Dom Chad Boulton, OSB
Abbey of Ampleforth (United Kingdom)

What keeps you from Going Stale?

A Congregational response to the challenge
of continuing formation


ChadpictureIn a pandemic, the horizon can shrink to getting through each day. In monastic life it becomes perhaps increasingly important to remember the broader and longer picture. What does it mean to belong to a Congregation? Not only the letter expressed in the Constitutions but the spirit fostered by mutual support, not only the structures of a Visitation but the dynamism of links between houses. What does it mean to grow throughout a monastic life? Not only the requirements of initial formation but the need for continuing development, not only individually but also collectively.

These two central questions were brought together when the General Chapter of the English Benedictine Congregation established a Continuing Formation Commission in 2017, in order to ‘support our communities in discerning how a culture of continuing formation can grow. They stressed ‘the importance of collaboration between the monasteries… believing that this is important for their well-being and even for their survival’.

Earlier in 2017 the Congregation for Religious (CICLSAL) had published ‘New Wine in New Wineskins’, which helped to shape this Commission.

‘There is the risk that continuous formation gets talked about a lot, but that very little is actually done. Organising theoretical courses on theology and covering themes of spirituality is not enough; it is urgent that we develop a culture of permanent formation…to review and verify the real lived experience within the community.’

The Chapter was seeking to build on the work done by the 2015 Forum, gathering the younger members of the Congregation, to draw together their ideas and proposals on monastic renewal in the EBC, including the topics of ‘community’ and ‘formation’. Their papers were presented to an extraordinary General Chapter that followed on immediately, and then discussed by all the houses individually. The 2017 Chapter was also responding to its own consideration of the Abbatial office and wanted further work on the nature of leadership across the Congregation.

This was a new type of Commission[1], asked not to produce documents, but to engage monasteries in the process of developing a culture of formation, emphasizing a sense of spiritual vitality that is wider than any theological updating or professional training. Such a wide-ranging task required a certain flexibility in its method, and six participants at the Chapter were chosen, to provide the necessary breadth and experience.

From the start we decided to meet up regularly, at a different house of the Congregation each time. These gatherings allowed us as a commission to build up our own understanding of and trust in each other. We always began with a careful ‘catch up’ of what had been happening in our individual or community’s life. To our surprise and delight, we found we got on well and actually enjoyed our times together. Each contributed their particular expertise and experience, either in official positions as chair, secretary, treasurer or in informal but vital roles as ‘conscience’, ‘sage’, ‘scribe’.

These gatherings also allowed us to meet the community we were visiting, to pray, eat and discuss with them, and to hear their views on formation. Encouragingly these sessions were well attended and provided a fascinating snapshot of the different monasteries. We usually opened with the question ‘what keeps you from going stale?’, and this soon led into responses on both individual and communal formation. We got a sense of those communities which were used to meeting and talking together and those for whom these gatherings were moments of reticence and tension.

Part of our task was to organize two biennial Conferences as ‘strong moments’ in the overall process of developing a culture of formation. The first was held in 2018. After much discussion on our given topic of ‘leadership’, we decided on the theme ‘taking responsibility for your community’, inviting not Superiors but a broader cross section of four members from each house, especially welcoming those not usually participating at Congregational events.

We were greatly helped by the support and encouragement of the Abbot President, and by an external consultant, Caryn Vanstone, who had already worked with monasteries. She brought freshness and rigour to our discussions and enabled us to achieve a clarity and coherence that would not have otherwise have been possible. She particularly emphasized the need to see this conference as part of an overall process, involving both preparation and follow-up. One tool that proved remarkably useful was the art of ‘appreciative inquiry’. This reversed the usual monastic dynamic of focusing on problems and invited the conference participants to start with what was going well and to envisage how that could develop. This approach was encouraged both in interviewing their communities before the conference and in sharing their input during the conference.

The event itself was generously hosted by Buckfast Abbey, and superbly facilitated by Caryn and her husband, Bruno. There were some formal talks, but the emphasis was more on engaging the delegates, grouped around tables, through a structured progression over the four days, stirring up through challenging input, then allowing time for making sense and taking stock, before finally planning ahead. A central element throughout was the legacy of child abuse that was confronting the congregation through the public inquiry IICSA (Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse). There was, therefore, both honesty and humility in the participants’ planning for their communities. These plans were presented to the Superiors who attended the final day. After the conference communities were asked to select one of their delegates for a Facilitation training programme organized by Caryn and including the St Ottilien congregation.

The second conference for 2020 was planned to focus on Superiors, but also involving those whom communities had elected as delegates for the next General Chapter. There was a double aim, to equip Superiors with the ‘soft skills’ of leadership, and to develop a new way of meeting as a Congregation that could then influence the process of General Chapter. All our discussions and plans, however, were overtaken by Covid restrictions and we had to re-think. Forced ‘online’, we continued to meet fortnightly, and finally decided to offer a series of ‘webinars’ to the whole congregation, which started with a twenty-minute talk leading into forty minutes of questions and comments. There was a variety of speakers, monastic, religious, lay, but they all took different aspects of the pandemic crisis. These proved surprisingly popular and offered the chance for the different houses to see and hear each other, if only as squares on a Zoom screen. We also have just begun monthly online gatherings for those going to the General Chapter, Superiors, Delegates and Officials, in small groups which we facilitate. We hope that these will enable the capitulars to a deeper understanding of each other and a stronger collaboration with each other, to allow for a more fruitful General Chapter.

The last twelve months have been particularly challenging, but all four years of our time as a commission have been demanding. Our work has been on top of our existing commitments, which have themselves changed over that time, as some have taken up new positions, as Superiors, School Heads, Priors. In this final stage we are now considering how to hand on our work.

Reflecting on this narrative, I would like to offer some overall conclusions.


Openness to the Spirit

This was never a straightforward commission. There have been many moments of frustration when we have needed patience, as our understanding of our task has evolved. Amidst all the fluctuations and all our busy-ness, we have had to trust the Spirit, and not grab for a premature clarity, preempting or foreclosing the necessary debate and exchange. Changing circumstances, such as Covid, tested that openness to change, as we worked out how to adapt and change our cherished plans.


Model the message

This task has been formative for us, and we have ourselves experienced the sort of ‘cross-fertilisation’ that we are looking to encourage in the Congregation. There has been a genuine communion at work, a sense that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The importance of enjoying our gatherings, the human investment in building up the team, has been balanced by a healthy accountability in keeping each other honest.


Earthing the task

Our visits to each community have been vital in keeping us in touch with the reality of the lived experience for our monasteries. Groups that meet too separately can develop their own language, becoming increasingly distant from their primary context. In addition to their own community, each member was responsible for one or two ‘link’ communities, which ensured that between us the whole Congregation was connected.


Things old and new

Like the householder bringing from his treasure things old and new, we have tried to combine the strengths of our monastic tradition with insights from the broader Church and world. We have recommended speakers, books and websites to each other. Our external consultant has been crucial in sharing her wider experience in the right amount and at the right time.



The last reflection returns to those opening two questions about the purpose of a Congregation and the nature of formation. Our commission has developed our understanding of formation, taking us from the individual to the community and finally to the Congregation.

One of the surprising discoveries has been that of ‘congregationality’, experienced in our community visits, at the Buckfast conference, in the lockdown Webinars. Just as a gathering of cousins meeting for the first time can discover a sense of family, so we have discovered a shared identity through the connections across our different houses. Nowhere has this been more true than in our time together as a commission.


[1] The others on the commission are Mark Barrett (Worth), Anna Brennan (Stanbrook), Cuthbert Elliott (St Louis), Francis Straw (Buckfast), Brendan Thomas (Belmont).