt a fondness and gratitude toward the monks. The vast majority struck me as good, holy men.

I can’t help wondering whether the knives are out for this Catholic institution more than is justified

I actually spent my years at Ampleforth in the only schoolhouse, Saint Cuthbert’s, that was then run by a layperson. But the route to the house from the school that we took at lunch and then at the day’s end of classes took us alongside the monastery, traversing a long corridor that went past an entrance into the abbey church, and then past a great set of enigmatic glass doors—that we were not allowed to go through—beyond which another corridor headed into the heart of the monks’ monastic realm. The lighting visibly dimmed beyond those glass doors while the architecture altered from the school’s more modern walls to rougher walls hewn with the passing of time. But there was never a sense of sinister emanations, rather a quiet and steadfast spirituality humming away. It was more audible when you passed by that church entrance and heard the monks at Vespers, continuing the tradition of Gregorian chants that have praised and inquired of God for centuries.

It’s easy to mock monks and their closeted lifestyle. There’s a great short story by the Russian writer Anton Chekov, part of that epoch of Russian writers who were so effective at holding up a mirror to society’s ills, in which a group of monks are lambasted by a townsperson who turns up at the secluded monastery:

“You don’t do anything, you monks,” the man decries. “You are good for nothing but eating and drinking. Is that the way to save one’s soul? Only think, while you sit here in peace, eat and drink and dream of beatitude, your neighbours are perishing and going to hell. You should see what is going on in the town! Some are dying of hunger, others, not knowing what to do with their gold, sink into profligacy and perish like flies stuck in honey. There is no faith, no truth in men. Whose task is it to save them? Whose work is it to preach to them? It is not for me, drunk from morning till night as I am. Can a meek spirit, a loving heart, and faith in God have been given you for you to sit here within four walls doing nothing?”

The Father Superior is deeply moved by the criticism and sets off at once to the town to see matters for himself. He finds a debauched spectacle. Appalled, he returns to the monastery to report to the other monks: “…the old man, wrathfully brandishing his arms, described the horse-races, the bullfights, the theatres, the artists’ studios where they painted naked women or moulded them of clay…” After describing all the charms of the devil, the beauty of evil, and the fascinating grace of the dreadful female form, the old man cursed the devil, turned and shut himself up in his cell.

When he comes out of his cell in the morning, he finds not a monk left in the monastery: “They had all fled to the town.”

But the monks of Ampleforth, to their credit, have kept on going in their Yorkshire valley. The dogged persistence of monks is a useful attribute at times: medieval monasticism helped preserve Western Civilization during the Dark Ages; and I like to think that in conflicted times like now it cannot but help to have monkish groups dedicated to maintaining for society at large some semblance of connection—even if they don’t know it or aren’t interested in it—with the spiritual realm that lies beyond our understanding.

The Department for Education’s admission ban, even if it doesn’t deliver a knockout blow to the school, will certainly add further pressure against the monks having any active involvement in the school—the monks have already scaled back their involvement significantly, and all the houses are now run by laypersons—which for me and most other Amplefordians was one of the most important aspects of the education we received.

The spiritual example and wise counsel of the monks contributed to establishing a lifetime-long legacy of religious awareness and curiosity among Amplefordians, those both noble and wayward, released into the world, where we have at least tried to reckon with a moral compass and the idea which the school tried to imbue that it might actually be worth following and not entirely ignoring.

The UK may be experiencing its own more subtle form of a latter-day Reformation

I was not good at staying in touch with my friends and fellow pupils after Ampleforth; there was so much else to catch up on such as the “fascinating grace of the dreadful female form”, and so much else to do, such as going to war after another fine assessment by the government and their mandarins and experts. But with the few Amplefordians met over the years, I have been struck by the vitality of their faith and the active role it still plays in their lives or, if not to that degree, how, like me, they at least still wrestle with its conundrums and challenges while trying to square Catholicism and its principles in some shape or form with how they live and the choices they make.

These days it appears that the stock answer from the irreligious to someone finding religion meaningful or nourishing is that you have been brainwashed and conditioned. But what of your gut instinct, or that when you enter a church and see that red light of the tabernacle, meant to show that the light of Christ always burns in a sin-darkened world, you feel something stir deep within your core and which can make you want to weep and clutch your sides? Should that not be counted?

