Religious communities — fascinating rhythms

07 September 2018

Jemima Thackray explores how the presence of religious communities is helping ordinands ‘learn who to be’

ST AUGUSTINE’S

Bisi Akano-Adesoye (centre) at Malling Abbey in Kent

Bisi Akano-Adesoye (centre) at Malling Abbey in Kent

“I EXPECTED to keep coming across stray students,” Sister Mary John OSB says, remarking on the arrival of 200 theology students at her peaceful monastic home in Malling Abbey, at West Malling, in Kent. “But that hasn’t happened at all. The students have been so enriching of our life here. You hear so many negatives about the Church, but we see so many positives in this place.”

The co-existence of religious communities and training institutions, well established in the Church of England, has often had a practical impetus. The presence of the Benedictine Sisters at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, and the Benedictine Brothers at Sarum College reflects declining numbers within Anglican religious communities, coupled with the financial pressure on underfunded theological colleges.

“We realised that the space was becoming too big for our needs, and we began looking at something creative to help us to be better stewards of what we had,” the Mother Abbess explains, of the invitation to St Augustine’s College of Theology to “move in” to the grounds.

But such unions have led to mutual enrichment that extends far beyond the meeting of budgets and the sharing of responsibility for crumbly buildings.

ST AUGUSTINE’SSister Mary Michael OSB at Malling Abbey

Previously, the teaching of St Augustine’s was split between its Southwark centre and a facility at the campus of Canterbury Christ Church University. Since its move to Malling Abbey, in September 2016, the change has been marked.

“The campus was bustling and energetic,” the Principal, the Revd Dr Alan Gregory, says, “but there was also a sense that people were there because they were going to be somewhere else. And that rubbed off: on the students, on all of us. Now, we are in close proximity to a community that doesn’t measure itself in productivity: what it does is attend to God.”

The introduction of this still centre in the midst of the busy student body has profoundly altered the college’s identity and approach to theological education.

“Ministry training stops being reduced to a series of functions and becomes about real formation,” Dr Gregory says. “The sisters are a contemplative community, dedicated to prayer, and the question this poses all the time to students and staff is: what are you doing about your own inward life before God? Rather than your next essay, what are you doing about prayer? It has helped us nurture in men and women a level of self-awareness before God, that they would be able to minister out of this deepened interiority.”

Practically speaking, the Benedictine vows of conversion of life, stability, and obedience, taken by the 12 Sisters at Malling Abbey, involve starting the day in time for lauds (dawn prayer) at 4.30 a.m., the first of seven sung offices throughout the day. The Sisters are also expected to observe at least two hours a day in private prayer and spiritual reading, to refrain from all food between meals, and to keep the Greater Silence after compline, at about 8 p.m., through to breakfast.

These were some of the rituals that the Sisters described when the college asked for some teaching to contribute towards its MA programme on Benedictine spirituality. But a few wry looks and smiles are exchanged when the Sisters talk about this, before Sister Mary Stephen shares the joke: “You see, we’re not quite sure what it is. It’s a way of life and not something you can define easily.”

One thing that “it” certainly involves is prayer: the Sisters’ engagement with the world is through constant intercession for its needs, which they learn of through the daily papers, although there is no access to internet, television, or radio. The Sisters also pray every day for the students; requests from the intercessions box are pinned up inside their private quarters, and individual students are named in prayer at the Divine Office.

 

THE present Anglican community was founded in 1891, and became Benedictine in 1906; but the medieval buildings that they cherish are those of an abbey of Benedictine nuns founded in 1090. The students talk of the honour of being able to learn in a place of such historical value.

ST AUGUSTINE’SSister Bartimaeus OSB at Malling Abbey

“It’s like the stream that runs through the grounds: there is a sense in which there is a wellspring of spirituality and prayer which has been here for centuries,” Paul Robinson, a second-year ordinand, says.

Dr Gregory agrees: “We’ve gained a stronger sense of ‘we’ and the communion of the saints through sharing with a community that has been so longstanding. It brings with it a deep temporal awareness and perspective; so that we are alert to all the challenges of the present but do not fret about them. We’re beginning study that will continue for the rest of life and into eternity.”

The Sisters at Malling are distinct in being an enclosed community: almost all of their time is spent within the monastic enclosure, accessed only through a vast coded door, which students and staff are not allowed to enter. Through the door, the atmosphere in the tiled cloister is hushed and cool; the only sound comes from a fountain in the middle of the garth.

The separateness and the silence of the enclosed quarters leads, apparently, to some speculation: the Sisters tell the story of an oblate who came to stay in their guest accommodation and was plied with questions from curious students whenever she went outside.

“We certainly do revere them,” Mr Robinson says. “They exude a certain peace and tranquillity: you wouldn’t just walk up to the Sisters and start chatting.”

The students are welcome to attend all the services of the Divine Office in the abbey’s modernist Grade II church, but there is a separate entrance, and the students must sit to one side in the guest chapel. The chanted worship is difficult to follow for most of the students who are not used to it, but many of them like going along to listen and find space for contemplative prayer. One student enthuses that “it is like angels singing.”

