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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 May, 2005, 16:54 GMT 17:54 UK
Monks in modern Britain
Participants in The Monastery
The Monastery attracted 2.5m viewers
The Monastery, a reality TV show in which ordinary men live as monks, has proved to be an unexpected ratings winner for the BBC. How active is monastic life in Britain today?

The strict Benedictine principles of chastity, silence, obedience and humility are not most people's idea of the ingredients for good TV, but The Monastery was a surprise hit for BBC Two.

The programme followed five ordinary men placed with a community of 22 Benedictine monks at Worth Abbey in Sussex for six weeks - and viewer numbers topped 2.5m.

But how active is monastic life in Britain today?

Monasteries can still be found in most parts of the UK, from Cornwall to northern Scotland. They are run by several holy orders, with the Benedictines alone estimated to have around 600 monks and 300 nuns in the UK.

Obedience and humility

Their history has been troubled and often bloody. They were all dissolved by Henry VIII between 1536 and 1540, when he confiscated the property of Roman Catholic Church in England and took it for himself, as the new head of the Church of England. It was not until around the 19th Century that most monasteries and convents re-opened in Britain.

Life in today's monasteries remains unchanged in many ways, with monks and nuns following strict principles like their predecessors before them.

At Worth Abbey the monks get up at 6am daily, eat in silence, attend six daily prayer services, work in the garden or abbey and attend lessons in obedience and humility.

Franciscan monks
Holy orders have had to sell off monasteries
But in other ways they have adapted to modern life. Monks in County Down have released a CD of Gregorian chants to raise funds and the near-silent order of Cistercian monks on Caldey Island, off the west Wales coast, lives off the income generated by some 65,000 tourists every year.

Like many other organisations cash flow is often a problem and many holy orders have had to sell off monasteries to ease money worries in recent years.

A community of Capuchin Franciscan Friars in the West Midlands put their monastery up for sale last month. The Catholic order has owned the 30-bedroom retreat for nearly 100 years. But located in a leafy suburb of Solihull, it is prime real estate and money is needed to support their ageing order.

But some orders are expanding. Benedictine monks in County Down are currently building a new monastery at a site near Rostrevor. Plans have also been submitted by a community of Benedictine nuns to build a new monastery in North Yorkshire.

'Falling numbers'

Catholic Herald reporter Freddy Gray says there is a revival of interest in monastic life.

This has been helped by The Monastery and best-selling book Father Joe, written by Tony Hendra and about his friendship with a Benedictine monk who he credits with turning his life around.

But this increased interested has not translated into more people joining the orders, he says.

"There has been a renewal in interest, but not a renaissance. Many orders are still worried about falling numbers."

But monasteries are seizing their chance to turn the tide. The Benedictine monks at Pluscarden Abbey in northern Scotland are planning a weekend for those who are interested in experiencing life as followed by the monks in the TV show.


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