THERE can be few commitments greater than entering a religious community, so it is good to be able to dip a toe in the water before making that commitment. And, while tasting the religious life on retreat is one thing, the traditional route of postulancy is quite another, inevitably carrying a weight of expectation on both sides.
Mucknell Abbey, an Anglican Benedictine monastery in Worcestershire, was prompted to think seriously about this 20 years ago, when two postulants chose not to become novices. One reflected, on departure, that he had joined because he really wanted “a long retreat, with time to reflect on my life”, the present abbot, Brother Thomas OSB, says.
“We decided it was better to be upfront and honest about that, and invite people who want to come for a few months to experience the life in a monastic community, but who don’t have any particular expectations of entering. Previously, the only way to do that was to come as a postulant, so they were talking themselves into a false position.”
The Abbey came up with the Alongsider experience, where people at some point of change in their lives, or reflecting on what to do next in a Christian context, could live and work there without the expectation that they would be entering the community. It has proved, in fact, to be the best route for anybody, Brother Thomas says.
“We get to know them as people first. Those who enter with a view that they have got to jump through hoops, inevitably cast themselves in a particular light and are too busy trying to be good or acceptable, or something like that.
“We have had people who told us, on arrival, they were definitely thinking of joining, who ended up leaving. Others who came, saying they had no intention of joining, are now life-professed with us.”
Mucknell AbbeyThe abbey buildings at Mucknell
The community has had 30 Alongsiders since 2008, one third of whom have chosen to enter the noviciate. Eight have made the lifelong profession in the community.
At Mucknell, Alongsiders come for a period of between three and 12 months. “You can surf a wave for a couple of months, and think of it like a sabbatical or an internship. You can play a part and ride on your enthusiasm . . . and after that, the relentlessness, the grit of living in community and following a particular timetable, does begin to bite.”
The Alongsider scheme — taken up, in various forms, by every Anglican religious community open to noviciates, except the Community of the Resurrection (Mirfield) — is proving a creative and worthwhile experience.
At Mucknell, very few have left at three months because they have found the life too hard. “We do make it very clear that this is a serious commitment, and living in community is unlike either living on your own or with a partner,” Brother Thomas observes.
“It can be an upheaval, and we have to be quite careful and thoughtful of how much we expect of them, and at what stage. There has long been a debate in religious communities in terms of whether a traditional postulancy, or the point at which they enter the noviciate, should be a cliff edge or a gradual appropriation of values.”
Mucknell goes for the latter: Alongsiders are not required to come to all the Offices, and they do a certain amount of work and are encouraged to have a project. The point at which they start talking about wanting to enter the community is when they might be encouraged to explore further.
Do Alongsiders come with a realistic, or a romantic idea? “It’s mixed,” Brother Thomas suggests. “We require them to visit as a guest at least twice beforehand. Some may have worked in a care community, and have a better idea of the demands of living on site with people whom you haven’t chosen to live with, but with whom you have a shared set of goals.
“Invariably, there is an element of romance attached of floating round in habits, in clouds of incense, and thinking beautiful thoughts — some of which we hope we do. But that’s not mostly how it comes across.”
The community follows the Rule of St Benedict which has been reimagined and reinterpreted in different contexts for the best part of 1500 years: “People keep on going back it to it, for the amount of good sense and the underlying values that are embedded in it.”
SISTER JOANNA HOLLINS SSC (Society of the Sacred Cross) is in the unusual position of having known about Anglican religious life all her life. Her parents had two university friends who were nuns, and the family used to visit them. “I grew up running around their fruit trees. I experienced there something I didn’t have a word for, but which I have come to know as joy,” she says.
Following a Master’s in creative writing and poetry, she suddenly found herself wanting to write about God, she says. “A huge surprise! The idea kept cropping up in my head: what about being a nun?”
She offered God the “bargain” of volunteering for a year, felt that she got “a very firm no”, and looked at various career paths, to none of which was she attracted.
So, at 23, she was filling in time as a receptionist and noting the tendency for people to back away when she’d say brightly: “I’m trying to become a nun.” She visited a few communities, heard of a monastic taster day being run by Religious of orthodox Tradition (RooT), and, inspired by an enthusiastic young nun, spent a week with the Order of the Holy Paraclete at Whitby.
It was the right vocation, but the wrong place, she says. She accompanied her mother, a priest, on a retreat at Mucknell Abbey, returning twice on her own, but it was when she took up the offer of a year doing pastoral-assistant work in a new monastic community, Holywell, in Abergavenny, that things began to take shape.
“They were helping people discern their vocations. They were so supportive,” she says. Holywell put her in touch with a retired bishop, a member of the dispersed Oratory, who told her about Tymawr, a small community just outside Monmouth.
“I thought: ‘Absolutely not. I don’t want to be in Wales. I don’t want to be in an all-female community. I don’t want to be in a rural location.’ But he was insistent I go.” She arranged to go there for a few days, and got snowed in.
Sr Joanna Hollins SSC
“I knew I was coming back,” she says. “They sent me out into the garden. I had been praying with a mental image of a garden path, and halfway through the task they’d given me, I just put my shovel down, because they’d asked me to lay a garden path. . . I thought: ‘Oh, come on, God. I’ve got the message.’”
