Bidding for a Cloistered Cell
Reformers and dissolution
Should Anglicans encourage the religious life? Yes, actually, since our church claims to be catholic as well as reformed. Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries that our reformers sought to justify. In the Book of Homilies, Cranmer’s ‘Sermon of Good Works’ has strong words to say about the vows. In his view the vow of obedience is pernicious since it freed its subjects from loyalty to parents and princes (the latter no doubt being the real rub). Chastity is cursorily dismissed with the claim that nobody actually kept to it (an innuendo still mooted, alas). Poverty was a legal fiction since corporate riches abounded while dependents were left in penury (a perennial problem constantly worked at). Cranmer also accused monastics of ‘for a pretence making long prayers’ and ‘of traversing sea and land’ to find novices, presumably making them twice as bad as themselves!
All the same it had to be proved that the monastic virtues were not simply the property of religious. All believers were equal under God and were to strive for holiness. Cloisters were superfluous. Latimer, preaching on the Lord’s Prayer, referred to the story of St Anthony and the cobbler of Alexandria – the latter proving to surpass the monk in holiness. Any decent, good-living Christian family man, Latimer claimed, was ‘St Anthony’s fellow’, his equal if not his superior in virtue. Anyway, we do not earn our way to heaven, as monks were presumed to be trying to do.
It is fascinating, moreover, to see the concept of equal opportunities for all working out in Anglican spirituality through the years. Morning and Evening Prayer became the liturgy of the hours open to everyone, and prayed in the vernacular to accentuate this end. Thomas Becon (sixteenth century) recognized the value of praying at certain set hours, regularly, as a means to fulfil the injunction: ‘pray without ceasing’. Equally, though, a good and holy life was itself prayer. The very same scriptural quotes are used to justify all this as those found in St Benedict’s sixth-century rule for monks.
Similarly, many of the prayers in the Elizabethan Primers are ‘monastic’ in tone, encouraging discipline and asceticism as normative for all believers – such examples as A Prayer against Pride and Unchasteness, A Prayer against Envy, William Law’s ‘
Serious Call and Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and Dying were in the same vein.
Jeremy Taylor is actually strongly Benedictine, as, for instance, in his advice about slow, meditative reading, short and frequent prayer, little speaking.
William Wilberforce’s (eighteenth–nineteenth centuries) advice is to watch over our heart and our ways with circumspection and to look to the saints to teach us how to ‘conquer every vice’ and gain ‘improvement in every branch of holiness’. This will bring an increase in humility and in sobriety of spirit thorough-going monastic virtues.
For some, this dispersed monasticism proved insufficient. Since monasticism has been an essential part of the tradition from earliest times it will eventually return, in radical forms, despite attempts to quell it. Nicholas Ferrar’s seventeenth-century experiment in communal life at Little Gidding is well known. He freely chose to make a vow of celibacy in fact, publicly acclaiming that the decision was not out of contempt for marriage, for the community included his own married relatives and their families. Afterwards William Law also lived a quasi-monastic life.
Then, in 1794, we find Mary Astell, a pioneer feminist in the church, publishing anonymously her Serious Proposal to Ladies, in which she advocated a kind of community for women, described as ‘rather academic than monastic’. Interest was aroused but nothing actually came of it at the time. Another hundred years or so would have to elapse.
Finally, as is well known, the various underground currents surfaced in the nineteenth century at the time of the Oxford Movement, helped in no small measure by the preceding Evangelical Revival and the contemporary Romantic Movement. Communities, for women first and later for men, took off. Monks and nuns, friars and sisters, were here to stay. John Keble might write, and generations of schoolchildren sing:
We need not bid for cloistered cell,
Our neighbour and our work farewell.
But some did and had to, and still do. After the initial battles for recognition and acceptance, religious have become an official and, in most instances, a respected part of the Anglican Church and Communion. There has naturally been a rise and fall in numbers, influence and prestige. Though prophets of doom sometimes predict the probable demise of the communities as past their sell-by-date in relevance, it is far from the case. Though vocations are fewer, they are stronger because more demanding in our secular age. Religious are vital to the church’s ministry, still praying, praising and serving, a radical witness to the gospel and the call to holiness. They make no claim that Anthony is superior to his fellows, or Scholastica, Clare or Theresa to their sisters. It is simply a matter of a different call and a bid for something that cannot be gainsaid. Therefore we look for your support.
A Sister of the Community of the Holy Cross, Rempstone.