St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, looks set to close, writes Serenhedd James
The optimism with which I wrote about the future of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, in the February edition of the Catholic Herald was clearly misplaced. The Master, Professor Richard Cooper, has now written to students to say that the University Council decided on 9th May that “the University cannot be confident that the Hall can support a full cohort of students for the full duration of their studies for the next academic year.”
The University has therefore “decided not to grant a long-term Licence to St Benet’s Hall to continue to operate as a Permanent Private Hall (PPH) when the current licence ends”. That licence is everything, for the little religious institutions—three Catholic, two Anglican, one Baptist—that exist as satellites around the University as PPHs are reliant on the University Council for their survival. It is a clinically cold status quo: the University can withdraw from the arrangement at any time if it is not satisfied about a PPH’s long term viability.
Alas, that moment has now come. “In the light of these developments”, continued Professor Cooper, “the Ampleforth Abbey Trust, which owns St Benet’s’ buildings, has taken the decision to put the Hall’s two properties on the market.” Ampleforth will no doubt find buyers easily enough; an obvious contender is St John’s College, just across the street from the St Giles buildings, and in possession of a fantastically enormous endowment. A spokesman for the Ampleforth Abbey Trust said that its priorities lay in ensuring a sustainable future, particularly for the monastery.
“The situation of St Benet’s following the University Council’s decision now places an unacceptable level of risk on the Abbey Trust, so we have therefore taken the decision to put the two properties on the market. The Abbey needs to look to the future to ensure the sustainability of the community here, and therefore it needs to focus on its core mission. It was always the preference of the Abbey Trust to sell the buildings to St Benet’s Trust if it could afford to buy them, but St Benet’s fundraising campaigns and funding options have not produced the desired results within the necessary timescales.”
Game, set, and match: no licence plus no buildings equals no St Benet’s Hall. It is a cruel end, given how hard St Benet’s has worked to try to raise the funds in time. It is also a blow for Catholic education in the United Kingdom, although by no means the only one, and not even necessarily the only one in the offing related to Ampleforth, given the recent and much-publicised difficulties at the Abbey school. Another beacon is to be extinguished; while it is true that Blackfriars and Campion Hall continue to thrive at Oxford under the care of the Dominicans and Jesuits respectively, neither takes undergraduates. It is that element of what St Benet’s has provided for nearly a century and a quarter which will be very badly missed.
Above all, however, it is a tragedy on many personal levels. “We hope that the Hall will continue to operate for as long as possible,” the Master went on. “However, as and when this is no longer the case, arrangements will be put in place to ensure all current students can complete their studies at another college or hall.” The dispersal of a small community of young people into other, larger ones is no trifling matter. Places like St Benet’s Hall function as families; rather like a stable monastic community, while there are presumably days when various members would merrily kill each other, no one would actually want to leave before their time.
By the end of Professor Cooper’s letter it was clear that all these things were firmly understood: “We understand that this will be very difficult news for all of you, and that this is a challenging time for everyone at the Hall.” Spare a thought, also, for the tutors, who will have to seek other employment in a notoriously volatile sector, and not necessarily at Oxford; for the office administrators who must now do likewise; for the domestic staff who will inevitably be fearful for their jobs, and are unlikely to be in a position to move away; for the alumni who must watch their beloved alma mater go to the wall. Only a miracle can save St Benet’s now. Ichabod.
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