The eighth annual conference for ‘Religious of orthodox Tradition’ (Root) met at Saint Stephen’s House, Oxford, for two days in June. Representatives from thirteen different Communities were joined by an observer from the Church in Wales, and also by the Bishop of Ebbsfleet. The Principal and domestic staff of Saint Stephen’s House were marvellous hosts, and the food was up to its usually high standard.
During the last three years, the themes have centred round the evangelical vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. This year we concentrated on the vow of poverty, exploring anew how this is interpreted and lived out in communities in the modern world. Brother Reginald SSF was the first speaker. He spoke of the vow of poverty as understood by the Franciscans. His approach was devotional, and the talk was followed by a period of silence, so that we could reflect on the message which he brought with him.
Surprised by Joy
Sister Vivienne Joy CHN gave a very well-documented lecture on the history of the religious orders, and how the vows had been understood in varying ways throughout the Christian ages. She called attention to the fact that monks and nuns are often better off than many who are condemned to involuntary poverty, and that this is nothing new. In medieval times their way of life ensured that they were warmly clad and fed, and that they were less likely to catch disease than many of their contemporaries. No monk at Canterbury, for example, died of the plague, unlike their less fortunate townsfolk, largely because their drainage system was far superior to any other in that period. Even in our modern world, members of monastic orders are often considerably better off than many others. Nevertheless, this fact does not appear to provide an inducement for recruitment on a large scale.
Sister Vivienne Joy pointed out that members of Religious Orders are called to live at risk, and one of the greatest risks nowadays arises from the fact that some of the smaller communities themselves are simply not succeeding in getting new members, and, as their existing members become progressively older and less active, they have to face the possibility that it may be impossible to sustain their community life for more than a limited number of years in the future. What will be the position of the few Sisters and Brothers who remain?
Abbot Giles Hill of Alton Abbey gave a very well-researched and documented lecture on poverty as seen by the Benedictine Order, reminding us that poverty is not one of the Benedictine vows, and that their emphasis is on sharing with others whatever resources they are privileged to have. In the more general discussions that followed, there was some considerable unease expressed as to the future of religious communities if and when the Church of England decides to consecrate women to the episcopate. Great strain has already been placed upon communities through the ordination of women to the priesthood, and especially in those convents and monasteries where women celebrate at the altar. Yet the determination to stay together in the face of division and difficulty has somehow succeeded. Will this even be possible with women bishops? We were all very grateful to the Bishop of Ebbsfleet for helping us to look at these problems, and it would seem that future conferences of RooT will have to spend some time wrestling with these issues.