 

THE Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, near Oxford, the Rt Revd Humphrey Southern, tells the contrasting story of a small boy, the child of one of the families resident at the college, who went missing for long enough to worry his parents. Once he was finally found, he defended himself, saying: “But I was with the grannies!”

This was a description that delighted the four Sisters of the Community of St John Baptist, who were invited to join the community at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, in 2012. Over the past six years, they have become integrated with the life of the college, worshipping and eating with the student body every day and attending all social events. Some of the Sisters also offer one-to-one spiritual direction to students.

“They see their particular calling as being outward and active in the community,” Bishop Southern says. “They’ve also brought a particular charism: the Benedictine virtue of stabilitas. Theological colleges tend to be full of a lot of people in a hurry; it’s a liminal space which people pass through, and the site can sometimes feel like a churning mass of people. But here, in their midst, are four elderly people who are staying still, showing that being a community is not just about sharing a space, but about being there for the long haul.”

Another of the Benedictine charisms is hospitality, the Principal of Sarum College, in Salisbury, Canon James Woodward, explains. The college welcomed four Brothers — Prior Simon, Dom Bruce, Dom Francis, and Dom Kenneth — in 2010, converting the former Principal’s house into a Benedictine priory with its own chapel.

“Part of this hospitality is that the Brothers eat with us, and are very much part of the college family. They have their own rhythm of prayer, of course, but equally important are their encounters in community. They are a very open, relational group of people, and they get to know the full range of students that come to Sarum, and they are present at all our community events.

“The strength of the Brothers’ presence is in the generativity of these informal relationships and friendships that are built up over time.”

 

The four Sisters of the Community of St John Baptist, at CuddesdonTHE College of the Resurrection, Mirfield, in West Yorkshire, is set apart in being the only remaining theological college founded by a religious community. The Community of the Resurrection itself — now made up of 16 members, including one monk in his twenties, two in their thirties, and five in their eighties — was founded in 1892, in Oxford; but, “because of their immersion in Christian Socialism, they wanted to move the order to the north, to be where there was more social need,” Fr Peter Allan CR, who is the Principal of the college, explains.

“The community moved in 1898, and then founded the college in 1902 out of a recognition that social class and money was preventing people with a vocation to ministry from pursuing it.”

In the early days of the college, the teaching staff consisted entirely of the Brethren; now, apart from the Principal, they play no formal part, but their presence infuses much of college life.

“It’s inevitable, as we have been together in a symbiotic relationship for over 100 years,” Fr Allan says. “As soon as students step across the threshold of the college, they encounter something that speaks powerfully; there is the sense of stepping effortlessly into a living tradition which they hadn’t realised existed — a tradition which has been there before their journey began, and will go on being there after it finishes.” Some of the Brothers have been in the community for more than 60 years, and began their time at Mirfield as students in the college.

The two bodies of community and college are geographically separated by a shared church, where they meet for daily evensong and for the eucharist on Sundays and feast days. The participation in the monastic liturgical life, Fr Allan says, is absolutely central to ministerial formation: “The study of theology is hugely affected by our participation in liturgical prayer; so that systematic theology, rather than being a dry exercise, becomes alive through the natural references throughout the day’s prayer.”

There is also an osmotic influence of simply being around a community that devotes so much time to prayer and contemplation. “The students see the Brothers with an ordered life, and they begin to learn what kind of order may be needed in their own lives. We also keep silence in the corridors and after compline until 9 a.m., and this gives students a chance to enter into the possibility of this kind of attentiveness, showing them the discipline of silence and seriousness of prayer.”

Meanwhile, he observes, the Community welcomes the way in which the students, largely under 30, enable it to “remain connected to the wider Church and to young people”.

 

THE Sisters at Malling Abbey speak in similar terms of being encouraged by their experience of meeting so many younger Christians. Sister Mary Michael and Sister Bartimaeus described their admiration for the hard work and concentration that they saw when they sat in on some of the classes at the college (a Greek class, and another on Christianity and the Qur’an).

“The students and lecturers were so dedicated, really. We were not very articulate in the classes, because most of life is silent. But the students were so full of questions,” Sister Bartimaeus says.

“People say that young people have no commitment nowadays, but it’s not true,” she goes on, speaking candidly of the “enormous challenge” of her own vocation “even after all this time”, while observing the same degree of perseverance in the students as they follow their own calling.

DIOCESE OF SALISBURYThe Prior of St Benedict’s Priory, Salisbury, Simon Jowett OSB (centre), with new deacons who trained at Sarum College, the Revd David Perry and the Revd Heather Brearey, after their ordination in Salisbury Cathedral on 1 July

Bisi Akano-Adesoye, for example, is pursuing part-time ordination, training at St Augustine’s while juggling a stressful job as a debt collector for Greenwich Council. She describes her work as “really tough, especially when you are meeting so many people who genuinely can’t afford to pay. But there is something about this place, with the Sisters here, that is beyond words, that prepares me to go back into the world and do what I do.”

Two very different vocations of two very different women within the Church; here, at Malling Abbey, they are encountering each other with mutual respect and a willingness to keep on learning. “The Sisters show such dedication to who they are: this is what blows me away,” Mrs Akano-Adesoye concludes. “Here, we don’t just learn information: we’re learning who to be.”

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