Brother Stephen CR reflects on the current condition of the Religious Communities of the Church of England.
In last months’ issue of New Directions two articles appeared, one by Fr Peter CSWG on the initiative of the newly named body of Traditional Anglican Religious: RooT; and the other by Father Peter Huckle SSJE on the future of St Edward’s House, Westminster. It is good to see such articles to inform the wider readership of New Directions about the Church of England’s ‘best kept secret’, Anglican Religious Communities, and to inform everyone on the state and future of the Religious Life. Recently Forward in Faith published some very excellent leaflets covering a wide range of titles. It had just one title missing to date – the Religious Life. Happily it now seems that another leaflet will be written about Anglican Religious Life, but one wonders why it was overlooked in the first place?
I would like to remind readers of New Directions of the excellent article written by one of the Sisters of the Community of the Holy Cross, Rempstone whose two co-founders were Father Charles Lowder (SSC priests take note!) and Elizabeth Neale (sister of John Mason Neale) in October 1996: ‘Maybe the catholic wing (of the Church of England) has taken the communities for granted; they have become part of the trimmings, together with incense, candles and holy water. But to what extent is the Religious Life really valued, to what extent is teaching given and vocation encouraged, despite the efforts of the Communities’ Consultative Council (now Anglican Religious Communities) in providing material and propagating on the second Sunday after Pentecost as a day of prayer to this end? Has it been noticed at all how the scene is changing? – and it certainly is.’
How many of our churches have parish sisters? I can think of only two and they work in the Diocese of Southwark! If there are others, please let me know. Many of the once larger communities of women worked in Anglo-catholic parishes and retained a link with them for more than a century—where are they now? The large Victorian Convents of Holy Name, Malvern Link; Holy Cross, Hayward’s Heath; SSM at East Grinstead, St Peter, Horbury; St Peter, Woking; and more recently the Convent of S. John Baptist, Clewer are no more, though the Communities soldier on. In Hertfordshire, the All Saints’ Pastoral Centre, London Colney is now owned by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Westminster, yet few may realize that the Centre was the former Anglican convent of the All Saints’ Sisters of the Poor, now based in Oxford.
During the past two decades, the number of women’s communities has declined.
In 1995, there were 42, now there are 31. Some communities are down to five
members or less, without an aspirant in sight, and yet they continue faithfully in the
Life to which God has called them.
For men, there are now only seven communities: CGA, CR, SSF, SSJE, Ewell, and the two Benedictine communities at Alton and Elmore. The 1980s saw the closure of two large monastic houses: the Cowley Fathers moved out of their Marston Street premises in Oxford in 1980 which had been the Mother House of SSJE since 1868. They are now fully based at St Edward’s House, their London residence since 1905 and situated next door to Faith House. In 1985, the Benedictine Monks moved from Nashdom Abbey to their present home at Elmore.
It is also thirty years since the Society of the Sacred Mission (now a mixed community) moved from Kelham. In addition to SSM, the other communities of men and women are CSWG and Burford.
Of the men’s communities, Alton and Mirfield retain their large monastic houses, SSF have large Friaries at Hilfield and Glasshampton. OSB (formerly the Order of S. Paul) moved to Alton in 1895 and CR to Mirfield in 1898.
The situation in CR
One of the ‘works’ of the Community of the Resurrection is that of hospitality and running a large Retreat House at Mirfield where priests and lay people come for retreats, quiet days, spiritual direction, confession, or to spend a few days away from their parishes or homes. A priest once remarked how grateful he was that CR was here, but he was also told that unless he did his bit in promoting vocations to the Religious Life, pointing men and women in the direction of communities, places such as CR would no longer exist as it does at present, but instead altered to meet future circumstances, namely, no retreat house. Who knows what the future will hold for our communities five or ten years from now. Forty years ago, CR had 87 brethren (74 of these were priests, 13 lay-brothers) with houses in England, Wales, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and the West Indies where CR staffed Codrington College in Barbados. The situation now is that we no longer have houses in Wales, Zimbabwe, or the West Indies and we are a community of less than 30 brethren with our work concentrated from two centres in England and a small priory in South Africa. Now you may be thinking, that’s not bad numerically, but of those 30 only eight are under the age of 60!! That is the reality and we are not alone in this as other communities struggle with declining numbers, but also an elderly membership which is on the increase. The fact is that without younger vocations to the Religious Life, the work and witness to which God has called us will be further reduced or given up altogether, and this has happened with the closure of branch houses, including the Hostel of the Resurrection in Leeds which closed in 1976.
What you can do
What can priests and laity do about this? Firstly, pray for more vocations. Secondly, invite Religious to your parishes, organize a retreat or quiet day for your parish or yourself. Visit your nearest monastery or convent and make yourselves known. Literature produced by Anglican Religious Communities is available about Religious Life and priests should bear this in mind when discussing vocation with a potential aspirant. Is the Religious Life an option that is considered by parish priests and offered to men and women in their parishes? If not, why not?
Religious used to come from Anglo-catholic backgrounds, but this is rarely the case today. Now, men and women who join a community often come from the Evangelical wing of the Church, some are often converts to Anglicanism. So, what are our Catholic parishes doing besides promoting vocations to the priesthood?
Trinity 5 has been designated a Day of Prayer for Vocations to the Religious Life, this year it falls on June 30 and there are some parishes who regularly pray for our Religious Communities and for an increase in a Religious vocation. So during this Petertide, when we focus our thoughts and prayers on those being ordained, let us also remember those whom God calls to the Religious Life.
Brother Steven is a member of the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield