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franciscan - January 2005

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2004

‘The Best Kept Secret’?

by Sue CSF

Despite having existed for over 150 years, Anglican religious life was described by Archbishop George Carey, as ‘the best kept secret in the Church of England’.  People have sometimes refused to believe that as a Sister I could be an Anglican, and more seriously, enquirers tentatively asking their local vicar about a possible vocation to religious life have been told, ‘First you'd have to become a Roman Catholic’!

In fact there are about 2,400 Anglican Religious worldwide, including 575 women and 175 men in Europe.  More than 700 of these are within the Church of England, and most of the remainder in Wales, Scotland and Ireland.  They are members of some 43 different religious communities.  While the largest has around 70 sisters, some are very small and elderly.  Currently there are 10 communities with upwards of 20 members, and a further 15 with more than 10.  There are postulants or novices in 15 different communities.

An important piece of early learning in ecumenical encounters concerns confusing differences in terminology.  Roman Catholics use the word community for the local group of religious, which Anglicans call a house, such as CSF in Birmingham.  Where we use community to mean for example CSF as a whole, they would use the term congregation, or order.  Far more significantly, knowledge of religious life in other traditions helps one to recognise that its essential characteristics are expressed variously, and that any specific context, such as Edwardian English Anglo-Catholicism, gives rise to particular and rightly temporary expressions.

In recent decades religious life in the Church of England has needed major re-assessment.  Communities have undertaken this process of evaluation and change at different times and with various outcomes.  The Advisory Council on the Relations of Bishops and Religious Communities, founded in 1935, is purely advisory.  Each Anglican community is self-governing, and there is nothing comparable to the weight of Roman Catholic canon law, nor has there been a centralised impetus for change like that provided by the second Vatican Council.  That Council has of course influenced Anglican communities indirectly.   Benedictines, Poor Clares and others, who for years have met regularly with their Roman Catholic counterparts, will have met with this influence quickly.  At a more fundamental level the current practice of regular meetings for religious from different Anglican communities probably derives mainly from the Vatican Council's emphasis on collegiality.

Religious life in the Anglican Communion was inspired by the Tractarian movement, the first community of sisters being founded in 1845.  This renaissance occurred over 300 years after the dissolution of the monasteries at the Reformation, though there had been a brief early seventeenth century experiment at Little Gidding.  By 1900 there were 2000 religious in Britain, mostly sisters, whose social caring ministries, often among the urban poor, gained recognition and respect for the communities.  More superficially, the influence of the Romantic Movement provided a cultural context in which many people were fascinated by the Gothic externals copied by early Anglican religious from their Roman Catholic contemporaries.  Moreover, the presence of Roman Catholic influence in society was gradually becoming more socially and politically acceptable.

In recent decades religious communities have needed to relate to the diversity of traditions currently encompassed within the Church of England.  A significant proportion of those now entering religious life are from broadly evangelical, charismatic, or radical protestant traditions, or are recent converts to Christianity.  Since 1994 it has been possible for women in the Church of England to test both the vocation to religious life and to priesthood, and there is now a significant number of sisters who are priests.  In the Community of St Francis five  of the 24 sisters in Britain are ordained.  Three of these were in life vows before ordination, while a current novice and I were priests when we joined.  Communities differ in their attitude to the ordination of women, and in some there is a divergence of views within a single community, as of course there is on other issues.  The challenge of living as creatively as possible with the current tensions in the Church of England is therefore one which religious have to meet at close quarters.

The Church of England encompasses various forms of religious life including enclosed contemplatives, and those called to be hermits.  However the characteristic form is the Mixed Life.  Common prayer really is at the heart of Anglican religious life.  Many Catholic apostolic congregations regard saying the office corporately as an inappropriate monastic obligation, expressing their prayer in other ways.  In contrast most Anglican religious regard praying the office in community as something central to their calling and identity, although of course where there are varying ministries it is normally accepted that not everyone will be present at every office.  Most communities have a four-fold office, and some still observe the traditional hours in various modified forms.  The fact of common prayer in the Daily Office, and in the Eucharist which is central to the life of religious communities, is a resource which communities in the Church of England are able to share with their guests and neighbourhoods.  Many people, including a significant number of agnostics, value the rhythm and atmosphere of prayer, which a religious house affords.  Communities offering hospitality provide an accepting safe space in which people are able to be more present to themselves and to God.

The use of a habit, or distinctive religious dress, is still widespread among active religious in the Church of England, whereas among Roman Catholics in apostolic congregations it has all but disappeared.  Enclosed communities of both communions still usually wear habits.

Religious Life has never been a prominent option for Anglicans in Britain, so choosing it has usually required considerable determination and resilience, qualities which of course always include the possibility of ossifying into stubborn traditionalism; unsurprisingly some communities have at times slipped into an isolated, inward and backward looking stance!  In their early years and again more recently, religious communities have occupied a somewhat liminal position being small, fragile, relatively unknown, and frequently overlooked in the structures of the church.  This enables them to be a pastoral resource for clergy and others in ministry, as well as for many who would feel awkward in their local church.  This marginal position can also enhance the opportunity for exploring new expressions of Christian presence and service, and for prophetic witness in both church and society.

The primary vocation of religious is to a particular whole life response to the call of Christ, rather than to a specific ministry.  In a heavily task-oriented church pre-occupied with the maintenance of ministry, this is a vital witness.  Religious life, centred around the vowed life commitment, is profoundly counter cultural.  The very presence of religious unmistakably raises God questions.  Religious communities are called to embody the primacy of committed relationships with God and one another, with the vulnerability that entails.  We are to embody gospel life, as distinct from the institutional concerns of the church.  Archbishop Rowan Williams has said, "The role of religious communities is to be places of joy". f


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