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The Vowed Life: The promise and demand of baptism, edited by Sarah Coakley and Matthew Bullimore

06 April 2023

Dominic Walker looks at essays rooted in the paradigm of baptism

IT HAS been said that vows are for the spiritually weak, and that is probably why most of us need them, especially when the going gets tough.

In this volume, produced by the Littlemore Group and edited by Matthew Bullimore, Chaplain of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and Sarah Coakley, a former Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, they have brought together a wide variety of scholars, most with parish-ministry experience to look at the place that vows can have in the spiritual life of the Church of England.

The various essays or chapters look at baptism, which is regarded as the foundational vowed commitment, and also at the vows taken at confirmation, marriage, ordination, and the religious (monastic) life. The chapter about Nicholas Ferrar and the 17th-century Little Gidding community is a precursor to what is often described somewhat misleadingly today as “new monasticism”: that is, religious communities of men and women, single and married, living in community or dispersed, and bound to God and to one another through vows or promises.

The writers have examined the historical contexts of the various rites involving vows, showing the liturgical (and subtle theological) changes that have taken place, and seeking to relate them to parish life today, in which clergy still prepare people for vow-taking especially in baptism, confirmation, and marriage. There is a timely reminder “that the Church of England needs to think more, and think afresh, about confirmation and its sacramental significance”.

Three of the chapters examine the history, controversy, and present practice of Anglican religious communities, especially in relation to life vows, although no mention is made of Catholic communities where no vows are taken or where they are taken annually. There is also, somewhat surprisingly, no acknowledgement of the single consecrated life in the Church of England, which has been growing over the years, and in which men and women choose to live a Rule of Life and be bound by a vow of consecrated celibacy received by their bishop.

At a time when vocations to the traditional religious and monastic life have been in a significant decline, there is, paradoxically, a significant growth in new communities, and the book acknowledges how an openness of spirit has enabled the “new” and the “old” to learn from one another. An afterword by the Archbishop of Canterbury reiterates his belief that the renewal of the Church comes about in part through the renewal of the consecrated life. His founding of the Community of St Anselm at Lambeth Palace shows his own commitment to this vision.

This collection of essays is the fifth book from the Littlemore Group and the one on which, the Group says, it has expended most time and energy. It is certainly a valuable contribution to the subject of living a vowed life, with the obligations and freedoms that it brings. The book has been in planning for a number of years, but it is a pity that they didn’t take a little longer, so that they could have added another chapter that reflected on the vows to be taken at the Coronation of the King and Queen in May, and their significance for our Church and nation.


The Rt Revd Dominic Walker OGS is a former Bishop of Monmouth.

The Vowed Life: The promise and demand of baptism
Sarah Coakley and Matthew Bullimore, editors
Canterbury Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.99

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