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General Synod: religious communities

01 March 2019


The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker

The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker

RELIGIOUS communities were discussed during the revision stage of Draft Amending Canon No. 40.

The Archdeacon of London, the Ven. Luke Miller (London), noted that the amended canon contained new material designed to offer a definition of religious communities. This was a response to questions from members about the significance of the religious life and a concern that it should not be based on “activism and utility”. Members of religious communities would enjoy a majority on the Advisory Council for Relations between Bishops and Religious Communities, and although the role of the Bishop Visitor was not defined in the Canon, the regulations accompanying it could specify this.

He noted that, during history, renewal had been “profoundly associated with renewal in the Religious Life”, and suggested that the tenth-century Cistercians had been “the HTB of their age”. Although there was a desire to retain some flexibility with regard to communities that were also BMOs, the aim was that they should not normally be subject to two regimes.

In addition, although the regulations might set a minimum size for a religious community, the committee “did not wish existing communities to be put under threat”, and the regulations would reflect this. The voice of religious communities on the Advisory Council drafting these would be “large and clear”.

The Archdeacon of Leeds, the Ven. Paul Ayers (Leeds), was “troubled” by the legislation. There was “a lot of rather loose talk” about “the religious life”, he suggested, and he questioned the truth of the assertion that renewal in the Church had always been associated with a renewal in the religious life: he could think of many for whom this was not true, including some that had been “very anti-monastic”.

The definition in the Measure of communities shaped by “the evangelical counsel” caused him concern and was reminiscent of supererogation. Like all aspects of the Church, the monastic life had a varied history. “The risk is that we send an unintended message that monastic or quasi-monastic life is the real thing; every tradition is vulnerable to creating first- and second-class citizens, and this runs that risk.”

The Revd Andrew Dotchin (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) spoke as a member of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis. He argued that the Canon was “very carefully framed”. The religious life was one way of living out Gospel commands that all were called to. “We are all called in different ways to obey and to say that only way of obeying is the right way is as wrong as saying you can’t do one particular way.”

Archdeacon Miller said that the canon was “not a command to everybody to live in a particular way; nor does this canon seek to stray into the old business of salvation.” It enabled the Church to “recognise and acknowledge those religious communities and to commend them to the life that we all hold together.”

The Synod took note of the revision committee’s report.

Clive Scowen (London) moved his amendment. This very welcome canon, he said, specified what a religious community needed to do to qualify as part of the Church. What was unclear on the face of the canon was whether it is a “one-size-fits-all approach”, and whether this applied to existing communities, especially those in decline. He argued that it would be dreadful if existing religious communities in the Church were disqualified because they are so few. He said that his amendment would protect them.

Responding, the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, said he was minded to be favourable to Mr Scowen’s amendment, but it was not the committee’s intention that the canon affect existing communities, only new ones. Nevertheless, he said, it did not add too many words; so they would accept it, but probably would not accept Mr Scowen’s second amendment, and that it would not affect missional orders.

The amendment was carried overwhelmingly, and Mr Scowen withdrew his second amendment.

Click here to read about other General Synod debates and motions

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