Belmont Abbey: Celebrating 150 Years, Andrew Berry OSB (ed.) (Gracewing 2012) 229pgs., 40bw & 28 colour plates, £24.99 ISBN 085244 730 7

Abbot Paul Stonham notes in the Preface how the history of Belmont Abbey is unique.  This present work, edited by Dom Andrew Berry OSB, is by its nature more of Feschrift than a straight forward history, as such it is better suited to accurately reflect the monastery's uniqueness.  Twelve chapters, arching from a general monastic history to "the future and beyond', tell of Belmont's foundation, its architecture, its significant characters, events in its story, its service to the local community and to the universal Church.  Belmont Abbey will appeal to those who are already acquainted with its history, no less so will it appeal to those interested in monastic history and in the general history of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.  Chapter One provides the reader with a bird's eye view of monastic history via an imaginary history tour of the subject, beginning in the side chapel of the Abbey church.  Thus one is immediately located simultaneously in both local history and a much wider story.  The story continues with the spiritual tradition of Benedictine monasteries, whose roots lie in the universal call to holiness; the purpose of which is to enable one 'to live as radically as possible the call given...in baptism' (p.41).  Chapter three deals with the foundation of Belmont Abbey: the first new monastic foundation in England since the Reformation.  It is a pity that no references are provided for this chapter, especially given its historical nature; but this is a minor matter and does not detract from the chapter's content.  The chapter dealing with Bishop Thomas Joseph Brown demonstrates the wide appeal of this book, for it treats of the struggle between the Regular and Secular clergy in 19th century England and Wales, in doing so it highlights the struggles faced by 'an emerging Church'.  In 1860 Belmont was established as the common novitiate and house of studies for the English Benedictines.  It fulfilled this role for over fifty years and 'succeeded in maintaining English Benedictine unity by accepting the traditional inherent tension in the English Benedictine vocation between contemplative community life and an external apostolic vocation' (p.73).  Yet toward the end of its time as the common novitiate, Abbot Geoffrey Scott notes how: 'it gave birth to a group of reformers who were determined to break the tension which the monastery had so studiously cultivated and to advocate a narrower 'primitive' Benedictinism' (p.73).  Polarity lies at the root of Belmont: its founder Francis Richard Wegg-Prosser wanted a monastery with plainchant, and at the same time insisted that the brethren be involved in parochial duties. Similarly, Bishop Joseph Brown wanted Belmont to be a house of studies and for the abbey church to be the pro-cathedral for the diocese.  This polarity has ensured Belmont of having possession of an 'enduring monastic and missionary character' (p.73).  This was particularly personified in Norbert Sweeney, Belmont's first prior, who did so much to encourage the study of the life of the English mystical writer Dom Augustine Baker.  Interest in the latter was accompanied by a further interest in liturgy.  Belmont's development in the field of education coincided with a wider debate about tertiary education for Catholics, who were prevented from attending Oxford and Cambridge by a ban supported by Rome and the bishops.  In response to this situation, investigations were made into the possibility of creating a university-type curriculum at Belmont.  Among several scholars of note associated with Belmont Bishop Cuthbert Hedley stands out; he 'wanted to see English Catholicism come out of its ghetto and enjoy the benefits of Oxbridge' (p.94).  In 1908 Belmont ceased to be the common novitiate; in 1914 the church lost its pro-cathedral status.  Belmont became an independent abbey in 1920.  In the 20th century was a microcosm of the English Benedictine Congregation, where monastic issues and the wider missionary paths 'reacted and overlapped' (p.102).  The dynamic nature of the abbey's history is further traced by Abbot Aidan Bellenger; he notes how 'the development of Belmont's identity can only be properly understood in the context of the monastery's place in the wider debate among the English Benedictines about the role of mission'(p.110).  During its history Belmont has made a considerable contribution to the mission of the Church, both locally and farther afield.  This story is well told in chapters dealing with the abbey's pastoral commitment both on the 'home mission' and the 'foreign mission'.  The influence of Belmont includes what we might call a 'material' element.  Dr Roderick O'Donnell, in his detailed description of the monastery buildings, tells of how its architecture was a formative influence on the English Benedictine Congregation.  E. W. Pugin, Belmont's architect, was only eighteen years-old when he got the commission.  It is thus an important monument in his own life:  'the church allows one to study the development of E. W. Pugin's style in one building of at least four phases' (p.125).  Liturgy has, needless to say, been at the centre of Belmont's life.  Of significant importance in this field is Abbot Alan Rees, who contributed to both the abbey's, and the wider Church's, liturgical life in the post-Vatican II period.  'The history of Belmont is the history of the Church in microcosm' (p.227); this being so, Belmont Abbey, is a highly recommended read for anyone interested in the Church's history and the part played in it by those whose charism is a polarity of contemplative community life and an external apostolic vocation.

Dr M. J. Broadley.

Honorary Research Fellow.
Religions and Theology,
Arts, Histories and Cultures,
The University of Manchester