SOME of our Sisters took part in a conference this year for Anglican religious communities: both traditional ones, such as ours, and less traditional ones, which are being founded now.
The impulse to found communities that aspire to devote themselves to prayer and to live in accordance with Christ’s teaching is almost as old as Christianity. The motivation is perceived as a direct call from God, but it often arises in a situation in which the normal life of the Church is felt to be lacking in fervour and dedication.
Because of our 150th anniversary two years ago (Diary, 30 January 2015), I have been thinking again about the foundation of the first Anglican religious communities in the mid-19th century. The founding Sisters had typically grown up in comfortable middle-class families, where churchgoing was normal — and probably routine and unexciting.
These women of character longed for something more challenging, where they could be stretched both spiritually and in terms of their daily experience.
The model was at hand in the existing Roman Catholic communities, and the Anglican pioneers gratefully adopted the fruits of their long history — respectfully, but perhaps too uncritically, saddling the new communities with voluminous habits and unnecessary and burdensome customs.
BUT the new communities undoubtedly set women free to engage in adventurous occupations otherwise closed to them: mission work abroad and in the most needy areas at home, and, in particular, ministry to “fallen women” whom, in normal circumstances, they would have done anything to avoid. Some Sisters went with Florence Nightingale to the Crimea.
These first communities were definitely aligned with the Catholic wing of the Church, and they, like the parishes in which they usually served, were disapproved of by most of the bishops. This led to a sort of buccaneering spirit, which can still be felt to this day: most Sisters sit rather lightly to church authority, and manifest an insouciant ignorance of Canon Law.
Today’s new communities are being founded in a totally different culture, in which to be a Christian at all is regarded as eccentric, and “religion” is decried as the source of bigotry and violence. Now it takes courage to wear a Christian label. To affirm that your primary commitment is to prayer is to invite incomprehension and ridicule. But this is what the new communities dare to say.
Home and away
IT TAKES courage, too, to engage with the issues that new communities are concerned with. Often, they are deeply committed to the care of creation and the fairer distribution of resources; and many of them are involved with advocacy and pastoral care for the needy and vulnerable.
They are intensely aware of the ways in which people have been hurt and rejected by attitudes within the Church, and their members have, in some cases, experienced this rejection themselves.
Some new communities have a central house in which some or all of the members live, but more commonly they are dispersed, sometimes over a wide area. The members live in their own homes, supporting themselves with paid work. Many are ecumenical, with all the enrichment — and the complications — that go with that arrangement. This makes their experience very different from that of a traditional residential community, where the members live together, and property is held in common.
Does that make life easier or harder? I suppose to some extent that depends on temperament: whether the constant rub of different personalities seems a greater threat than the need to motivate oneself. But most new communities are good at keeping in touch by phone or email.
Youth and age
NEW communities are notoriously unstable: several have already come to an end, and most have had rocky patches. This is not surprising, and the same was true of the 19th-century communities. But one reason that new communities value contact with older ones is precisely because they hope we may be able to help them to avoid some of the pitfalls that come from fallible human beings’ trying to live a demanding Christian life.
We can at least try to help them to put structures and practices in place that may avoid some of the worst disasters. Those who wish to live with the freedom of the Spirit may react badly to the idea of structure, but we have had terrible warnings recently about what can happen when the combination of a charismatic personality and lofty spiritual aspirations has no controls in place.
The combination of the drive and enthusiasm of youthful communities with the sobering and steadying effect of long experience ought to lead to something stable and enduring. That, at least, is the hope of those who organised and attended this recent conference. We are all in the same business, working towards the same end. Let us hope that we can help one another on the way.
The Revd Sister Rosemary CHN is a nun at the Convent of the Holy Name in Derby.