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New habits of the religious life?

14 November 2014

A new initiative is hoping to make the religious life better known, and to raise the profile of it as a vocation, says Pat Ashworth

Planning for the future Brother Jacob CR with Fr George Guiver CR, Mirfield's Superior

Planning for the future Brother Jacob CR with Fr George Guiver CR, Mirfield's Superior

THE decline of religious communities in recent decades was an alarm call to the whole Church, "not a mere loss of a side-line, as if ASDA were to stop selling petrol", the Archbishop of Canterbury told a gathering of Anglican religious communities at Lambeth earlier this year.

He called for "a wild burst of fresh and Spirit-fuelled imagination about religion in the 21st century", and said: "Our life in religion, in contemplation, in prayer and community around a Rule and around worship, makes us more than an NGO with loads of pointy-roofed old buildings." Such a spontaneous renewal would, he said, "renew that most intangible and most certain of wagers, that Jesus Christ is Lord in truth and reality".

Decline there has most certainly been, and with it an acknowledged need to make the religious life in the Church of England much better known. A librarian of the Cambridge Divinity Library, Dr Peta Dunstan - an expert on monasticism, and the producer of the Anglican Religious Life yearbook, which will be reissued in 2015 - looks back at history, and reflects on a society in which young people's interest now is in the relationality and not the structures.

"In the 1920s and '30s," she says, "people were very much into structures. Everyone wanted to join something; everyone wanted to be in uniform; everyone had a very institutional view of everything. Religious life was part of that, and so it flourished. When individualism took over, people didn't want that any more. They felt that going into uniforms and institutions had led to all kinds of suffering, and everyone had to find their own place. In the 1960s, it [was] everybody off to find themselves; so religious life [became] unpopular."

There were consequently fewer people trying their vocations in the 1970s and '80s, although Dr Dunstan observes that the novices who came then did tend to stay.

She suggests that there are about 20 viable Anglican communities in the UK at present; but others are dying out, and are unlikely to revive without newcomers.

But she finds encouragement from the 20 novices from different Anglican communities who attended her internovitiate conference last year - indicative, she says, of a "trickle, though not a flood", of novices. And there continue to be encouraging signs from the oblate, associate, and "alongside" communities, such as the Franciscans' Third Order, which, mid-2013 figures for the province of Europe show, has 1862 professed members and 108 novices.

There are a number of people who value that chance to taste the religious life before moving into the community, and that may result in more vocations, Dr Dunstan suggests. "Years ago, everybody in that part of the Church which valued religious life knew what it was, and so everybody went in as a postulant.

"I think now that people do not know, and therefore need to live alongside for a bit, to find out what it is - like living with somebody before you take the plunge and marry them."


BROTHER JACOB CR, of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, clearly bucked the trend in entering at 25. Now 29, he is by far the youngest of the Brothers: "Look, there's a young one," is something he is accustomed to hearing whispered by school or parish parties attending a service - and he felt called from his early teens, having first visited Mirfield for a commemoration day at the age of 12.

"I thought about it every day, and asked my parish priest what they did there," he remembers. "He gave me a book - I think it was written for young teenage religious really -called The Cloud of Unknowing. I read that, and I thought: 'I really know what I want to do with my life.'"

The story of the nunnery in his home parish, the Saxon foundation of Polesworth Abbey, had been an inspiration, and he had joined the choir there when he was seven. At secondary school, he was offered what he says was good advice: go away, and do something else. He did, working as a theatre technician, but continued to find himself "always going to church", and with a deepening sense of the presence of God.

While at university, he started visiting Mirfield, considering the priesthood as a possible way forward into the religious life. But, at 22, he remembers thinking: "This isn't going to work. What do I do? Offer myself for ordination, and go through the hoops of all that to get into the community?" A vocations conference run in Durham by Affirming Catholicism was pivotal in his decision to "give it all and go for Mirfield".

He was 24, and the Superior of the Community, Fr George Guiver CR, waived the entry threshold of 27 to allow him to enter at 25. His immediate life at Mirfield was nothing like it would have been under normal circumstances: the church was closed for reordering, worship was in a makeshift chapel in the refectory, and the place was "surrounded by builders" for two years. It has been amazing, he says, to see the extraordinary impact the reordered church has had on people's lives.

He works in the sacristy, is house steward, helps to look after the pilgrims, does schools and educational work, and is also "trying to do a Bachelor of Divinity degree. . . So quite a lot." Being so much younger than everyone else alters the dynamic of the community, but there is a great sense, he says, of giving yourself to the life that is its corporate life together, and being formed by the worship.

"There has to be a lot of understanding about the difference in generations, and the life together that actually shapes us and helps us to discover more about ourselves and about God. Before I came, people said: 'Are you sure you want to be in a community who are much older than you?' And I thought, well, somebody's got to do it, haven't they?"

He reflects that the Church was responsible for his vocation in the "huge amount of encouragement and prayer, and being part of a church. I just wonder whether people pray in parishes, or parishes nurture prayer-rites. We are so busy doing things: we need to do this and that because we need to be successful at this and that. But prayer is so difficult. We just give up with it, really, which is so sad, because we don't get the vocations, and the life of the Church suffers for it."

Visiting the Benedictine abbey of St Matthias, in Germany, recently, with which Mirfield has a link, he had a strong sense of this, too, being like home. "You are part of a tradition which keeps offering prayer and praise and service to God. And I thought, wow! We're part of that, the simple offering of our lives to God. I don't think that there's really anything else to give, is there?"


SISTER CATHERINE CHN entered the Community of the Holy Name in Derby in February 2006, at the age of 41. A former civil servant in the Nottingham Land Registry for almost 20 years, she remembers sitting on her bed on her first night, saying: "God, I really hope you know what you're doing."

She had started going to church after her mother died in 1997, and was baptised in 1998. After being taken on retreat to the Derby house, she started going regularly for quiet weekends, "with no thought of joining".

Her father died in 2001, and, at a pre-Advent weekend, "the thought went through my head, 'You should try this.' I thought, 'No, what a stupid idea. It's just that you've had a rubbish year, and you want to turn your back on everything.'"

But the desire did not leave her, and the more she went to the house, the less she wanted to go home again. She finally plucked up the courage to ask the question; and the rest, she says happily, is history. Now she is one of two Sisters in the CHN branch house at Peterborough, established 16 years ago and very much active and "part of the furniture" in the local community.

Of the sacrifices she had made to enter in her early forties, she reflects, "it was never the big things. I was renting property, didn't have a car at that time, and was never one for going on exotic foreign holidays. It was more things like going out for pizza, or slouching on the sofa watching television. I covet the technology of an iPad," she admits, "but I've learned the difference between want and need."

She, too, is the youngest in the community. She is the first novice it had had for many years. She acknowledges: "Being on your own in that way is the most difficult thing. You have no peers to talk things over with. I very much valued novices' conferences, which did confirm I was in the right place.

"I have never, at any stage of the journey, thought this was the wrong thing. There were times when it felt difficult, and I could happily have walked away, but it never felt wrong.

"It's joyful. I'm doing something worth while, and I'm not doing it for money or a career: I'm doing it for God. I wouldn't go back for a million pounds. You couldn't pay me enough. It's the most rewarding way of life, if you can put your head to it."

But she has some robust criticism of the Church's lack of encouragement and support for religious vocations. "We are struggling to get the Church listening to us. They are constantly telling us that we are valued, but vocations teams in dioceses do not help us. They consider all the other vocations, but this is not one they consider suggesting to people, which is affecting us. We are having to bang on their doors."


DR DUNSTAN and others are trying to challenge this lack of support. The initiative New Life comprises a group mainly of religious communities who are exploring ways of making the religious life in the Church of England better known, and of trying to encourage vocations.

In its infancy at present, the initiative will help to address some of the confusions that exist: some communities have a website or use social media, for example, while others do not, making it frustrating for enquirers wanting initial contact.

It has to come from the grass-roots, she emphasises, and not the top - something that Archbishop Welby has also emphasised, along with the importance of religious communities to the Church and to the world. "That renewal of confidence in the gospel, which will be at the heart of the renewal of our Church, is impossible without renewal in religion," he said.

The Archbishop is setting up a new monastic community next year at Lambeth Palace, the Community of St Anselm, made up of full- and part-time community members aged 20-35 who will be committed to a year's programme of prayer, study, practical service, and community life.

Archbishop Welby will also be the key speaker at the Anglican Religious Communities 2015 Conference, hosted by the Sisters of the Order of the Holy Paraclete, from 27 to 30 April, at Sneaton Castle, Whitby.



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