Notes on the Dedicated Life
A Life of Learning

by Michael Maasdorp ssm
A review of "Anglican Religious Life" edited by Nicolas Stebbing cr, Dominican Publications, 2003

A note I spontaneously made while reading this book went: "If this is true then I'm a paw-paw." The reference goes back to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) of the 1970s after its unilateral declaration of independence. A favourite bumper-sticker of the day read, "Wilson is a paw-paw." The implication was that the then Prime Minister of Britain was, like the paw-paw, a soft, squashy, pea-brain. (For those not in the know, a paw-paw has a hollow centre filled with small, pea-like seeds.)

My response was engendered by one of the ten essays which make up this excellent reflection on the so-called religious life in the Anglican Communion. I say "so-called" because in the wider world it would probably be recognised only as "monasticism" - that peculiar (but no doubt holy) way of life adopted by a few equally peculiar people.

The term "religious life" doesn't refer to someone who's "religious" in the sense that he or she practices some variety of religion. These people are "religious" in the plural and "a religious" in the singular. Perhaps the noun has come to be applied because these monks and nuns are popularly thought of as more religious than other religious people. In theory, the word "religious" in the above restricted sense is useful because it serves to include those who are not, strictly speaking, monastic. Such would belong to a society of individuals (such as my own) who may, but don't have to, live according to monastic norms.

Why, though, if I'm a potential paw-paw (otherwise known as a papaya) should this be an excellent book? One reason is that is provides a good overview of how one section of the Church of England regards itself and its problems. Another is that it unintentionally witnesses to why the religious life in the Church of England is apparently dying.

I must confess at this point to a justification for being harsh in my judgement of this worthy effort. It is because I'm a member of a religious community and am therefore (or so I fancy) liberated to be stringent in a way I might not be if I were an outsider. My position as a "religious" also explains why I should have taken the time to review so obscure a work.

But I think the effort should be worthwhile because the positions taken by most of the contributors reflect that of traditional Christendom in a quite startling manner.

Evolving an identity
Perhaps significantly, the best contribution to this book is by the only contributor who is not a religious - Dr Peta Dunstan, teacher of modern church history at Cambridge University, England. Her excellent article reviews the characteristics of the communities which sprang up in Britain between 1845 and 1914.

  1. In a time when the Church at large was immersed in what seems to many today to have been a sentimentally pious Christianity, a small number formed communities to engage in social action. This provided an ideal defence against evangelical accusations of popery and parasitic monasticism.

  2. The new communities tried to live as they thought medieval monks and nuns had lived. They wore monastic habits, followed elaborate rules of life, and lived in Gothic buildings. Those who did this most thoroughly 

... gained most publicity ... and the support, financial as well as moral, of some of the most generous benefactors.

  1. The early founders of religious communities saw themselves as counter-cultural. They did what the Church establishment did not approve of in imitating something regarded as Roman Catholic. And they tackled the social ills of the day when the latter were being minimised by both Church and State.

There is now a "crisis of identity" in these religious communities, says Dunstan. Foremost in precipitating factors was the emergence of schools and hospitals run by the State which took over from the voluntary sector to a large extent. The communities flourished in a time when "joining" was the norm. By the 1960s there was a greater emphasis upon the individual who works as one of a team. The tight-knit nature of a religious community, united by rule and top-down authority, was considerably fragmented as a result.

The 1960s liturgical reform affected the communities considerably. This may seem to us now, says Dunstan, of little importance. But she rightly points out that elaborate liturgical ceremony, patterned on medieval practice, had been a valued symbol of the 19th century communities. Some saw the loss of the old liturgies as an assault on the core of their lives.

Protecting the identity
Dunstan thinks that the religious communities did not read the signs of the times as the 20th century advanced. The reason is that

... whatever is deeply ingrained as the basis of "success" and growth in one era is hard to dislodge in the next, when perhaps a different approach may be more appropriate. This is especially so when the change involves a fundamental shift in identity.

And so the religious communities in Britain have resisted change in all but the non-essentials. Dress has changed, rules have modified and the focus of work diverted. But the fundamentals have remained the same. They have often been imprisoned by their work, and exhausted to the point of extinction by trying to maintain it against all odds. Their age-profile has risen - and older people don't change that easily.

But above all there have been increasingly fewer vocations to the religious life. In the face of this, new works seem foolhardy.

Dunstan's analysis of the origins of these communities is clear and compelling. There can be no doubt that there is a crisis, and that only radical change backed by trust in God will bring about renewal.

One would expect, then, that a dominant focus of a book like this would be precisely on renewal - on what is being tried out, what lines of thought are developing , and what might be the adventures awaiting those who dare to venture into the future.

