S is to make
in tourists into pilgrims'
Freddy Gray meets an abbot who is finding new ways to reach today's savvy young spiritual consumers people at Worth Abbey call their church the "spaceship" and it is easy to see Why. Resembling a large spinning top, the building looks as though it was planted in the grounds during the 1960s by a horde of extra-terrestrials much taken with the earthlings' latest ideas about design. A young novice, who bears no similarity to an alien life form, takes me to his leader. We walk past the core of the space-church, through several fireproof doors and lifeless corridors. Another turn and we bump into the Abbot, a tall, perhaps slightly gangly figure — it is hard to tell under the cassock. At any rate he has a very warm manner and a smile spreads readily across his face.
A good thing about visiting the Benedictines is that they are obliged to look after you; it's the rules. Abbot Jamison, or Fr Christopher as he prefers to be called, seems to enjoy this particular duty. He chats happily as he pours coffee and offers biscuits. But, underneath the amiability. there is a sense of purpose. After five minutes of politesse, he is keen to get the interview under way.
Fr Christopher is an Australian, born in Melbourne in 1951. His family moved to England when he was just an infant; his parents, though, were determined that he should not forget his antipodean heritage. As the cricket world cup begins this week, the Abbot of Worth will be rooting for the men in green and gold. "I always support Australia," he laughs. "After all, if you had a choice and you wanted to support the winner, you'd back Australia."
Nothing pommy about that; nevertheless. Fr Christopher is fond of England. "We were never taught to rubbish Britain, but we were taught to just take a step back," he recalls. For instance, Fr Christopher's father. the managing director of a pharmaceutical company, was appalled at the English failure to teach foreign languages properly. So Christopher and his three broth ers were "thrown abroad" to learn French and Spanish. One Might imagine that this exposure to Catholic European cultures pushed the adolescent Christopher Jamison towards religious life, but he denies this. "Taking it as read that a vocation is a divine thing,he says. "I attribute it to my devout Catholic mother, my schooling at Downside, and finally a very intelligent Catholic community at Oxford.One university chaplain in particular exercised an important influence on the young believer: Crispian Hollis, now Bishop of Portsmouth.
Some 40 people from that generation at Oxford became priests or nuns, an astonishing number given the anti-religious climate of the university in the 1970s.
Thinking back, Fr Christopher regards this particular Oxford movement as part of "a spiritual renewal" that sprang from the Second Vatican Council. "It was extraordinary." he says. "We were certainly not looking backwards. We were definitely looking forward and enjoying looking forward."
Fr Christopher is an enthusiastic cheerleader for Vatican II. His father was not raised as a Catholic, but converted after the reforms of the Council. "He is a classic example of someone who said he could never become a Catholic until Vatican says Fr Christopher. "He just couldn't access the faith, but after the Council he could understand it."
As the author of To Live is to Change: a way of reading Vatican II, the Abbot is adamantly opposed to critics of the post-conciliar Church. Not for him the distinction so often employed by conservative Catholics between Vatican II (good) and the results, or spirit, of Vatican II (bad). "I don't buy that," he says firmly. "We are looking at a more profound shift in how the Church imagines itself in a completely new setting."
He rejects the idea that opponents of the Council stand for tradition. "The Second Vatican Council was itself a return to tradition,he argues, "the tradition of the Church at a particular moment in history. which was the patristic era of the fourth, fifth, six centuries.
"What many Catholics mean when they talk about tradition is very often the Middle Ages. Now there is of course a medieval tradition, but the particular tradition that the Council looked back to was this much earlier one:' All the same, he recognises that there are "hugely important" elements of Catholicism which stem from the medieval world. "Thomas Aquinas for example," he adds, with a chortle. "And if you took the Middle Ages away then we wouldn't have plainsong, which of course we monks would be very upset by."
The ideal, believes Fr Christopher, is to put "modernity and tradition together to create a third thing that neither modernity nor tradition had ever thought of. This is how tradition develops."
He applies this "dynamic" of past and present to the way he administers Worth Abbey.
In a world that hardly understands the essentials of Christian faith. let alone the rigours of monastic life, Fr Christopher wants his monks to offer a sanctuary to inspire hungry souls. "If you are looking for a phrase for what we are trying to do, it is evangelisation by contemplation," he says. "People always associate evangelisation with amplification, the man at Oxford Circus who drove everybody mad with the megaphone. But it doesn't have to be like that."
He reckons that the obsessive consumerism of modem society combined with the popularity of new-fangled spiritualism provides a unique opportunity for contemplative orders to win souls.
"Everybody wants to buy peace, tranquillity, sanctuary:' he says. "If we start the evangelisation process with contemplation then it can lead on to the full Gospel.
"I am afraid this is one of my hobby horses." he concedes with a grin. "It is not a case of when you stop believing in God, you believe in anything. It is that when you stop believing in God, you purchase things.
"Everybody under 25 is now a very savvy purchaser. That changes the whole game. People will say: '0 yeah, I like a bit of silence. I like a bit of quiet, a bit of meditation.' And then when you start to talk to them about the three persons of the Trinity and the hyper-static union, they turn off. The challenge for the Church is to go to meet them with the silence and the meditation and say, yes, we do silence, we do meditation."
An example of this approach in action was the decision to allow television crews into Worth to film The Monastery, the BBC series that turned Fr Christopher into something of a celebrity. He recognises, though, that playing with the media is a dangerous game. "You have to get the ground rules clear first," he says, "and we did that. We decided that having a thousand school pupils visit for a day, which happens from time to time, was probably more disruptive than having a TV crew here, provided you have had a very lengthy dialogue with the TV team, which we did. That was the key to the experiment's success."
Most Catholics agree that The Monastery was a success. Its showing, along this year with the popularity of Into Great Silence, a film about Carthusian monks, has set commentators wondering. "Are monks now cool?" one journalist recently asked.
Abbot Jamison brushes off the "cool" tag, but agrees that there is a pattern emerging. "It is odd," he observes. "The more society despises 'organised religion', the more it seems to be intrigued by the most organised form of religion in Europe, namely monasticism, because monasticism is really organised.
"A 'monks are cool' campaign would be disastrous. But if people are more and more fascinated by your life then you should respond to that. The challenge is how to make tourists into pilgrims."
Driven by his understanding of the post-conciliar Church, Fr Christopher sees an urgent need for Catholicism, and monasticism in particular, to engage with modem life. This attitude no doubt influenced the creation of The Soul Gym, an agency run by Fr Christopher and a business consultant to help companies review the ethics of their work. "It has made me realise that the City is full of both saints and sinners," Fr Christopher reflects. "I wouldn't be able to judge which were the greater number."
He has been astonished by the ignorance of City workers as to "what a moral problem even is... We have a generation of middleaged people who. had no moral education at school because it had collapsed. They actually think that morality is doing what you as an individual on that morning feel is right."
Yet his experience of morally illiterate bankers has not led him to favour red tape. "Endless regulations are not the solution to business malpractice," he says emphatically. "It has got to be a growth in understanding and morality."
So in his attitude to finance, no less than in his approach to Vatican H and his administration of Worth Abbey, Abbot Jamison proves to be an intriguing mix of pragmatism and idealism, of enthusiasm and realism.
"Good, now look," he says urgently as we finish the interview. "Can I give you a copy of my book so you can give it a pufr?"
Finding Sanctuary: Monastic Steps for Everyday Life by Abbot Christopher Jamison is available online at Amazon.com, priced £4.99