“IS THIS the end for religious orders?” The Archbishop of Canterbury recalls the question posed on these pages nearly ten years ago (Comment, 27 February 2009). Since the beginning of the millennium, membership had fallen by about one third. Many communities had not had a single novice in this century. The obituary may have been premature: there remain 38 recognised communities registered by the Advisory Council. Between them, however, they have just 340 members, fewer than ten each, on average.
The news that the seven Sisters of All Hallows’ Convent, Ditchingham, in Norfolk, were giving away their home (News, 23 February) was an example of the graceful, generous way in which orders have responded to this diminution. But there is another aspect to the story of the religious life. At the start of his primacy, Archbishop Welby made the renewal of religious communities one of this three priorities. Since then, he has repeatedly asserted that a renewal of the Church’s life will not happen without a renewal of the religious life within it. His commitment may have reassured those who surmised that Evangelicalism could not be fertile soil for such a revival. The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, who chairs the Advisory Council, believes that that the Holy Spirit is “up to something remarkable”, and has noted that many of the new communities are emerging from Evangelical or Charismatic parentage. This applies to several of the members of the Community of St Anselm, who have spoken with enthusiasm about a year spent observing a Rule of Life that enjoins them to “pursue a new intimacy with Jesus”.
But, for all this new interest, the road from the new, time-limited communities typically leads to ordination rather than religious vows. It is hard to overstate the chasm that now exists between society’s values and the vows of voluntary poverty, willing obedience, and lifelong chastity. Even a short spell submitting to such counsels has proved testing. The Principal of the College of the Resurrection, Mirfield, Fr Peter Allan CR, has described how ordinands are drawn to the rhythms of the community’s life but struggle to lay aside a contemporary culture that “inhibits the kind of radical mutual interdependence on which it is founded”.
Yet the Revd Dr Gareth Powell, founder of a new monastic community in Streatham Hill, south London, suggests that young people have a longing for intensity which emerges from the “disappointments of so much of our contemporary life”. Twitter accounts (including “hey you! be a nun! yes you!”) suggest that many young Christians hold the Religious in great esteem. It may be that, for the Church of England at least, the era of lifelong vows is passing, a topic of continuing debate among the religious orders. Or perhaps it needs to follow the advice of Fr Étienne Vetö of Chemin Neuf, who suggests that the religious life be presented as “an adventure”. For the rest of this month, our features section will shine a spotlight on those who have embarked upon it.