Richard Norman reflects on the importance of the religious life in the Church of England
Readers are no doubt familiar with the saying that the religious life is the Church of England’s best-kept secret. Unfortunately, evidence suggests that it is a secret we are keeping too well. Given current threats to Catholic life in the Anglican Church, it would be disastrous to allow such a treasure to slip into irreparable decline.
For six weeks this summer, I lived as an alongsider with the Benedictines of Elmore Abbey in Berkshire. Now home to just four resident monks, Elmore is the successor to Nashdom Abbey, the jewel in the crown of English Anglican monasticism, and has a heritage stretching back to Aelred Carlyle and the first post-Reformation Anglican Benedictines. During my time at Elmore Abbey, I shared the monks’ life of work, study and prayer: seven times daily the silence would give way to the resonance of the tolling bell and, soon after, the melody of the Divine Office – prayer, the opus Dei, punctuates the Benedictine regula vitae.
We were rarely without guests: an ‘open house’ event attracted over three hundred visitors; and there are a similar number of oblates. But the problem remains that though many want to come for this experience, few wish to stay more permanently.
From its earliest days the religious life has been counter-cultural, challenging not only the pagan world but also the institutional Church, with significant reform so often springing from this quarter. Today the differences between the philosophies of life within the monastery and outside are striking. Secular life fractures and compartmentalizes (‘the work-life balance’ etc); the holistic monastic existence recognizes no distinction in type between the monk’s different occupations – he is as much at prayer in the kitchen or the workshop as in the Oratory. Contemporary society tells us to choose for our associates those who are cleverest, most beautiful and successful: the professional religious throws in his lot with a community from varied backgrounds, to whom are constantly added visitors and guests; people he does not choose, and from whom he seeks no personal advancement, only the opportunity to build a community of charity.
The religious life is vital to the Church. Besides witnessing to an original interpretation of the Gospel imperatives, and prophetically embodying the character of the kingdom of heaven, it also acts, as in times past, as guardian of orthodoxy and Christian model of civilization. The preservation of Catholic truth will be difficult without those who reveal it as much in their lives as in their words.
Further, God does continue to raise up vocations to this life – without them we could not claim Catholic authenticity; but we traditionalists are failing to recognize and encourage them. Parish priests and chaplains must make it clear that the religious life exists for, and is valued by, Catholics. Parishes must display the literature of religious communities, and advertise their existence; congregations should be encouraged to visit and thus to witness the beating heart of their Church.
Directors of ordinands and vocations advisers must take seriously the religious life as a possibility for those who approach them. Seminaries have to expose students to the religious priesthood as well as preparing them for diocesan ministry. Above all, we must pray for vocations, especially among the young – pray that God would call men and women to the religious life, and that we should be granted grace to look for and to answer this call. It is time to share the secret.
For further information, see the year book Anglican Religious Life 2008-9 or visit
Richard Norman is Sacristan of Pusey House Oxford, and a final-year undergraduate reading Philosophy and Theology at Christ Church