Over the past 25 years, the number of novices in Roman Catholic religious orders in England and Wales has fallen from 217 in 1982 to just 29 in 2007. The situation for Anglican communities is, if anything, even more desperate. Since 2000, overall membership has fallen by about one third, and many communities have not had a single novice in the past ten years.
In response, some monasteries and convents are now offering “monastic experience weekends” to give people a taste of the religious life and the chance to explore the possibility of a vocation. Downside, Worth, Ealing, and Pluscarden Abbeys all offer such opportunities, and others — including Anglican orders such as the Community of St John the Divine and the Society of St Francis — welcome people to live alongside them for an agreed period of time.
Perhaps the best known of those offering tasters is Worth Abbey, whose brethren are presumably used to this sort of thing by now. In the BBC2 programme The Monastery, they not only offered an experience of monastic life to the five participants (of whom I was one), but also made that experience available — albeit at one remove — to the three million people who watched the series.
The thinking behind these taster weekends is based on the reasonable assumption that there are people out there who may have a vocation to the religious life, but do not know how to go about testing it. I should know: 15 years ago I was in exactly that position myself. But if monasteries were running experience weekends back then, they were not advertising the fact. Today, as so many communities face an uncertain future, it is hardly surprising that they are keen to bring themselves to our attention by any means available.
Ironically, while communities struggle for survival, interest in contemplative spirituality seems to be greater than ever. And we are not just sitting at home reading books about it. More and more people are going on retreats, clearly recognising that monasteries have something of value to share. The fact remains, however, that if people do not actually join religious communities, there will not be any communities left for the rest of us to visit on retreat.
The monastery with which I have been associated as an oblate numbered 12 monks in 1996, when I first knew it. Now there are only five, and they are not getting any younger. In spite of a steady trickle of novices over the years, none stayed long enough to take final vows. When so few novices are coming forward, and even fewer are staying the course, a significant number of religious communities are likely to disappear within a generation. The monastic life in Britain is dying out.
PERHAPS surprisingly, some orders remain stoically unperturbed by these gloomy predictions. They would maintain that, whatever the future holds, it is all part of God’s plan. They might even see the provision of taster weekends as a frivolous distraction from the fundamental requirement to devote themselves to prayer.
Most monks and nuns with whom I have discussed these matters are, however, somewhat less fatalistic. When I press them to venture a possible explanation, one of the most common responses is that we live at a time when — for a variety of reasons — commitment in general seems to be a problem for many people.
We no longer expect to stay in the same job, house, or marriage for life. How much less likely are we to commit ourselves to a lifetime of poverty, chastity, and obedience? We do not envisage doing anything “for life” — there are simply too many options on offer, and keeping our options open is the overriding priority.
In a BBC news report earlier this month about these monastic-experience weekends, one interviewee stated that, although he was finding it helpful in his process of discernment, he had to admit that the discipline — specifically the requirement to get up at the crack of dawn every day — was “not exactly a selling point”.
Even if early mornings are not a problem, the chances are that the prospect of lifelong celibacy will be more than enough to put the rest of us off. Our culture not only values sexual freedom: it also idealises romantic love: being one half of the perfect couple is widely believed to be the surest path to personal fulfilment — although the high incidence of marital breakdown might suggest that such expectations have become hopelessly unrealistic.
Again, commitment seems to be the problem. The most challenging thing about monasticism, and arguably its most useful lesson for the rest of us, is sticking at it. It is no coincidence that St Benedict highlighted stability as one of the essential features of the monastic life.
I HOPE those communities now extending this offer of taster hospitality get a good response, though I fear that there may be precious few signing up for the full package. A bit of everything is what people want these days, and sticking at it — whatever “it” might be — too often seems like an obstacle to our fulfilment rather than its means.
Sometimes I wish we had a kind of monastic National Service, akin to the tradition of temporary monasticism found in some Buddhist countries. This is not as implausible as it might seem. The Melanesian Brothers and Sisters, the Anglican religious order in the Solomon Islands, take vows for five years at a time. Unlike most religious communities in the UK, the order is youthful, vibrant, and growing.
The predictable objection to the idea of temporary vows in the context of traditional monastic communities is that it would undermine the principle of stability, which is the very basis of their life. I wonder. Presumably among those who signed up for a limited term, there would be some who would stay longer, perhaps even for life — as is the case with the Melanesian Brothers.
It is possible that by removing the forbidding notion of a life-sentence, the prospect of being a monk, a friar, or a nun would seem a good deal more feasible to people who might like to explore the possibility, but felt unable to make a life-long commitment at the outset.
In this country at least, the future for the monastic life looks bleak — although, of course, there have been some exceedingly low points in past centuries as well. Whether communities today can survive by adapting to changing cultural circumstances, or whether the monastic life has had its day, only time will tell. I pray, though, there will continue to be monastic communities, shining as a beacon of inspiration to us all, for many generations to come.
The Revd Dr Nicholas Buxton is Assistant Curate and Minor Canon of Ripon Cathedral, and the author of Tantalus and the Pelican: Exploring monastic spirituality today (Continuum, 2009).