Alas! With one or two mild exceptions the vision is myopic, the explorations tentative, and the insights unimaginative.

Far from seeking to work out what's wrong and what might remedy the situation, most contributors seem to have chosen to protect their identities on the basis that what was, must be now and should always be. Frequent allusions are made to the Holy Spirit as that which will somehow stimulate and guide the necessary change. This is, to put it bluntly, no more than a convenient cop-out. The Spirit (a metaphor for those forces and choices which stimulate and drive renewal) cannot work with those who seek to defend what they have. The contributors to this book, if they are representative of their colleagues in the religious life, are steadfastly on the defensive against the "Holy Spirit".

Beware a false dawn
As recent controversies in the Anglican and Catholic churches over homosexuality demonstrate, the energy of traditional Christianity seems to have shifted from the old world to the new. That is, it is more at home and more fecund in cultures which are still by-and-large pre-scientific. The Archbishop of Nigeria, for example, now has greater power and influence in the Anglican Communion than the Archbishop of Canterbury - apart from access to wealth, that is.

Exactly this situation prevails in relation to the religious life in the Anglican Communion. The most striking instance of this is the Melanesian Brotherhood. Brother Richard has contributed a well-written, clear account of how the many hundreds of brothers live their "religious" life. If the account is rather too glowing and uncritical, the Brotherhood is nevertheless a remarkable phenomenon.

Without detracting one whit from their achievement, Brother Richard's account enabled me to confirm an intuitively-derived analysis of some of the reasons for the contrast between the old world and the new.

I conclude that the dynamism of the Brotherhood as a Christian grouping derives primarily from the nature of the societies in which they live and work. They thrive because the religious life which succeeded in Victorian Britain has found in the new world a similar cultural seed bed in which to germinate.

... becoming a Brother provides a young man with the chance for three years training, the chance to travel to different islands and perhaps even to carry out a mission overseas, and win a great deal of respect from the local community.

This contrasts strikingly, for example, with the Community of the Resurrection's work in Zimbabwe (to name but one instance). Nicolas Stebbing tells how his community failed to become part of the culture it served. In Religious Life on the Missions he concludes:

... the Community did not establish itself in Zimbabwe in a form that made it possible for Zimbabweans themselves to become a part ... that failure is a serious one which needs to be accepted and thought through for the sake of the Community's future, even in England.

This is an important and remarkable insight. Religious communities in the old world must not be encouraged to envy or imitate the rising success of their offspring in the new. Rather, they must look within themselves for those primary elements which have led them to the present moribund state. What deep-seated, subconscious assumptions are leading to death rather than life?

The new life in the new world isn't a new phenomenon in the religious life of the Anglican communion. What's happening is the dying off of the old world branch while the new world branch grows apace.

Looking backwards
A brief quotation from Change in Anglican Religious Life, 1965-2000 by Sister Hilary ohp illustrates the character of the bulk of this book. Having described what amount to purely cosmetic changes in the religious life, she concludes:

Are we ready to be changed even more radically than we were after Vatican II? (sic) Change can only be in one direction - towards community life which bears the same stamp as the first Christian community described in the Acts of the Apostles 2.42-47.

She may be right. But the phenomenon of dying religious communities in Britain indicates to me that only by being wide open to unseen possibilities will we ever be enabled to move into new life. Looking backwards in a prescriptive way is to embrace not life but death. I am reminded of a Chapter of my own order I once attended. The man in charge at the time spent ten minutes describing how the youth of today were not interested in the religious life. What he seemed incapable of doing was to urgently enquire into what about us was not attractive to them. Unless those in the religious life of the old world are prepared to "repent and turn again" new life will be beyond them.

The assertion which drew from me the paw-paw comment was from Alistair's article titled Developing Religious Identity. He writes at one point:

The theological has priority over all other discourses, in the power of the Holy Spirit ... They are not up to discussion in the same way as psychological constructs; they may be further explored and reinterpreted but, in some essential way, they are non-negotiable.

Alistair is member of the Society of St Francis, which is more successful than most in attracting new, younger members - so he and they must be doing something right. Or are they? I suspect that, just as some will always be attracted to the Church's cultus, so will some always be attracted to modern manifestations of medieval monasticism.

Of all the contributors bar Peta Dunstan, Sister Gillian Ruth csmv has produced the most searching look at the present situation. She likens the present state of the Anglican religious life to John of the Cross' "dark night of the soul", the

... darkness and sense of impasse [which is] expressed in the vicious circle of declining numbers and failure of the way of life to appeal in a pluralist, post-modern society.

We can think our way through the puzzle up to a point. But, says Gillian Ruth, only an open-ended engagement with the darkness can replace a "clinging to the structures and assumptions which block the bursting forth of new life". She correctly recognises that any attempt to merely reform the religious life when radical repentance is required will fail. What is required is hope in an unknown future, and trust that God's goodness will see us through to the light.