After finishing her year at Holywell, she went to Tymawr as an Alongsider, in August 2018. She had known that she was looking for a contemplative order, but owns that its being fully enclosed “might have been a surprise”. The community comprises one novice, five nuns in life profession, and Joanna, herself now in first vows.
She went with no specific expectations, just enjoyed the experiences as they came. “That has been helpful, to be willing to go with the flow. I found it helped me uncover my true self, and who I am most truly in Christ.
“I have time and scope for study, and for outdoor work. I pray with my hands, I thrive on being outdoors, for my physical, mental and spiritual health. I work in the garden and I will always be a gardener. That’s been a tremendous gift. It’s an orderly, rhythmic life, which, for the way I am, and the way I think, is useful. It’s very life-giving.”
When she was an Alongsider, she joined in the study and day-to-day life of the community with some individual flexibility. “[You’re] expected to come to the Offices, have jobs and work in the community. You have a rest day, like everyone else, but you are not under any rules or promises.
“The surprises are in the internal journey I’ve made over the last four and a half years. I found out things about my own relationship with God, and with God in others,” she reflects of her time as postulant, novice and now in profession of first vows; a period that lasts three years and three months and which leads to life profession.
The religious life is challenging: it brings you into contact with your alone-ness, she reflects, and is “something you have to look into very clearly.
“A lot of religious life is coming into very direct contact with that reality, and being willing to stay with it. I think it’s a very worthwhile journey. It’s a painful one, too, but the strength of the community is that, when you are weak, there are people holding you.”
TIM VICK is a former Alongsider with Mucknell Abbey, who chose not to continue in the community. Reading work by C. S. Lewis and others had led him to discover the Desert Fathers, of whom he found no representation in the churches he knew. “There’s something in me that was always drawn to the contemplative and mystical,” he says. “I like being on my own.
“My experience was of Pentecostal and Free Churches, and I spent some time with the Jesus Army at Northampton, but I felt a lot was missing.”
A search for monasteries yielded only Roman Catholic ones at first. And he thought he would have to become a Roman Catholic to experience the monastic life. But then he discovered Mucknell Abbey, and signed up as an Alongsider.
“I thought there was something to experience that would go deeper into faith. I suppose I had a kind of romanticised image of things. I got on very well with everyone, but it was quite a culture shock. I was there for nine months, and it was a very good nine months.
“But, with my background in the Free Churches, I’d never chanted a psalm in my life before. Now, it was seven times a day. I never really got into the Office. I wanted to believe there was something about the chanting and the reciting of the daily office that was very special, but, personally, it was too alien.
“I decided this wasn’t something I could do on a permanent basis. But they suggested I carried on for as long as I wanted to. One of the things I liked about the programme, as distinct from a postulancy, was that there were no strings.
“I think it’s something [many] Protestant churches are missing out on. The programme is very good. For a young person in a church, it’s an opportunity to see a side of your faith and [church] history . . . that is not represented anywhere else. People go off to India to find themselves, but the first choice has been to experience my own culture and heritage.”
He regards himself as very blessed, and praises Mucknell for its generosity. “There were wonderful moments. I feel I have experienced a particular side of the Church, and that need within me has been satisfied. I’m glad I went. It was something entirely good. It isn’t always about finding the right path. It’s about having more peace, using a different path.”
He acknowledges a sense of loss after leaving the Alongsider programme. The answer to “What now?” turned out to be walking the Camino de Santiago, and, when he returned, it was to go into tree surgery.
He is 44 now. “I’m happy in my work,” he concludes. “I don’t know quite where I am going spiritually, but I keep in touch with the monastery. It has 40 acres of grounds; so it works well that I go and take my tools for a week. They give me a hermitage, and I do four days’ work and two days’ rest. I work on how I can make my life as good as I can.”
AS SECRETARY to the Committee of Anglican Religious Communities in England, Fr Mark Soady SSC observes that there is still a lack of awareness in the C of E about Anglican religious communities, often described as “Anglicanism’s best-kept secret”.
While a few of the 30 Anglican religious communities are in a fragile state, and have closed their noviciate, there are “a very encouraging number of vocations in a handful of communities. And then there is new monasticism, which has taken off in the last few years and really captured the imagination of people.”
New Monasticism is illustrated by communities such as that of St Anselm at Lambeth Palace, monastically inspired but drawing people from all traditions to live together for a time in community, or to combine following its Rule of Life with work, study, and service.
Fr Mark Soady SSC, Secretary to the Committee of Anglican Religious Communities in England, with Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby
Fr Soady believes that the Alongsider scheme provides a valuable way for people to explore religious life. “The opportunity to go into a community and discover whether you are strong enough, emotionally, for the life is important. People can think the religious life is all about opting out of society, but it can sometimes be harder to live in close proximity with a small group.
“Most communities would encourage you to come and stay for four days, to have a first taster. That’s like being a guest. Being an Alongsider is very much more. In moving into the enclosure and living the full life of the community, you’re not on retreat. You are doing the heavy work as well.”
Most enquiries come from people between the ages of 25 and 45, and from all backgrounds. “They include people who haven’t really found a place in the world, and that may be because their place is in the religious community. They haven’t been able to settle and find a career path, because that isn’t really where their heart is.”