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General Synod: motion on religious communities

16 February 2018

Synod debates motion to be ‘mindful’ of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s priority for the renewal of the religious life

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

Members of the St Anselm community, based at Lambeth Palace, watch the debate from the gallery

Members of the St Anselm community, based at Lambeth Palace, watch the debate from the gallery

THE Synod has urgently requested that a new canon be introduced that will provide a framework for the religious life in the Church of England.

Introducing the debate, the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, who chairs the House of Bishops’ Advisory Council for Relations between Bishops and Religious Communities, described how, aged 18, he went to a church “served by three men in brown robes”, and how, “from that moment on, the Franciscan movement wouldn’t let me go.”

In the Birmingham parish where he did his placement as an ordinand, there had been a house where three Sisters of the Community of St Francis worked alongside young women at risk from the sex industry. He heard about the Third Order, and “couldn’t shake off God’s call to this form of the religious life any more than I could have discarded my call to ordination or to marriage”.

People who turned to the religious life “normally do so for a combination of three reasons”, he said: “the charism, the community, and the Rule. Through these, we seek to achieve both a deepening of our own spiritual journey, and a greater serving of Christ in the world.”

He described how the 19th-century revival of monasticism in the C of E “gave birth to orders that worked in education, health care, and on the global mission field, as well as providing space for those who wished to explore the enclosed, contemplative life”.

Since the 1940s, the Handbook on the Religious Life had been produced by the Advisory Council. The latest version was due out shortly. The Council recognised communities in the traditional monastic form, and acknowledged those that interpreted that tradition alongside commitments to family and outside work.

This latter category had seen a “remarkable outpouring of God’s blessing in recent years”. Whereas, in the 19th century, they came largely from the Anglo-Catholic revival, today they were as likely to emerge from Evangelical or Charismatic parentage. He hoped to bring, in July, a canon to pave the way to create “a clearer framework for traditional and new monastic communities”. The wording would be worked on in light of the debate today.

Such a canon would help to safeguard not only the members of communities, but those with whom they came into contact. He noted that “informal arrangements have an inherent vulnerability under stress, or where powerful personalities hold sway. Support for this motion will pave the way to our framing the religious life with the right balance of freedom and accountability.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury said that it was “almost impossible to find a period in the Church where there has been renewal of spiritual life without renewal of religious community”. Therefore, “if we are to see a deepening of our spiritual life in the C of E over the next many years, it is essential that we pay attention to this subject.”

Longstanding and new communities were all “equally important”, he said. “They have different vocations and charisms.” He spoke of the “remarkable” Chemin Neuf community, which was present at Lambeth Palace. “By the grace of God, and in great generosity, many longstanding communities have been supporting and sharing wisdom with new communities.”

Legislation was important, not least in helping to ensure that vocations were discerned: he feared that they were “often simply overlooked rather than ignored”. Safeguarding was also important, as, “tragically, we know from history that abuse and corruption are also part of some religious. . . Sin creeps in.”

Mark Russell (Sheffield), chief executive of the Church Army, described how, frustrated with inheriting a rule that Church Army evangelists had to leave when they became priests, he had followed Canon George Ling’s advice to establish a mission order. Orders were “the places where the radical and the different and the pioneering can be done slightly easier.”

He reminded the Synod that Britain had not been evangelised by the parochial system, but by mission bands and mission orders. The Church Army agreed to become a mission community, and the commissions of 73 clergy had been restored, including one evangelist on his death bed. Since then, the Church Army had become “more intentional” about prayer and rhythms.

He welcomed the motion, but hoped that it would help communities to “continue to be light-touch and permission-giving” so that they could be even more radical and prophetic.

The Archdeacon of Lincoln, The Ven. Gavin Kirk (Lincoln), who is Warden of the Community of the Holy Cross, Costock, described how part of religious communities’ contribution had always been “counter-cultural”, but noted that a community could also quickly become “an enculturated society of its own”.

This was both a strength and a weakness, raising the question how communities related to the rest of the Church. Canon Kirke said that he would help to formulate answers to this question. Religious communities were prophetic: he noted that the first women who could own property and could elect the person who led them were women in the Church of England, and that the first women who were icons of Christ in their communities were superiors for Anglican women’s religious orders.

Yet their presence was still not formally recognised at the deepest levels of the Church, and there was “little publicity or encouragement to consider vocations”. He welcomed this motion to support and affirm communities.

