I receive wonderful invitations each week to share in different events and it’s lovely when these can be fitted into the diary. So I was particularly thrilled to be invited to be part of the Service of Commitment in the chapel at Lambeth Palace as the new Community of St Anselm came into being. The chapel was packed with supporters of the 36 women and men who were taking their vows and with those of us who were supporters of Archbishop Justin’s initiative to see the revival of religious life within our church.
Among them were 16 people giving themselves to the residential community at Lambeth and another 20 who would be non-residential members, living a similar life and keeping to the same rule and pattern of behaviour. They were much younger than most of us present in the chapel, the age group being sought for the community being that of 20-35. And they had come, as we discovered, from all over the world, the United States, France, Australia, Argentina, Kenya, Switzerland, Belgium as well as the UK. At the beginning of the service three of them gave their testimony about what had brought them there, what prompting of God had caused them to answer the advertisement to serve ‘a year in God’s time.’
In one way or another I’ve had a lot of connections with religious communities. I was brought up in a church which had in the past produced vocations to the religious life and, indeed, whilst I was a chorister one of the women in the choir went off and joined the Community of St John the Baptist, then at Clewer. At various times of the year nuns would appear, back with their families for a break from life at Wantage, East Hanningfield, or Clewer or we would go on visits to see them in their convents. I was fascinated by their habits and veils, their sandals but also the inability to guess how old they were. They never seemed to age, always looked serene and looking at their feet through the tracery in the choir stalls as they went up for communion, even their feet looked young!
Then I decided to train at the College of the Resurrection and so had the privilege of living alongside the Mirfield fathers. And it was a privilege. When I arrived there in 1980 there seemed to be a good number of brethren and some were still in Sunderland, Manchester, Covent Garden and, of course, South Africa. They came and went and, inevitably died. Over my three years there were a great many funerals and we would process with the brethren behind the simple bier to the expanding graveyard on the edge of the Calder valley.
Since coming to the Cathedral I have had a lot more contact with the Franciscans, who I hadn’t really known until arriving here. Being by inclination much more of a Benedictine it has been really good to get to know the sisters in the Oratory of St Alphege not far from the Cathedral and to meet brothers and sisters and members of the Third Order passing through their house and enjoying their hospitality.
When I was a parish priest in Leeds there was the memory of a small community of sisters not far from St Hilda’s Church in Cross Green. It had been established by a worthy Victorian lady, Agnes Stewart, who became the Mother of the community. But she didn’t attract many sisters to work and live with her. The community withered and died, though something of her work continued in education in that part of the diocese.
Years ago I hoped and prayed that God would call me to the religious life but I never felt it more strongly than a romantic notion. Friends went and tested their vocation and most didn’t make it through the novitiate. I don’t know for certain but there was something about the age profile of many of the communities, a loss of their original purpose and work, a loss of confidence in their particular charism that made them less attractive.
But I think that things really are changing. There are new quasi-monastic communities springing up all over the place. In this diocese we have St Luke, Peckham and St Margaret the Queen, Streatham, attempting to establish something of this new monastic feel in their life. We have seen it so strongly established in communities in Paris and Rome and elsewhere, now we are seeing something similar at home.
The spirit is moving and those 36 younger adults, from all backgrounds and traditions, committing themselves and their lives to God, not for life, but for now, this was really encouraging and really moving. And, pray God, it will affect all of our lives. The parish I was brought up in used to encourage all of us to join Guilds and have a Rule of Life, a pattern to live by. That really affected me then and still does. I need a pattern and a rule, it helps me through the day and through the week and through the year, seeing it all ‘in God’s time’.
At Southwark Cathedral we are working on a new vision statement and part of that, we hope, will be a Rule of Life around which we can all gather as a community. We will be looking at that as we move towards Advent. It isn’t monasticism but it learns from it.
Archbishop Justin ended the service at Lambeth Palace by sending us out with God’s blessing, inspired by those who have been leaders for the western church in the monastic movement. It can be a prayer for all of us as we pray for the Community of St Anselm and each traditional and renewing community.
God give us grace
to follow St Benedict, St Francis
and St Ignatius
in faith and hope and love;
in discipline, in service
and in self-examination.