ST FRANCIS was the “saint of the moment”, and captured the zeitgeist, members of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis heard at the Convocation of its European Province at the Hayes conference centre, Swanwick, last week.
The Third Order, which has 3000 members worldwide (two-thirds of them in Europe), had gathered to reflect on its relevance as an Anglican Order; what it had to offer the Church; and how it could develop in the future. Local groups have been grappling with these issues for two years, and two elected representatives from each area group brought their suggestions on what would help Tertiaries to foster renewal.
The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, who is Bishop Protector of the society, believed that the renewal of the religious life was evident in myriad and sometimes challenging ways, and often among young people.
“You should be hugely encouraged that young people are more interested in the religious life than they have been for 100 years,” he told the gathering. He emphasised that it took “a reimagining: not quite a vowed life, but living together under a Rule of Life”.
The Dean of Chelmsford, the Very Revd Nicholas Henshall, a Tertiary himself and the main facilitator of the meeting, said that what characterised the Order was “a lack of cynicism and a joy in what we do. A theology of joy and a theology of social action. . . There’s something remarkable about what we represent.”
The Order’s aims are: “To make our Lord Jesus Christ known and loved everywhere. To spread the spirit of love and harmony. To live simply.” Tertiaries are committed to a Rule while living in their own homes, working in the community, and caring for their families. The Rule evolves according to personal circumstances, and the balance of prayer, work, and study changes during the different stages of life. “We attract people by the authenticity of what we offer. Simplicity of life is very attractive: it’s what we were meant to do,” the Dean said.
chris jenkins“Joy and social action”: the Dean of Chelmsford, the Very Revd Nicholas HenshallUntil 30 years ago, the Third Order did little to publicise its activities. The legacy of that has been a lack of awareness of it both within the Church and in the public space. These were identified as key audiences, and a need was highlighted for distinctive, multimedia materials, better communication, and the importance of speaking with a single and coherent voice. Distinctive symbols were deemed to be secondary to “letting our lives speak”.
Growth in numbers was desirable, but not as an end in itself, the meeting considered. Members were urged to be aware of, and engage in, the new monasticism. There was a great deal to learn from engaging with the kind of young people who had been inspired to go and help in the Calais “Jungle”: how might authentic Franciscanism connect with these and others? “We must allow our principles to be more widely known. . . We need diversity and freedom in the life of the Order,” members suggested.
Ways of achieving that might be through a Companion movement for those who did not wish to make life vows immediately. More guidance and signposting for Tertiaries was urged; there were too few Franciscan spiritual directors, and, while local initiatives existed, they were not communicated well.
Groups discussing justice, peace, and the integrity of creation also concluded: “We haven’t shared enough about what we are doing.”
Individuals were enthusiastic about causes such as farming practices, waste management, and homelessness — “all Franciscan causes, and important to be involved in”. How, the meeting asked, could Tertiaries engage with issues such as the mental-health crisis?
Interfaith prayer was deemed important, “accepting the faith of others where they are, recognising the good they do in the world. . . Perhaps we should, like Francis, be a bit reckless and put ourselves in the way of opportunity.”
Structure was needed to keep things going, but it should have “a lovely permissiveness”. Mission should be the constant focus, and the richness of the community’s potential was in its relationship with local groups. “Sometimes, all our energy is taken up in keeping the show on the road. We need to know how to liberate the energy within the Order,” members said.
There were no speeches, only discussion, punctuated with worship. The Dean will be presenting the responses to Chapter members at a meeting in June, and “inviting them in a permissive spirit to develop them”. The new Minister Provincial for the European Province, Professor Jamie Hacker Hughes, concluded: “The Order must be rooted in the past, living in the present, but with our eye on the future.
“We are a missional Order. We need to be visible, vocal. People need to know about us. Francis is the saint of the moment — this is the time to be out there and seen. His message is as relevant now as in his own time.”