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Religious communities — pockets of sustaining energy

07 September 2018

Four years ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that the renewal of the Church was ‘impossible to imagine without renewal in religion’. Beginning a month-long series on the religious life, Petà Dunstan surveys the scene today, from older communities to new monastics


The Archbishop of Canterbury talks to Sisters at Lambeth Palace for the commissioning of the Community of St Anselm in 2017

The Archbishop of Canterbury talks to Sisters at Lambeth Palace for the commissioning of the Community of St Anselm in 2017

WHEN the Archbishop of Canterbury announced that the renewal of prayer and the religious life was to be one of the three priorities of his archiepiscopate, there was surprise in some quarters. Many in the Church still linked the latter with media images of medieval monks and Victorian Mother Superiors.

A surprising number of Anglicans, including clergy, seem not to realise that religious communities are still very much a presence in the Church. The Archbishop, however, has understood the importance of the living of the gospel in a more intense and particular way by groups of Christians who seek God through prayer and ministry in community. Such communities provide the Church with pockets of sustaining energy and vitality, at the same time as challenging the rest of the people of God to invigorate their spiritual life and service to others.

A revival of communities dedicated to prayer and service is a pathway for the healthy renewal of the whole Church.

ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURYMembers of religious communities gather at Lambeth Palace, in 2014

The Archbishop is also aware of the resurgence of interest in living a form of community life as a Christian witness. To any student of church history, this is not a surprise: wherever Christianity has been established, there have been those who have wished to express the faith within a community setting. For some, the family provided this; for others, it was the wider parish network, worshipping and socialising together.

Yet there have also been groups who have wished to go even further. They have shared their lives and resources with others in a lifetime commitment in their seeking of God.

Such commitments evolved into the religious life: monks and nuns, friars and Sisters. So essential was this seen to be, that the tradition of such communities transcended the splits within it. Religious life thrived equally within the Eastern, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic Churches. Members took vows of different types, and lived with different rules of life, but, for most, the commitment involved vows (known as the evangelical counsels) of poverty, chastity, and obedience. These were considered the essential defences against the temptations of material wealth, distracting sexual desire, and personal power.

At the Reformation, those who broke away from the leadership of Rome seemed to reject monasticism and the religious life too hastily. Yet religious life in a wider sense was followed even by those who had rejected “the religious life”. In particular, smaller Protestant groups needed to foster a sense of community as a defence in a wider society that did not always feel benign or tolerant.

Community life also continued to find expression among foundations of scholars, missionary groups, networks of families, and so on. The call to share prayer and ministry could not be suppressed if Christianity was to thrive. Despite all the social and political pressures, the celibate religious life was revived in the Church of England in the mid-19th century, and among Lutherans and other Protestants in the 20th century.

Today, the political associations of the term “religious life” have diminished, and Christians can be found among all traditions that are seeking God through community. Consequently, there is much happening in this area among Anglicans, with a variety of expressions of such a life: some traditional, some experimental. Some last for a season; others continue to evolve into long-term commitments. Some communities are ecumenical and have non-Anglican members, a witness to religious communities’ transcending the boundaries of denomination.

The Advisory Council, the body in the Church of England that gives formal recognition (for celibate communities) and formal acknowledgement (for non-celibate communities) to those who seek it, has been presented with an unexpected number of such groups, which would have been unimaginable even 20 years ago.


THERE are three broad areas of religious community today. First, established non-celibate communities, whose members do not live together but form a network connected by prayer and shared values expressed in their rules of life. One of the contributions to community living in the 20th century was the encouragement to Christians to live out a modified religious life while remaining in their own homes, earning their own living, and being able to marry and have families if they wished.

TSSFMembers of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis

One significant inspiration for this pattern of life came from the Third Order Franciscan tradition. In the 1930s, the various groups of Franciscan-inspired Anglicans joined together in stages to create the Third Order of the Society of St Francis (TSSF). It grew, and now it is approaching 3000 members worldwide; more than half of them are in the UK (News, 26 May 2017).

The attraction of communities such as the TSSF lies in embedding Christian community life within wider society as a way to bring the gospel to the world. It is a sharing of Christian joy and Christian companionship outside the parish structure, with which fewer people engage in the 21st century.

Other older societies, formed for more specific tasks of ministry and mission, have realised that the work that they do, and the witness that they have, is enhanced by the development of a similar community structure. The Church Army has been acknowledged as a community by the Church of England, as has the Church Mission Society.

