Page 5, 1st December 1989

1st December 1989
Page 5
Page 5, 1st December 1989 — Shared hopes and fears, but still a special charism

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Shared hopes and fears, but still a special charism

In our series on the spiritualities of the churches, Sr Jean Francis looks at the role of the Anglican religious communities


FROM time to time, I lind myself having a conversation with a Catholic who asks me what Order I belong to. When I begin by saying I am an Anglican, the person almost always expresses surprise and says, "I didn't know that there were sisters in the Church of England."

For a long time there was not; for 300 years in fact, from the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s to the middle of the nineteenth century. During that time the tradition was not quite lost in the Church of England; the recitation of the Divine Office in churches and cathedrals and by a few individuals continued and there were a number of attempts to found "Protestant monasteries." But, with the exception of a community at Little (lidding, these came to nothing.

The rediscovery of Catholic teaching and practice in the Church of England and the growth of the Oxford Movement in the 1830s and the 1840s paved the way for the founding of religious sisterhoods and brotherhoods. A leading figure in this movement was John Henry Newman who, by his preaching in the University Church in Oxford, inspired a desire for radical holiness, a desire to give all to Christ who lived in His body, the church.

This was the climate in which vocations to the Anglican religious life were born and in which priests of the Church of England were moved powerfully to a high view of their priestly office, expressed both in a deepening of worship and in a new vision of what it meant to be a pastor. Newman himself longed to be able to withdraw to the cloister and Ile set up the college at Littlemore, outside Oxford, where he planned to live a form of the religious life — though he had to be discreet, as the Anglican Bishop was suspicious that he was founding a "monastic order." The first Anglican sisterhoods were founded in response to the need for dedicated women to assist parish priests in their work, particularly in their ministry to women. In the middle of the nineteenth century there was much poverty, poor housing, some intolerable working conditions, poor education and prostitution.

Not only was there a desire to alleviate suffering, but an even stronger desire to carry out this work within the framework of a life of prayer. For these early Anglican sisterhoods the Divine Office gave meaning to their life and shape to their day. The Hours of Prayer were said at the appropriate time (a practice unknown at that time in Catholic orders of act ive sisters) so that the day was marked by a rhythm of prayer and silence, work and recreation.

From the beginning these women, and the priests who guided them, had as their goal the traditional religious life with the consecration of each sister to God for life. At that time there was no provision in the Church of England for the undertaking of the vows of religion; indeed there was doubt as to its legality so it was some years before the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience could be openly professed.

Until the end of the nineteenth centurr"all the foundations except one were engaged in active work which invariably received its inspiration and strength from the hidden life of prayer and consecration to God. It has remained a characteristic of Anglican communities that the stress of the Divine Office and liturgical prayer has been generally greater than in Catholic Orders doing similar work.

What are the sources of the traditions of present-day Anglican communities? Benedictine communities of men and women, the Franciscan friars and sisters together with the Poor Clares living the enclosed life, have received their Rules from the founders of these Orders in the pre-reformation church, though all have adapted the ancient Rules for their own use.

Another ancient tradition that has been revived in the Anglican Church is the existence of an Order of Deaconesses which was founded in 1862 after the example of Lutheran Deaconess Institutes in Germany.

The majority of communities have drawn their inspiration from more than one source. The first sisterhoods depended on the priests who founded or directed hem for a "theology" of the life, and there was considerable pressure from the bishops to confine the Rule and Office to what was acceptable in the Church of England at that period. Nevertheless, the early sisterhoods were almost all modelled on Catholic women's orders, particularly on the Sisters of Charity.

Many of the Rules that were drawn up relied on the ancient Rule of St Augustine of Hippo with its ideal of the community existing to be at the service of the Church; its stress on the common life and the sharing of resources; its moderation and avoidance of excessive austerity.

Several of the sisterhoods were inspired by the Order of the Visitation founded by St Francis de Sales in the seventeenth century in France. This Order followed the Rule of St Augustine, and although in the nineteenth century these nuns were enclosed, they retained the balance between prayer in choir and in solitude and a ministry to the needy.

It was a delicate task to build on the essentials of Salesian spirituality without imposing nineteenth century French spirituality, with its devotion to the Sacred Heart, which would have been totally foreign to these sisters. Although St Francis de Sales was trained and directed by Jesuits, Anglican Orders have not (at least until very recently) been much influenced by lgnatian spirituality, perhaps because of its military model of authority and the special relationship of the Society of Jesus to the papacy.

It is difficult to trace a single source for communities of men or for enclosed communities of either men or %%omen. Each has developed its own particular ethos. The enclosed orders have been variously influenced by Benedictine, Cistercian and Carmelite spirituality, as well as by the teachings of the desert fathers.

The individuality of each community is strongly marked and for a tong time each went its own way. In the last 30 years there has been a pooling of resources and a sharing of interests and concerns. Horizons have widened; there is a deeper awareness of the vocation of religious communities to witness to Gospel values in church and society.

In spite of all this diversity, numbers remain tiny by comparison with numbers of religious in the Catholic Church. In 1986 there were 1085 women and 264 men,of whom 140 were priests, in Anglican religious communities in the United Kingdom. (There are many more in overseas provinces.) In the early years, when the notion of religious communities in the Church of England was still a novelty, many of the bishops were nervous of "papist" influence, but gradually they came to appreciate these new communities and recognised them as an integral part of the Church.

In these years there was anxiety (sometimes justified) that the superiors of some of the communities were not ready to acknowledge the authority of their bishops. Nowadays, each community must have an episcopal visitor and is subject to regulations ordering relations between communities and the bishops.

In 1935 the Advisory Council for Religious was set up. It is composed of representatives of the House of Bishops and of the religious communities. As its name suggests, this council is advisory; it does not enforce rules but lays down guidelines for the bishops and communities.

The council provides flexible oversight without in any way dictating how a particular community must order its affairs. These authority structures give Church of England Orders a freedom which their counterparts in the Catholic Church do not always have since they are subject to the decrees of the Sacred Congregation for Religious in Rome.

Although in no way bound by decisions made at the second Vatican Council, these did profoundly influence religious communities in the Church of England. They had already

begun to question their community structures and customs and their response to changes in society by the early sixties but the decree Perfectae Carnatis gave new impetus to this movement.

Since they were not compelled to take action, change has taken a long time and has sometimes been very cautious! In the period since Vatican II the influence of the Catholic Church on Anglican religious has been enormous. It is largely to Catholic writers that Anglicans look for new thinking on the renewal of their orders; it has been Catholic sisters and priests who have helped communities to rediscover their charism and implement renewal programmes; Anglican religious have been trained in spiritual direction at Catholic centres, such as Heythrop College and St Beuno's and participate in conferences organised by Catholic orders. Representatives of the superiors of Anglican communities now attend meetings of the Catholic Conference of Major Religious Superiors both in the UK and in Rome.

There is a strong sense of being part of the same tradition as our sisters and brothers in the Catholic Church, with shared hopes and difficulties yet with our special charism that springs from the distinctive nature of the Anglican Church, a Church that is both Catholic and reformed.

Sr Jean Frances is a member of the Anglican Community of Si Mary the Virgin in Harpenden, Hertfordshire.

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