Nicolas Stebbing considers what we might do to reverse the decline
When I joined my community 40 years ago, there were 65 brothers. There are now 14. That is a catastrophic decline by any standards, and yet it is reflected by almost all the communities and monasteries in the Anglican Church, and by most of those in the Catholic Church in the West. What has caused this decline?
The causes are many and it is simplistic to blame it on any one thing. To sketch a few: the Church generally has declined in numbers in the West; congregations have very few young people in them; our catholic constituency in the Church of England has shrunk dramatically and this is the only real source of vocations; there are so many other ways of serving God or people in need, you don’t need to join a religious order to do worthwhile work. The acceptance of gay relationships in society has probably siphoned off some who might have sought a compensating community life. Some would argue, too, that the liberalization of religious life, designed to make it more attractive to the young has actually had the opposite effect: young people would like the identity that proper habits, veils and structures give. Religious communities themselves must also accept some of the responsibility for this decline: if young people do not wish to join us is it because we fail to present to them an attractive and demanding way of following Christ?
Yet there is one other cause not much talked about. It is prayer. The religious life is founded on prayer. This is true of monastic communities, enclosed communities of prayer and also of those who are committed to all kinds of work in the world. We must have prayer at the heart of our life. We join the religious life to pursue a relationship with God, to deepen our awareness of God’s love for us, to allow Christ to be formed in us in such a way that we may serve him faithfully. Yet is this prayer being taught in the parish churches? I suspect not, or not nearly enough. Worship is a very fine thing and is also at the centre of religious life, but it needs to be supported and sustained by steady, individual prayer.
One has to ask sometimes in the catholic Anglican world: we have some wonderful festivals where large numbers of people turn out to glorious Solemn Masses, processions of Our Lady, Benediction with hosts of candles and clouds of incense, but are they making their confessions sacramentally? Are they praying regularly each day? Are they reflecting each day on Holy Scripture? If they are not, they are not being catholic, simply High Church. I would ask three questions about prayer—how it is done and how it is taught in our 420 Society parishes:
- Is the liturgical prayer, the lovely vestments, the singing and music backed up by teaching and examples of how to maintain and deepen a life of prayer on one’s own? Jesus was very critical of the Pharisees who loved praying openly where everyone could see them. He said: ‘When you pray go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.’ (Matt. 6.6) You may then realize you are a sinner loved by God and see the need for confession, too.
- Our modern age wants instant experience and it must be happy experience. Internet, smart phones, Facebook and—in some parts of society—drugs and sex are supposed to make us instantly and constantly happy. Ask people to pray and they will say: ‘I tried that but it didn’t work for me… I got nothing out of it.’ Prayer in the Christian tradition is completely counter-cultural. It is not primarily intended to make us feel happy, to give us a warm buzz of contentment and affirmation. Prayer is first for God. We praise God and adore him because he is our creator and we need to put ourselves in this relationship with him if we are to be healthy. Like a sunflower, we need to look at the sun if we are to grow. Prayer is also for other people. Jesus healed the sick and raised the dead. He used his great power of prayer for other people not for himself. If we can learn to adore God and pray for others, we will probably find prayer takes on new meaning for us. If we start with ourselves it will be sterile.
- Our current age wants newness. Technology has to be constantly updated, clothes replaced, new foods must be tried if we are to be happy. So even Christians think they must find new ways of praying if prayer is going to ‘work.’ But new ways of praying are often ephemeral and do not last. Try the old ways: short prayers morning and evening, maybe a daily office. Read a passage of scripture each day—Universalis gives us the daily mass readings so it is easy to find them and read them on the bus. Pray for other people in an ordered kind of way. The old ways have worked for centuries. They will work for our young people today. As Jesus himself said once of wine: ‘No man having drunk old wine straightway desires new: for he says, The old is better.’ (Luke 5.39)
Recently we started an email list to invite people to pray for the recovery of religious life. Once a month we send out focused intentions for this. So far 420 people have joined us. Would you like to join us? If so, email nstebbing @mirfield.org.uk Or feel free to comment on what I have written above.
Nicolas Stebbing CR is a member of
the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield