Fr Peter CSWG on an initiative amongst Anglican religious

RooT – Religious of orthodox Tradition – is the name about to be adopted by a group of Anglican religious who have been meeting together through an Annual Conference since 1995. The group formed itself in response to requests from a number of religious who were finding themselves isolated within their communities as a result of the legislation of General Synod in 1992. Their faith did not allow them conscientiously to participate in the celebration of the Eucharist by a woman priest, then happening in many women’s communities, particularly where one of the sisters themselves had been ordained. Although a small number of religious communities have been unanimously opposed, others are more evenly divided, whilst a number of religious find themselves in a substantial minority.

It was in order to meet this situation, and provide mutual support and a strengthening in traditional Christian faith, that the idea of an annual conference was born. For the first five years it was attended (in part or whole) by all the PEVs. We began with speakers from outside the religious life, but then chose to provide speakers from amongst our own numbers. From 1999, we have been taking the Vows as the theme: Stability, Chastity, Obedience. This year’s Conference is to be held on Tuesday/Wednesday 18/19 June at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, and will be considering the Vow of Poverty. (Anyone interested in joining us, please contact Br Steven CR at House of the Resurrection, Mirfield WF14 OBN)

Our common roots

As Anglican religious, our roots are grounded in the faith of Scripture and Tradition, and an orthodox view of ministry and sacraments. This we hold in common with the Church of every age, and with the two great Churches of East and West. Corporately, we understand 1992 as a watershed both for the Church of England and for its religious life. Although addressed to a particular issue (ordination), 1992 rendered the Church of England – which has always claimed as its very reason for existence, to be part of the One Catholic and Apostolic Church and faith – profoundly vulnerable to the forces of unbelief (what the Gospels call ‘doubt’). Opening her doors, thus, in an unprecedented manner to the divisions and separations that come from turning from the ‘narrow gate’ of faith into the ‘wide gate’ and ‘easy road’ offered by ‘the wisdom of this world,’ our church has become a veritable melting-pot of ‘enmity’ and ‘strife’. For religious, who have in common with the Bishops the guarding of the Church’s faith from ‘the divisions of error,’ this conflict has struck at the very heart of its own life. Indeed, one can propose with confidence that when the present conflict finally comes to its resolution – that is, when God has finished whatever work he is doing in his Church through it all – it will be as a result of a recovery within the religious life of its own integrity. This is a purpose RooT itself is well placed to work towards – that recovery within religious life of the authentic purpose of its own life, so it can once again serve the purposes for which God first raised it up.

Religious life in the Church of England

Religious life was re-born within the Church of England in the middle of the nineteenth century. The women and men at the heart of the revival were all of the conviction that the Church of England could not seriously claim to be part of the One Catholic and Apostolic Church if it lacked monastic/religious life. The consecrated life of women and men living under vows in poverty, chastity, obedience and stability had been a normal feature of the Church’s life since Anthony left for the deserts of Egypt in the middle of the third century.

Monastic life had started with solitaries in the desert. They were followed by coenobitic communities, which eventually were to overflow back to the cities during the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries, often undertaking works of mercy and teaching. (What later in the Western Church became known as active, as opposed to contemplative, communities.) Interestingly, the Anglican revival happened in exactly the reverse order to the original monastic movement. The first communities to be founded were active Sisterhoods working in the slums and poverty and disease of our Victorian cities. (Wantage and Clewer spring readily to mind.) This was followed by groups of mission priests (Cowley, Mirfield, Kelham). At the turn of the century, the more enclosed life of prayer became established with the formation of women’s contemplative orders (West Malling, Burnham, Fairacres). Finally, there came about the founding of the Benedictine life (Nashdom), and the enclosed contemplative orders (Crawley Down and Ewell) for men. Throughout this period, a small number of religious living a solitary life (hermits) witnessed to the full restoration and flowering of the religious life in the Church of England.

The 60s and the present situation

It was the far-reaching socio-cultural changes of the 60’s that so radically affected religious life, as it did the whole life of the Church. Vatican II had triggered profound changes within Roman Catholic religious orders, and Anglicans could hardly remain unaffected. Whole areas of the religious life came under scrutiny with radical questioning. Much of it, in the Anglican situation at least, was directed initially against what were felt to be outmoded customs and attitudes, more closely related to Victorian culture and ethos than religious life. Change was needed to attune the life more to the realities of the society in which it was living. Searching questions were posed about the Vows, and many were leaving their communities, echoing somehow the absence of vision and purpose. The real task needed was one of rediscovering the religious life and its original sacrificial consecration.

Crisis of Faith

The religious life in the midst of the turmoil of this self-searching and scrutiny was profoundly affected by the crisis of faith the whole Church was facing. This became focused in terms of fundamental questions about its purpose, and a current of reaction distanced itself from its traditional expression. Human ideologies were making their impact (feminism, liberalism, psychologism and the numerous therapies currently available). Many of the innovative answers being proposed to contentious theological, moral and ecclesiological questions of the 70s, 80s and 90s in the wider Church were finding a sympathetic hearing amongst many religious. The spiritual climate generated by this radical questioning of its own life (yet without seeking answers from within her own tradition of life) left the Church herself open and vulnerable to those forces, alien to her tradition, which sought to undermine her faith. This climate conveyed thus an air of respectability to these innovative views, when the issues were debated in the Synods of the Church.

In short, religious life was losing its heart. It no longer appeared to believe in its original and God-given purpose, nor in that radical spirit of heroism and self-sacrifice which had first characterized it. It had ‘abandoned the love [it] had at first’ (Revelation 2.4). It had lost sight of the work of ‘standing’ (Ephesians 6.11,14) in prayer that had characterized its witness for centuries. It ceased thus to be the Church’s bastion and fortress ‘against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places’ (Ephesians 6.12) Unwittingly or no, it had opened the gates to precisely those very forces, of doubt and unbelief, which lie behind the Church’s present crisis, and from which it was meant to protect her.

Recovery of true purpose

‘If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.’ (Matthew 16.24–5) The Lord’s invitation to every Christian directs us to the very heart of the religious life. It had begun in response to a crisis not dissimilar to our present one. For the first 300 years of the Church’s life, Christians had been subject to intermittent persecution for their faith from the state authorities, and were regularly faced with the possibility of martyrdom. After the Edict of Milan in 313, Christianity became a religion accepted by the State. Indeed, the Emperor himself adopted the faith, and it became not merely acceptable but politically advantageous to be a Christian. The Church was flooded with members. Establishment had arrived!

To meet this new situation, and to maintain a radical commitment to the pure faith of the Gospel as ‘the world’s’ mind-set pressed in, God raised up Antony, driving him into the deserts of Egypt to wage solitary warfare with the Devil. This was to set the future template for monastic life. The monks and nuns who followed this calling were seen as being in ‘the vanguard of the army of God’; they were ‘the chariots and horsemen of God,’ as Father William of Glasshampton was later to express it (quoting from Ezekiel). The renunciation, sacrifice and heroism called for by the life served to infuse the Church with prayer. This prayer enabled her to stand in the spiritual conflict and in the battle with the spiritual enemies of her faith – of doubt, unbelief, false teaching, and other subtle ploys of ‘the powers of darkness’ – which every age brings. They were to overcome these foes in the power of Christ’s own victory, which he secured over them on the Cross. Monastic life thus took the place of the martyrdom of blood as a prime, visible witness to Christian truth, and indeed, was later referred to as the ‘white martyrdom’ of prayer.

For those engaged in this life, there is involved a daily dying to the ‘old Adam’ and a putting on of the new Man. The monk or nun is to be transformed into a new creature, ‘a new creation,’ Christ’s own divine-human nature. This is the Kingdom of God come on earth, being manifested in the life of the Beatitudes: poverty, meekness, mercy, mourning, purity of heart, peacemaking, hunger and thirst for God and his will, with the inevitable abuse and suffering that accompanies faithful witness. The transformation of this nature, and the spiritual conflict involved in such a change, explain what may seem to be severe and austere discipline in the life: the silence, its separation from the parochial life of the church, ordered daily prayer, manual work and acts of mercy. Apart from this last, such features are often met with incomprehension in our day.

Recent developments

The socio-cultural changes of the last 40 years have made pretty effective inroads in to that discipline in Anglican religious life. They have blunted very effectively its cutting edge and the power of its witness. This has left it pitifully weak and ineffective for that very purpose for which God established it, which is to protect the Church and her faith in the spiritual with the powers of spiritual darkness. The Lord himself warned in respect of these: ‘This kind cannot be driven out except by prayer and fasting.’ It is the sacrifice of prayer and of sanctified lives that alone can meet our present conflict. For a disciplined or ascetic life does not mean bed-boards, hair-shirts and ‘disciplines’ (medieval and Western peculiarities!). It is the far more demanding training of the whole person, mind, body and spirit, to ‘stand’ in the grace of the life of prayer and accompanying spiritual conflict. It is to enter fully each day into the grace of all that Christ has accomplished for us.

Only so can the Church be enabled to stand against the freezing winds of doubt and unbelief that assail her, and so powerfully witness to the Gospel. Only in this way may she resist the pressures to follow ‘the world’ rather than her Lord and Master. Only in lives transfigured through the grace Christ gives to those who follow this way, can the hope, light, glory, joy of the new creation be manifested to lives divided and broken by alcohol, addiction, abuse and divorce. Only the resurrected life of the kingdom of God can lift the hearts and spirits of millions who have lost their way within the cynicism and despair of our over-sophisticated, yet profoundly confused age.

RooT takes root

Traditional religious meet together in the corporate conviction that ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever.’ They are convinced that his overcoming of death, sin and the powers of evil is final and irreversible, and that that faith has to be recovered, lived and proclaimed anew in every generation; that ‘believing in the One whom he (the Father) has sent’ is as necessary and yet as powerfully effective in post-modern culture as in any age. We thus understand ourselves as engaged together in this task of supporting one another to be faithful to our vocation. We live for the recovery among all its members of its authentic purpose and truth, so it may truly serve the Church in that task for which God has called it into being.