THE decline of religious communities is an "alarm call to the
whole Church", the Archbishop of Canterbury warned last week. He
predicted that there would be no renewal of the Church without the
flourishing of communities that were too often sidelined by the
Archbishop Welby expressed his personal commitment to the
survival of these bodies in a strongly worded address delivered to
125 of their representatives, who were gathered at Lambeth Palace
"That decline is . . . not a mere loss of a sideline, as if ASDA
were to stop selling petrol," he said. "Renewal of confidence in
the gospel, which will be at the heart of the renewal of our
Church, is impossible to imagine without renewal in religion."
His expressed his admiration for those present: they had made
"the ultimate wager on the existence of God", and had acted,
throughout history, as the "engine-room of renewal and conversion".
Yet they had been treated "like trainspotting compared to
commuting: the mainline of the Church has busily gone to and fro,
occasionally aware of those who stand on the platform, doing
something esoteric and different."
Representatives from a number of communities had plenty of
questions for the Archbishop, who readily acknowledged failings in
the Church. He agreed, for example, that "our understanding of
vocation often only encourages vocations for parochial
Those present were impressed. "I was encouraged by his valuing
the religious life, and his desire that the Church as a whole
should recognise the contribution of the religious life to the
mission of the Church," said Brother Simon Jarrett OSB from
Brother Simon said that he did not know the answer to tackling
the decline in numbers: "If we knew that, we would not be a
community of four, when we were in the 30s in the 1960s."
Sister Jean Raphael of All Saints' Sisters of the Poor,
described herself as "learning all the time", and said that she was
in favour of the diversity evident at the event, to which members
of new monastic communities were also invited.
"If we are going to be encouraged to use God's gifts, then we
will be doing different things in different ways, but you do need
the core of prayer and the gospel to nourish us; to make us able to
do things we would not have imagined."
Among those representing the new communities was Jonny Spoor,
who helps run the cafe at Moot, based in St Mary Aldermary in the
City of London. "We have so much to learn from them [traditional
communities] in terms of discipleship and spiritual practices."
He said that he understood the concerns expressed in the meeting
about dispersed communities' becoming diluted, but suggested that
it was a question that should be tackled "openly and
The star speaker of the day was Fr Étienne Vetö of the Chemin
Neuf, a charismatic Frenchman, who was uninhibited in combining
scripture with a PowerPoint presentation. He challenged his
audience, saying that the only way to renew religious life was "to
become better Christians".
Holy Trinity, Brompton, could teach traditional communities
about vocation, he argued. Also, young people belonged to a
different culture, and sought emotional connection.
Perhaps his most demanding message was when he said: "Sometimes,
we have to accept that a community is not going to live." He
suggested that "sometimes beautiful things happen" when those who
were dying passed the baton to the new.
There was hope, however, Fr Veto said. "There is huge potential
because there is a huge need. So many people are in deep financial
difficulty; so many are lonely, isolated, and there is also a deep
spiritual search and thirst. The treasure we have is expected and
He admitted that many communities were in crisis, but argued:
"We have to be able to present religious life as an adventure."
Read the Archbishop's full address