Given the current Godless zeitgeist we are living through—I have heard the phrase “a secular Sharia” used—and the particular animosity directed toward Catholicism and the Catholic Church, I can’t help wondering in regard to Ampleforth whether the knives are out for this Catholic institution more than is justified.

Admittedly, despite the UK’s track record with Catholics—ranging from the Reformation and King Henry VIII to Northern Ireland, where state policies and discrimination have long added to the woes of Catholics already targeted by terrorist groups—contemporary Britain isn’t as bad as the US. In America the Catholic Church is increasingly caught up in culture-war disputes, ranging from tussles over Catholic adoption agencies placing children with gay couples to Catholic hospitals providing contraception services. This summer saw a wave of attacks on Christian properties across the US taking the number of attacks this year to over 70, writes Luke Coppen, Europe editor of the Catholic News Agency.

I can only hope that the tradition of monks at Ampleforth will outlast the present government

But the UK may be experiencing its own more subtle form of a latter-day Reformation. The government has shown its high regard for Catholicism as well as for other religions by treating churches like gyms and ordering them shut during the Covid-19 lockdown when they were needed most by the old and frail who used them. Devout aged Catholics died in abject fear due to not being able to receive the Last Rites from a priest, which in their hearts is an essential act to achieve what they have prayed toward all their earthly lives. All our institutions in their mainstream forms, from the government to media to academia, are united in their contempt for religion and in their active willingness to manifest that derision in actions, narratives and policies that prosecute the main religious bodies and all those myriad organizations, groups and individuals connected to them.

In a hostel I stayed at a few days ago during my on-going Camino pilgrimage-cum-hike to escape the absurdity of Covid-19-cowed Britain, a medieval-style poster depicted Saint James—whose proclaimed remains Camino pilgrims head toward in the magical city of Santiago de Compostela (rather less magical currently due to Covid-19 restrictions)—surrounded by images of Christians dying for their faith through a head being lobbed off or by being lynched. It’s always happened, and it’s happening again. Just as brutal methods are being used right now across the Middle East, Africa and China—gaining little media coverage—while in our enlightened Western societies the methods to suppress religious freedom are more urbane and reasonable. How much might the action by the Department for Education against Ampleforth sit within the ongoing trend of secular disregard for the religiously wayward?

Some of the monks and teachers of Ampleforth committed a terrible failure in their duty to care for vulnerable schoolboys. Having thought through how I might have felt if my brother had answered my unconformable question differently, I can only guess at the pain and anger the abused individuals and their families will have to endure for a long time, possibly the rest of their lives (I have heard of one former Ampleforth pupil who was allegedly abused by a teacher and committed suicide; there could be others).

But there is another option, as unfashionable as it is these days amid the mushrooming victimhood-industrial complex, which can help assuage the pain and anger: forgiveness. I know, I apologise, how very Catholic and predictable of me.

Ampleforth gave me something far more valuable that will keep paying for the rest of my life

At the same time, and again, as unfashionable and impermissible as it seems nowadays when evaluating these sorts of conundrums, how much weight should be given to the counter balancing fact that thousands of boys like me, the vast majority, suffered no harm from the monks and teachers of Ampleforth, rather we experienced just the opposite and what was entirely sought after and needed: care, support, intelligent mentorship and moral guidance that was grounded in an environment of the all-consuming love of agape that flows from God. Already there is emerging on Twitter a strangely uplifting and affirmative thread, so at odds with the tone of the majority of what is posted, coming from former Amplefordians and their parents, expressing the same or similar sentiments to mine in response to news about the admission ban.

While we share a similar gratitude to Ampleforth, unlike many of my fellow former Amplefordians, I no longer have access to the rarefied world of Ampleforth on a materialist level (and neither does my brother). As a freelance journalist I earn far less in a year—while I suspect my artist brother earns even less—than that annual fee to send one boarder to the school. But I don’t mind. Ampleforth gave me something far more valuable that will keep paying for the rest of my life. In the meantime, while the monks I knew and admired are dying of old age, I can only hope that the tradition of monks at Ampleforth, and their patronage of the educating of school children in tune with the Rule of Saint Benedict, will outlast the present government and beyond.

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