Canon Patricia Hawkins (Lichfield) was concerned about some “clumsy wording” in the report, which she feared could give the impression that those called to the contemplative life were “disengaged”. She knew enclosed monastic women who were “some of the most grounded, aware, and spiritually engaged people I have had the privilege to know”. She was aware of how much her own ministry “draws on the repository of their prayers”.

Fr Thomas Seville CR (Religious Communities, Northern Province) also welcomed the motion. He wanted to raise questions of language, including the “pretty obscure” distinction between “acknowledge” and “recognise”. He hoped that the language used would recognise the various kinds of communities, which came “in all shapes and sizes”. The term “monastic” was more suited to communities like his own than for friars who wandered, for example.

The Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn (Southern Deans), spoke of visiting St Augustine’s, Manicaland, in Zimbabwe, last year. He owed the shape of his own priesthood to the Community of the Resurrection. The church that he had been raised in had produced many vocations to the priesthood, and he could remember being touched “deeply” by the sight of visiting Sisters.

He wanted to give thanks in particular for the “missionary zeal” of communities founded in the 19th century, and hoped that this would be recovered today in the life of the Church.

John Freeman (Chester) spoke of his diocese’s “very fruitful” links with the Melanesian Brotherhood. The diocese had helped them through university, and one had gone on to become a bishop.

Shayne Ardron (Leicester) described how the diocese of Leicester was creating the Tree of Life community. “When looking at what we are doing in the world, we can’t do it if we can’t recognise God.” This would come only through “deep presence with God”.

The Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, spoke as Bishop Visitor of the Society of the Precious Blood, in Burnham; Bishop Protector of the Society of St Francis; and chairman of the board of the Church Army.

He agreed with the Archbishop of Canterbury about the renewal of spiritual life and its link to religious communities: “I urge you to make it even more central to all that you are doing, because, although we do have all sorts of plans to renew and reform our Church, it does seem to me to be that the most interesting thing that God is doing in the Church today is the renewal of the religious life.”

This was especially true with young people: his own son was living in a community in Toxteth. He was anxious not to make the mistake, in previous ages, of bishops’ and abbots’ being “at odds with one another. We need to support these fledgling communities, and established ones, and part of that will be getting out of the way.”

But he did support the proposals, which were “modest but important in enabling the religious life to flourish in all its forms”. Echoing an earlier point about the evangelism of Britain by mission orders, he said that “the parochial system we have inherited is the consequence of evangelism, not its cause. In the main, the evangelism of Europe happened through religious communities, and, therefore, it seems to me it may well be likely that the re-evangelisation of Europe will happen in a similar way.”

The Archdeacon of London, the Ven. Luke Miller (London), supported the motion, but expressed caution on establishing religious communities as institutions, which has not been the intention of Fr Benson of Cowley. “So many of those 19th-century communities have faded, as Benson said they probably would. Let us not bind things with institutionalisation: do not prop things up unnecessarily through administration and legislation.”

Supporting the motion, Canon Mark Pilgrim (Bristol) emphasised the impact of the religious life on the wider community. It was how he had found and developed his faith, he said. He had attended Taizé as an atheist at the age of 18, and had been converted. The impact of the religious life could be profound, he said, whether you wanted to be a part of it or not.

Sister Anita Cook CSC (Religious Communities, Southern Province) said that the discussion made it sound as if everyone knew about monks and nuns, but it was the “great secret” in the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. Religious communities had had representatives at the Synod since 1970. “What we do in the Synod has implications for the rest of the Communion,” she said.

Her community had provided chaplaincy services for the Lambeth Conference, a “living expression of the Communion”. Communities had been serving the Church, and living out their vows, for centuries, she said. “At the heart of every community is the coming together of prayer as individuals and corporate prayer.” She urged the Synod to support Canon Pilgrim. “It is a radical way of Christian living: the opposite of the ‘me’ culture.”

Dr Walker said that there were “shed-loads of money” where legacies had been passed on, and hoped that this could be used to develop new communities, and traditional communities who were falling on hard times. Women had been elected as superiors within the Church’s religious communities long before women got the vote.

The motion was clearly carried. It read:

That this Synod, mindful of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s priority for the renewal of the religious life:

(a) note the historic importance of religious communities in the life of the faithful in this country;

(b) celebrate the many new expressions of the religious life through Recognised and Acknowledged Communities; and

(c) call on the Business Committee to introduce a new Canon to the Synod by July 2018 to provide a framework for religious life in the Church of England.

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