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franciscan - September 2001

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2001

A Vocation within a Vocation:
Priesthood and Religious Life

By Anselm SSF

This writer became a Religious forty-seven years ago, in an Anglican community. His position was clear, simple, unambiguous. As a layman, he was bound by the promises of baptism and by the vows of religion in which those promises find further expression. His obedience was due to community authority – Rule, Chapter, Superior. To church people, he was a bit of a puzzle – all dressed up, yet not a clergyman – to most people he was simply a brother, and easily acceptable as such.

Twenty-five years later came ordination, a vocation within a vocation, followed by twenty years (so far) as a Franciscan priest in the Church of England. He and, he hopes, others have experienced blessings as a result – but the church as a working environment sometimes seems not to favour humility, love or joy, and he thinks a little wistfully of the old times.

Questions arise which, it could be argued, are given added weight by the fashion in the Church of England for centralisation and management. Yes, ordination is a blessing and a privilege for Religious – but, an unmixed blessing, an unqualified privilege? There is a price attached. Issues become clouded. Until very recently, Religious Life for women has been just that: greatly valued, a gift to the church, and uncomplicated by ordination. For men, from Father Benson onwards, the nineteenth-century founders envisaged a life for priests. Laymen were an afterthought. In the Society of Saint Francis, until 1966, priests had privileges: they were ‘Father’, others were ‘Brother’; a priest served a two-year noviciate, others, three; some offices were restricted to priests only. To crown the contradictions and ambiguities, priests are under canonical obedience to the bishop, as well as under vowed obedience to the superior.

So we ask: is the proximity to church institutions, which the ordination of members brings about, a positive factor in the community’s efforts to pursue its distinctive and God-given vocation, or a negative factor? Is ordination, in the extreme case, a kiss of death for Religious Life?

Modern Religious Life claims direct descent from the desert hermits, followers of Saint Antony of Egypt who, in the year 270, heard the gospel read in his village church in the Nile valley south of Memphis: ‘Go, sell all you have, give to the poor and come, follow me.’ He and his followers lived in the desert as hermits. They were laymen and lived very largely without the eucharist, independently of clergy and churches. They sought salvation through austerity and prayer. A hundred years later, Saint Basil established monasteries in Asia Minor, in which the monks lived a corporate life, centred on the eucharist. They were under episcopal control. The monks and nuns of the Orthodox churches still follow the rule of Saint Basil.

The father of western monasticism, Saint Benedict, was a layman. His descendants became heavily clericalized: the choir monks of the Cistercian reform, for instance, lived separately from the lay brothers, who worked the land – acres and acres of it. This was the wealthy monasticism of Saint Francis’ day. Francis who, in his turn, heard the gospel read in church, ‘Go, sell all you have, give to the poor, follow me.’ Francis, however, did not retreat to the ascesis of the desert. He also claimed for himself and his followers the further command: ‘Go, preach.’ The first friars were lay apostles.

Was Francis ordained? There is much uncertainty around that apparently simple question. If it were not for Celano’s insistence that it was as a deacon that Francis sang the gospel at the manger altar of Greccio, the answer would be ‘no’. At all events, Francis, leader of a wildly-successful movement in the church, with a Rule approved by the Pope, the friend of bishops and cardinals, a man with (to us) an exaggerated reverence for priests as those who consecrate the eucharistic elements, was not himself a priest. Whether the early brothers were priests or not did not seem to matter.

However, what began as an heroic return to a literal observance of the gospel mushroomed into an international movement numbering thousands, lacking organisation and soon infiltrated by lesser men who had not the original vision of apostolic poverty. This was the inheritance of Bonaventure, who became the Minister General in 1257. Under his influence, the friars were educated and equipped to become evangelists, apologists, upholders of the catholic faith in the face of heresy, even diplomats. Among the friars, priesthood became the norm and today, in the Order of Friars Minor, most friars are priests.

The Anglican expression of Religious Life owed much to what the nineteenth-century founders discovered in mainland Europe, as they travelled in search of living models for their project. The initiators of many women’s orders were male clerics, loyal to the Oxford Movement, with some very remarkable women as the first superiors of these lay communities. Men’s orders, on the other hand, such as Cowley, Mirfield and Kelham, followed the pattern of Roman Catholic clerical congregations.

We come to a late arrival: the Brotherhood of Saint Francis of Assisi (with the Society of the Divine Compassion foreshadowing it). As a founder, Brother Douglas – a priest though not a Tractarian – broke the mould in 1922. His tiny group of priests and laymen were not engaged in giving retreats, leading parish missions or living a cloistered life under the wing of the church. They were devoted to a work of rescue, appalled by the plight of young, workless vagrants. They tramped the roads, slept in casual wards, made friends, ran homes, raised money, helped to awaken the public conscience, to change the law of the land. Like Saint Francis, they had the interest, support and advice of the bishop (St Clair Donaldson of Salisbury). Like Saint Francis, they embraced the leper. Like Saint Francis, they started something which – without a firm hand, order and education – would never survive.

Who was to be its ‘Bonaventure’? Certainly Father Algy, in 1937, brought new priorities, a clearer vision, an ordered life, and training for the novices. The workless vagrants had all but disappeared; but England needed conversion. The Society of Saint Francis, a Franciscan order in the Church of England, was to be an Order of evangelists, of apostolic men equipped to take the gospel to the parishes, to revitalize the church, to reach beyond the church. Inevitably, Father Algy saw all this in priestly terms. His shock troops were to be, in the main, priests; in his community, fathers were fathers and brothers were brothers. Fathers were to provide leadership, brothers were to service the large friary and its grounds and engage in social work; fathers, with the assistance of brothers, were to evangelize. The mould was a clerical one. That Algy never quite succeeded in squeezing SSF into it was due in part to the continuing presence of members of the old Brotherhood of Saint Francis of Assisi.

For sisters and brothers of the First Order of SSF, ‘the chiefest of all forms of service must ever be the effort to show others in his beauty and power the Christ who is the inspiration and joy of their own lives.’ That, regardless of ordination, is our ‘work’. Rightly perceived, rightly practised, the ordination of a sister or a brother in the church of God brings blessings in the Holy Spirit and promotes the kingdom of God. Let it ever begin to appear as membership of a caste, as a return to medieval clericalization, as identification with a party within the church, and it will lead to divisions and will make that work of the brothers and sisters, the showing of Christ, impossible to achieve.

Meanwhile Saint Francis’ lepers, Douglas’ tramps, surround us, in all the guises which life today provides: men, women, children in deprivation, addiction, alienation. To them, we are to show the Christ who is for them and in them. We attempt that as children of God, members of Christ, ordained or lay, in the power of a sacramental life. f

 

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