Carolyn Reynier meets the new Abbot of Worth who says that he didn’t sleep for two weeks after he was given his daunting new role
Ifirst met Fr Kevin Taggart, a Benedictine monk at Worth Abbey in Sussex, part of the English Benedictine Congregation, when my brothers attended Worth School. He later married them both and buried both my parents. In June, he was elected abbot, the last thing in the world he expected as he heads towards his 80th birthday next January, taking over from the younger television programme-making and book-writing Fr Christopher Jamison. But then, as he muses, there’s no accounting for the workings of the Holy Spirit.
Abbot Kevin was born into a Catholic family (his mother was a convert from Anglicanism) in Sevenoaks in Kent.
“I was the runt of the litter,” he says. “There were seven of us, including two sets of twins. For my first year of the war I was shunted over to Ireland to get out of the way, fear of invasion and the rest of it. I had a year up in the north in Downpatrick with the Christian Brothers.” He then returned with his twin to Worth preparatory school which by then had been evacuated to Downside Abbey in Somerset.
“Worth was Downside’s unior school. I went through that then I went through Downside. Shortly after leaving school I applied to join the monastery.” So he got the call very young? “Yes, yes. And I tried to run away from it,” he laughs, “but it didn’t work. I think it was a question of, you know, worried about giving up this, that and the other, wanting to go and enjoy life. But I think I thought unless I gave it a try I wouldn’t be satisfied.” Vocations, candidates for the priesthood and for monasteries tended to be much younger than they are today. “I think today such a lot of time and effort and pressure is put on the idea of career that the idea of religious vocation can be lost. I think that wasn’t the case in my day.” After ordination, each of the young men was sent to Worth, which had returned to Sussex in 1945, for one year, to gain expe rience and to supply some young blood into the Worth community. When one becomes a Benedictine, one joins a particular community, explains the abbot. “I joined the Downside community and expected to be living under the Downside umbrella for the rest of my life. But when a monastery founds another one – Downside founded Worth – eventually that foundation is expected to become independent.” So when Worth Abbey, dedicated to Our Lady, Help of Christians, became independent in 1957, the abbot asked for volunteers for his new community; he got 33 and chose 19. Abbot Kevin was the youngest of the group that moved to Worth. He then read English at Cambridge, returning to Worth in 1959, the first year of the senior school at Worth. “I looked after the first 28 boys as their house master. Teaching and taking games, you know, being driven crazy by them,” he laughs.
He remained a house master for 17 years and was appointed bursar and then parish priest of the Worth Abbey parish. When Fr Christopher Jamison was elected abbot, he appointed Taggart as prior – “the abbot’s right-hand man, I suppose”.
That was in 2002, which brings us to the June election. A surprise? “Yes, total shock, total surprise.” The community holds an election for abbot every eight years. Anyone can submit names to the abbot president, elected every four years and currently the Right Rev Dom Richard Yeo. Any candidate is then discussed, in their absence, at a tractatus. The reigning abbot does not attend the tractatus but does attend the election.
“My name was submitted so when they wanted to discuss me I left the room,” says Kevin. “Then the following day you have the election and one has to,” he chuckles, “one has to...” he pauses, “...allow for the workings of the Holy Spirit. It’s very strange.” Given that it is about the only position he hasn’t held, it does seem a rather fitting end to his monastic life. Unsurprisingly, Abbot Kevin does not see it this way. “One had got a fairly wide experience but that doesn’t mean to say that one ought to be abbot,” he laughs.
How does he view the start of his eight-year stint? “Well, I didn’t sleep for two weeks,” he chuckles, “but one settles down, one has to face life. You know, things get better.” And how large are the changes for him in his life? There is a long pause. “I suppose the biggest change is to suddenly find oneself as abbot when one doesn’t expect it. But then, one has to just try and be oneself, and give what one can to the community. Responsibilities come with head mastership, with being bursar, with being abbot. One can be used to responsibilities but one didn’t expect them at my stage of life.” So when Fr Jamison returns from sabbatical will he carry on writing his books and making television programmes? “Christopher is a man of great humility. When he returns to the monastery he will do what his abbot wishes him to do. And if his abbot’s got any sense, he will want Christopher to devote his time and his talents to the best of his abilities for the community. You know this new one’s coming up,” he says in reference to BBC Two’s The Big Silence.
The previous programme, The Monastery, had a huge impact on the number of people coming through Worth on retreat but Abbot Kevin doesn’t think it had a direct impact on vocations to the monastery where the community currently stands at 25. “We had one young man of 26 as a novice but it became clear to him and I think to us that it wasn’t the right place for him. That’s why novices come: they come to try. And we have another young man at the moment who is a postulant and if all goes well will be clothed after Christmas. So, yes, one certainly would welcome more vocations.” At the moment, Abbot Kevin is still acting as a chaplain to one of the school houses which gives him contact with people in the school, which, he says, is healthy and expanding. And he hopes that the school, the parish and the retreat centre will continue to flourish.
“But I suppose the abbot’s main role is the concerns of the members of the monastic community. He is meant to represent them, the father of the monastery. So the well-being of the members of the community, I think, has got to be the first concern of any abbot.” And there’s a time and a place for any particular abbot, muses Abbot Kevin. “I think, curiously, Christopher is now much freer as an individual to develop his talents more fully. I think that could be the working of the Holy Spirit, too. I sometimes wonder what He’s up to... although possibly in retrospect one could make more sense of these things,” he chuckles.
Is the abbot still managing to get in a few rounds of golf?
“Unfortunately I had an ulcer removed from my leg at the end of April so that put me off games for two and a half months,” he says. “Then I went off on holiday to play golf, had a fall and came back with a broken rib. This last Monday I had my first outing on the golf course after a seven-week layoff with that. And I played rather well. I reckon I’m back on track.
“I often play at Woodcote Park up near Coulsdon. I can turn up on a Monday and be guaranteed a game because the secular priests tend to take Monday off after Sunday – very handy.” What’s his handicap? “Oh, it’s 18 now. It’s getting longer. I was quite good in my younger days, down in single figures.” “I saw your brother Mark the other day,” the fifth Abbot of Worth adds. “It was a 30-year reunion. It was wonderful, a huge success. It was amazing to see them all. You had to brush away the moustaches and the beards... it was good fun. God bless.”