There is a radical loss of security as [we] move into the unknown, and the lack of familiar structures undermines the sense of identity.

The dark night is painful. But night can be transformed into day only

... if the pain is fully recognised and named, and the desirability of of the darkness as necessary for growth in union with God is acknowledged.

Looking forwards
One of the great changes in the way many think (in Western cultures anyway) is that their focus is on the present and the future. This is radically unlike previous generations, when the present was guided and evaluated in terms of what had already come to pass. Thus, it's almost automatic for those in business and politics to focus on future probability in order to make "best fit" decisions about the present. If the past is focused on, it's to gather data so that the future can be better planned.

Even politics, which shares with religion and education a tendency to suppress change, is more and more oriented towards the future. Political choices of course use data about past campaigns and elections to assess what must be done in order to win the next election. But any political party which refused to fight an election except in the way the previous one was fought would be regarded as a dead loss. Similarly, no business could possibly survive for long unless it studied the marketplace of planned how to move into the evolving markets of the future. Those which don't do this quickly go to the wall. The skeletons of organisations which have failed to learn this lesson line the highway of history.

Looking around for an example of how the religious life contrasts with the life of ordinary people I was reminded of a concept which has grown over the last three decades in the world of business - that of the learning organisation. It derives from the work of Peter Senge in the 1980s. Perhaps the contrast can be brought to life like this:

Learning Organisations

The Religious Life

Encourage personal mastery - continuous, self-driven personal growth and development

Encourages personal adaptation to a given state of affairs, conforming to an inherited way of life

Ongoing, continuous development of a shared vision of the group's purpose (charism)

The group's purpose (charism) is a given, the norm against which all is to be evaluated regardless of circumstance

Self-discipline to meet targets and standards mutually agreed with the boss

Direction and discipline is provided top-down by the superior. Individual initiative often discouraged and penalised

Decisions reached by a conscious win-win consensus in work groups

Decisions imparted from above or, at best, derived from a pseudo-democratic process

Dedication to constantly challenge the prevailing personal and corporate constructs

A norm by which constructs from the past are primary regardless of their appropriateness

Adherence to a "fifth discipline" - systems thinking which affirms the inter-relatedness of everything

Fragmented thinking which partitions the religious from the secular, the holy from the profane, and the person from nature

I can almost hear at this point squeals of protest from my fellow religious. "It's not like this," they are no doubt protesting. Perhaps I'm misguided. But perhaps they might be advised to stop and wonder why, if they are doing what's needed, if their communities are learning organisations, things aren't going too well.

This book reveals, quite painfully to me at a personal level, why the religious life in the Anglican Communion is likely to die out in its Western manifestations. It will live on and no doubt flourish in the new world as long as it adapts to its native cultures and as long as these cultures remain relatively untouched by the forces and influences which have by now permeated the old world to its very core.

Those religious represented by the authors in this book are perhaps not to be blamed for this. For in looking backwards to what was, they are only following the lead of the churches.

Recall that Anglican religious communities were born out of a spirit of rebellion and an early struggle for acceptance, first by the Church of England and then by wider society. Peta Dunstan's clarity of perception serves her readers well. In a section entitled Rebellion and Struggle she remarks that as a result of this struggle

... many early Anglican foundations were vigorously independent in spirit, and suspicious of external influence ... Standing up to opposition was part of the attractive adventure of the [religious] life.

The years after the Second World War saw the end of this spirit of creative independence until today the vast majority of communities are either in somnolent isolation or solidly - some would say cravenly - subservient to ecclesiastical authority. Dunstan puts it this way:

Ironically, the very "success" of religious, which brought increased respect, resulted in their being more and more closely associated with authority ... By the middle of the twentieth century, religious were no longer at the margins ... but, willingly or not, they had become linked with the structures of power in the Church ... they had become "clericalised" in popular culture.

Inevitably then, a Church which derives from the past its authority, its raison d'etre and a conviction that it possesses absolute truths in its body of doctrine, has infected religious communities with the same outlook on life.

The religious of whom this book is so clearly representative have failed to notice, I would suggest, that we live today in a society which is radically unlike every other of the past. The difference is not in the details, but in the essence. The past may inform us - or it may not. But the looking to the past has, in the past, degraded and distorted the Christian response to the world. We now know, in other words, that only our best guess today of what the future might bring tomorrow will suffice to bring us to a new dawn.

An entire way of life which, as this book witnesses, is buried deep in the past, will not and cannot evolve into the future. Like the Neanderthal species of humanity, the religious life will fade and disappear as long as it looks backwards and not forwards.