Custom contrived: Annual service at the St Benet’s abbey ruin, Norfolk

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It would be hard pressed to find a more evocative and romantic site for a religious nestled in the ruins of St Benet’s Abbey is not only spiritual but a functional one because St Benet’s is the only Abbey in Britain never to be dissolved at the Reformation. This means to all intense and purposes when the lands were given over to the newly established Bishop of Norwich, he also became the Abbot of the Abbey and the local vicar the Prior, a detail we shall explore later. Therefore, not only can the custom be seen as a service of remembrance but a service to allow the rights of the Bishop to continue. However, this would suggest a long history but that is not true. Indeed, if the press are anything to go by the service was established as a publicity event. The Sunday Mirror of the 02 July 1939 records:

“Abbey Holiday Worship – Holidaymakers will, on the first Sunday in August, be the first congregation at St Benets Abbey, Norfolk, since the Reformation…the Bishop of Norwich has already held special services in the holiday camps who would otherwise not have time for worship.”

Sail in

In this first service one of the key features of the service was established:

“The Bishop of Norwich, as Abbot of Benet will travel by boat to the ruined abbey standing far from any road, on the banks of the river Thurne”

In a 1953 account this had become:

“a fifty-year-old wherry. Solace, sitting up for’ard in his cope and golden vestments, with his pastoral crook in his hand.”  

Not much had changed except he now sailed down from Horning and not Wroxham as in the 1950s…and seeing the power of the wind on the day I attended I am sure that was a sensible decision! However, this has become perhaps the most picturesque part of the tradition, many people coming to see the 150 year old wherry, a boat once common on the broads, but now much rarer. When I arrived there I was kindly directed to the landing point which was further up from the main ruin. There was a more solid mooring near to this and at first I thought this was the most likely location, the Bishop then procession through the ruins making a very good picture. However, upon surveying the location it would have been a long procession…as it was a long way over rough grass to the site of the high altar of the abbey’s church now little more than low rubble walls.

The arrival time was 3.15 but as the time neared there was little sign of the Bishop, just a few excited false starts – one actual wherry and others sailing boats…then the boat sailed into view. The first thing that caught the eye being indeed the Bishop, holding on with a great deal of pose but also tenacity as the wind blew again the boat with some force…indeed I was surprised he did not lose his mitre to the water below. Greeting him at the bank were two men dressed in cloaks who were said to be of the order of St Benet thus keeping the Abbey’s association with an order alive.

Down among the ruins

One wonders if similar issues happened in 1953 when the event received national press due to its attendees, the Illustrated London News of the 8th August 1953 recorded a royal visit:

“QUEEN ELIZABETH THE QUEEN’S MOTHER, AND PRINCESS MARGARET SAIL TO THE SERVICE AT ST. BENET’S ABBEY. 

ON Sunday, August 2, after unveiling a memorial to the nine men of Sandringham village and estate who died in the last war. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother with Princess Margaret and the Princess Royal took luncheon up the Bure in his yacht Capricorn to attend the annual open-air service at the site of the ruined St. Benet’s Abbey. This service, for holiday-makers on the Broads, was taken by the Bishop of Norwich, who is the titular Abbot of St. Benet’s ; and for this service he had sailed down from Wroxham in a fifty-year-old wherry. Solace, sitting up for’ard in his cope and golden vestments, with his pastoral crook in his hand. The Bishop preached the sermon and a special prayer of thanksgiving was offered for the armistice in Korea. A farm-cart was used as the pulpit and there was a congregation of about a thousand. There were very many boats taking part in the journeys to and from the service, and during it white sails could be seen moving against the sky at all points of the horizon.”

Since then, the farm cart pulpit has been gone replaced by a mighty cross cut from the trees of the Sandringham estate. I was told by one of the attendees that at the time Prince Philip when asked if they could use a tree from the estate said of course yes, but was shocked when he saw the size of it. It certainly is an impressive place to hold a service twixt the rubble ruins and the long brown grass.

Once the Bishop reached the ruined church the choir and local vicar joined him at the ruined gateway to process down the aisle and to the altar. The service continued a similar vein as a usual Anglican service, with the choir sounding very angelic as their sound drifted across the ruins and there was even a collection at the ruined doorway…easily avoidable if you wanted to unlike others!

However ,there were some more unique features of the service focused on its association with the order and rule of St Benet. Firstly there was a reading from the Prologue of the rule of St Benedict. Then the members of the community of St. Benet’s gathered at the cross facing the Bishop – called as he can be the Abbot and read the traditional Act of commitment, probably unique, of which the following were particularly unusual:

“Abbot: As the present day Community of St Benet’s, will you continue to foster the ancient traditions of worship, prayer and hospitality, upon which the Abbey was founded.” Community: With the help of God, we will.

Abbot: Will you support and pray for the Abbot in his ministry, and each other in mutual fellowship?” Community: With the help of God, we will.”

The service also had the Prayer of St Benedict and the Nunc Dimittis sung by the community with the choir. Then the service finished with a blessing with local vicar, or Prior as he was called in the service sheet, telling us to go in peace and serve the Lord.

The annual service, very much an important fixture in the church calendar locally, is not only a picturesque one but one which connects us back to times before the Reformation and allows us to bring these ruins back to life again.

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