by a Rempstone Sister

MONKS, NUNS and friars, sisters and brothers have been around in the Church of England for well over a hundred years. All the same whole areas of the Church remain oblivious of their existence. “Have we got monks and nuns in the Church of England? I thought they were all Roman Catholic,” are remarks not infrequently heard still.

Reasons for such a situation are varied. For some the whole concept of religious life under vows has been anathema. Where it has not been openly opposed it has been ignored, certainly as far as teaching at parish level is concerned. When religious communities have eventually been ‘discovered’ by the uninitiated they can sometimes seem quaint or else are unrealistically idealised.

In such a situation there is understandably little real grasp of the deeper implications of the religious vocation for the Church as a whole, though the value of a life of prayer is sometimes intuitively recognised. Community hospitality, with opportunities for retreat or spiritual counsel often come to be appreciated too, and the Franciscan ideal of simplicity of life-style and greater mobility for mission can also have its appeal.

Very often, actually, it is the evangelical wing of the Church, together with a growing number of non-conformists, who are feeling towards these things. Oddly the catholic parishes seem on the whole less drawn.

Maybe the catholic wing 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 in providing material and propagating the second Sunday after Pentecost as a day of prayer for this end? Has it been noticed at all how the scene is changing?

There are few parish Sisters around now. Many of the well-established communities have changed radically. Educational work and the care of the sick, handicapped and elderly are passing into other hands and the old institutional buildings have been largely abandoned. Numbers are dwindling and some communities are moving to live alongside more thriving ones or are quietly coming to an end. New growth and initiatives are slowly getting underway but, as always in times of transition, there are underlying currents of anxiety, despite prayerful and well-intentioned confidence in God’s overseeing providence. How aware of these things have we been? How often do we pray for the appropriate renewal and future development of the religious life in our Church? Do we see it as a priority?

We can be heartened to know that Archbishop Carey has discovered for himself what he terms the best-kept secret of the Church of England, namely the religious life. In his address at this year’s annual conference for religious Superiors he spoke of the Communities as follows:

‘. . . in a sense you represent for the Church two realities: the first is that you are at our heart to be a spiritual centre and to take us to the Father. We should never underestimate your role as an engine room of prayer . . .

The second role is to be there at our heart as a reminder of what the faith is all about. It is not about power and glory. It is not even about proclaiming God, important though that is. It is certainly far more than ‘knowing God’ if by that we mean theology’s task of making clear what God has revealed in Christ. It is about ‘knowing God’ as lover of souls and the true end of life itself.’

To be at the heart of the Church as an icon of what the Church is called to be is the ultimate purpose of the religious vocation. That remains true whatever outward forms religious life takes. Sometimes the external trappings can be allowed to take over, or petty jealousies can arise between different kinds of Community life – the contemplative and monastic over against the apostolic or active, for example. Communities must always be self-critical and totally dependent on the mercy and grace of God in penitence and humility. The present situation in the Church means that the Communities too are in a state of crisis – under the judgement of God.

The nineteenth century recovery of the religious life in our Church is in many ways still seeking to understand itself and grow to maturity. Of necessity the beginnings were more especially geared to active works of mercy in the parishes, modelled on the newer Roman Catholic orders of a similar pattern. Only gradually could the more specifically monastic and contemplative elements take root and come more fully to the fore. The ecumenical and liturgical movements brought closer contact with the riches of the Eastern tradition. However, there were other conflicting forces: the rapid sociological and technological developments in the twentieth century; the growth of the human sciences with a consequent stress on individualism and self-fulfilment; liberal and feminist trends in theology . . . and so on.

Then too, the Second Vatican Council, with its apparent ‘loosening up’, was not without impact on Anglican religious. For some there is a crisis of identity. The present Pope’s allocation after the recent Synod on the Consecrated Life, is significant here. He is at pains to show that the religious life, though indeed not ultimately ‘superior’ to the lay vocation, is at least different and, because of its prophetic and consecratory role at the centre of the Church, is in some sense ‘higher’.

Finally, our Communities have naturally felt the impact of the 1992 Synod vote. As the Church is, so are they – divided, and sometimes acutely so. This needs to be recognised for, contrary to the expectations of many, there are at present only a few Communities corporately maintaining the traditional doctrine of an all-male priesthood. In other instances small groups, or even individual religious, find themselves in a minority with all the problems of conscience and pain of disunity that this involves. A few here and there have opted to change allegiance, joining Roman Catholic Communities or exploring Orthodoxy.

As in the wider Church the Communities and their members are having to learn to live together in mutual respect, despite the differences. A working way forward is being sought. It is far from easy because in close community, where vows of obedience are involved, tensions are magnified.

However, it is a moment of challenge and excitement. More than ever the Communities are called to realise in themselves the central reality of the Church – to live the fullness of the Trinitarian life; to witness to the Kingdom already in our midst through the victory of Christ; to stand with him in his Cross as he overcomes the seemingly irreconcilable contradictions; to receive through him, from the Father, the energy of the life-giving Spirit as our divine enabling.

Perhaps more than ever before religious in the Church of England are challenged to discover and concentrate more absolutely on the central reality of their ecclesial vocation. They need much prayer as they take up the challenge, and, as God shall appoint, they need others to join them in the enterprise. May the Lord of the harvest send forth labourers . . . that the stability in truth of this portion of his Church may be maintained.

A Sister of Holy Cross Convent, Rempstone, Nr Loughborough