Examples of more recently founded dispersed communities include: the Order of Mission (TOM), which focuses on mission activities and training missional leaders; the Community of Hopeweavers (CoH), a dispersed fellowship that seeks God through stillness, prayer, creativity, and mutual support; and Contemplative Fire (CF), a network of people united by prayer and study, as well as engagement with the world.


THE second area is that of the new residential communities. For many, the attractions of dispersed community life have lacked one particular ingredient: the challenges and rewards of sharing a home with others outside the immediate family, and pooling resources. A range of community groups have come into being, shaped by differing circumstances and a variety of aims. Some have not lasted long; others have found roots and enough stability to seek acknowledgment by the Church.

There are groups of families and others, involving mainly young people. Some are specifically aimed at an educational experience for a particular time, such as the Community of St Anselm, resident at Lambeth Palace, bringing together young people from all over the world for a year to share a life of prayer, study, and service to the poor.

Others bring young people together in a more parochial setting, where, with appropriate support, they can experience and explore the Christian life. These groups are at an early stage of development, and it is not easy to predict their future. Their very existence, however, is a witness to the vitality of the call to community.


THE third area is the traditional celibate form of religious life. Expressed in the evangelical counsels (or the equivalent Benedictine vows), it still continues, and remains a source of wisdom for other forms of religious community.

There has been sadness over the past decades as communities founded in the Victorian era to run schools and hospitals have faded away, their particular work taken over by the State. Yet their demise has been a sign of success: they awakened the conscience of society to the need to care for the poor in sickness, and to educate children, whatever their background. That job was accomplished.

ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURYThirty-six young men and women from across the UK and around the world become the first members of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s new monastic-inspired community at Lambeth Palace on 18 September 2015

The struggle for many celibate communities has been to reimagine their ministry and their charism in the changed society of the 21st century (News, 4 April 2014; Comment, 27 February 2009). They are now doing that, and some are receiving vocations. The communities have developed “alongsider” programmes, so that those wishing to explore can experience the life before making any formal step to join.

The recognised communities have also pooled their resources and created an intercommunity programme to provide training for novices (Features, 14 November 2014). Of 18 novices on the course five years ago, more than half are now professed members of communities. The course has also helped connections between communities and established common resources online: the place where young people especially look for information.

The revival of interest in community life is, therefore, across the different forms: celibate and non-celibate, communal and dispersed. Vocations to all these forms of religious life are now linked into the vocations strategy of the Church of England. The process has already begun, through the Synod, to incorporate a canon on religious communities into the ecclesiastical law of the Church (Synod, 13 July).

It is important that all communities seeking acknowledgment adhere to policies on matters such as safeguarding. There is a conscious effort not to be rigid, however, about how communities will develop. The canon is expected to be devised with a broad description, so that it can cover the varied expressions of religious life, however they may evolve.


THERE are still issues to be addressed as the Church moves forward in encouraging community life. Many of the new communities wish to express their commitment by taking some form of vow or promise; and some have a concern that they will not be taken seriously unless they do. Yet the form of vows, and the content of what is promised, must be carefully considered to avoid confusion.

MUCKNELL ABBEYBrother Patrick sets the table at Mucknell Abbey, home to the Benedictines formerly at Burford

In some communities, the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience have been interpreted in new ways: for example, “chastity” has been defined as fidelity to a spouse rather than celibacy. Others use different words altogether: for example, one community uses “simplicity, purity, and accountability”. For others, the promises are made to follow a rule of life belonging to the community, or individually devised to suit particular circumstances. Some promises are for a specific period of time — a “season” — while others are potentially for life.

These newer forms of vows and promises differ from the evangelical counsels, and there is a danger of confusion. That does not mean that the new versions do not have integrity or value, but they need to be understood as distinct. Because many new communities are still in an experimental stage, they are still forging their charism and outlook. Patience and generosity from the rest of the Church is, therefore, welcome, as the members find the right way to express their commitment to each other and those they serve.

Archbishop Welby has found his call echoed and acted on by people in contrasting circumstances. Whatever issues these communities face, the significant fact is that they exist. Their vitality and continuing evolution are a sign of health and life in the Church.

Dr Petà Dunstan is a Fellow of St Edmund’s College, Cambridge.



There are 38 recognised communities registered by the Advisory Council on the Relations of Bishops and Religious Communities. They have 340 members across 71 houses. Of these, 63 per cent are professed lay women. They typically have fewer than ten members. They also have 2310 oblates, tertiaries, associates, or outer Brothers or Sisters. The Council has also acknowledged 15 religious communities with 5180 members. Across the Anglican Communion there are at least 1743 celibate religious: 811 men and 932 women.

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