Christian Monasticism
 by David Knowles (McGraw-Hill, 1969)

   Chapter 19 – Anglican Monasteries

 An account of modern monasticism would be incomplete without a glance at the communities of religious that have existed in the Anglican church during the past hundred years.[28] Quite apart from any consideration of the relationship of medieval religious to the Holy See — remote in the case of the monks, immediate in that of the friars, and part of the raison d’être of the later Jesuits — the Reformers of the sixteenth century, and Wyclif before them, were hostile towards any form of the religious life, partly because monasticism had no warranty in Scripture and the primitive church, partly because the vows of obedience and chastity were considered to be contrary to the spirit and liberty of a Christian and destructive of the conception of Christians as a family with one mind and intent. When, however, in the first half of the seventeenth century the higher levels of clergy and laity in England felt the attraction of the theological scholarship and devotional zeal of the Counter-Reformation, and the ‘Anglo-Catholic’ outlook appeared, it might have been thought that some form of religious life might make its appearance, especially as the Catholic recusant families were giving so many of their sons and daughters to monasteries and nunneries in France and the Low Countries. No doubt the contemporary and already traditional antipathy to monasticism, to which the Puritans gave violent expression, forbade the thought, though throughout the seventeenth century hopes were aired by devotional writers. The only experiment of the kind was the community of Little Gidding, where for almost twenty years (1626—46) two families of the relatives of Nicholas Ferrar (1592—1637) amounting to some thirty persons, lived an ordered life, part monastery, part imitation of an early Christian community, leaving a fragrant memory for contemporaries that clings still to the pages of Izaak Walton, and of John Shorthouse’s novel, John Inglesant, and (so visitors claim) to the church of Little Gidding today. It was almost exactly two centuries before the next attempt at a quasi-monastic community was made by John Henry Newman at Littlemore, near Oxford , in 1842. Thenceforward, among those influenced by the Oxford movement, there was a steady, if not large, stream of foundations, some of men, the majority of women, which has continued to the present day. Forty years ago Coulton could write that the numbers of Anglican nuns in England exceeded the number of Catholic nuns in the middle ages. Institutes of men, with which alone we are concerned, were fewer. Mortality was high among them, as might be expected in a way of life which was not officially sponsored by the Church of England and only achieved rights of citizenship by degrees. Of the thirty-four ‘orders and societies’ that have been listed as existing between 1842 and 1961, five ultimately joined the Roman Catholic church and nineteen became extinct, leaving only ten survivors. We may confine our attention to four of these, the only ones to have retained corporate existence for more than half a century: those of Cowley, Mirfield, Kelham and Nashdom.

The Society of St John the Baptist had its origin in 1865 among a small group which included Mr Charles Wood, later second Viscount Halifax, and the Rev. R. M. Benson, then vicar of Cowley, already a suburb of Oxford , but not yet the industrial partner of the city. Edward Bouverie Pusey supported the venture. Benson, a Tractarian, was a very remarkable man, energetic, ascetic, apostolic, no Anglo-Catholic and no lover of aesthetic or liturgical elaboration, but with a saintly and therefore compelling personality. The object of the Society was ‘to seek that sanctification to which God in His Mercy calls us, and in so doing to seek, as far as God may permit, to be instrumental in bringing others to be partakers of the same sanctification’ — a somewhat wordy, but admirable expression of an outgoing religious life. The horarium of Cowley may be given; like most of the Anglican institutes, it follows in essentials the classical outline:

5.15     rise

5.45     Matins, Lauds and Prime

7.00     Mass

8.00     breakfast

9.00     Meditation — at least one hour’s mental prayer is made during the day

10.00   Terce, followed by study

12.45   Sext

1.00     dinner and recreation in common

2.00     none

            exercise a walk

6.45     supper

9.15     Compline

Besides providing a focus of spiritual and liturgical life in Oxford , and a considerable literary output, the Cowley Fathers have always been in demand as preachers, directors, conductors of retreats and counsellors of nuns. They have founded congregations in the USA and Canada , and have engaged in missionary enterprises in India and Africa, while the American congregation has a province in Japan .

The community of the Resurrection, known sometimes (incorrectly) as ‘Mirfield monks’, owed its existence to the social conscience of a group of clergy of whom the outstanding member was Charles Gore, and the first community, including Gore himself and Walter Frere, made their profession at Pusey House, Oxford, in 1892. Their purpose, in Gore’s words, was ‘to devote our lives to prayer, study and work’. From early times, under the influence of Gore, the life was less monastic than that of Cowley, with simple austerity, a liberty of opinion and a democracy of government. The life-long vows were taken to a rule rather than to a superior. The first ‘Senior’ was Gore, and the community under his guidance moved from Pusey House to Radley, and thence to Westminster and Mirfield, a mansion built by a wealthy mill-owner in a valley near Huddersfield ( Yorks ). In the year of this move (1898) Gore became bishop of Worcester and was succeeded as superior by Walter Frere, who was appointed bishop of Truro in 1922. The aim of the life at Mirfield was to reproduce that of the early Christians. Thus, whether consciously or not, Gore had as his ideal the apostolica vita, the life of the first Christians in Jerusalem that had inspired so many religious orders in the twelfth century, and had led ultimately to the birth of the Dominican friars.

The Mirfield community, besides guiding their noviciate and meeting calls to preach and give retreats, manage an adjoining retreat-house and a training college for ordinands. Since 1903 they have actively engaged in missionary and teaching work in South Africa and Rhodesia (Bishop Huddleston is a member of their body) and from the beginning of the century have been prominent in all kinds of contacts with the Roman Catholic church (as at the Malines conferences), the Orthodox and the Scandinavian churches. Besides Gore and Frere several other members of the community have become bishops in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth.

The Society of the Sacred Mission, founded in London in 1894 to train lay workers for the foreign missions, settled at Kelham (Notts) in 1903, and became a training college for ordinands at home and abroad. The members of the community ‘vow themselves to the divine service under the conditions of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience’, with the threefold aim of increasing the number of those who give themselves to the divine service, of labouring for the conversion and perfection of souls, especially among the heathen and abroad, and of cultivating divine service (i.e. liturgical prayer). The Society is thus among the ‘active’ orders, but their emphasis upon an austere life, with the Day Hours, a ‘dialogue’ community Mass, Mattins and choral Evensong makes them comparable to the Benedictine congregation of St Ottilien.

The three Anglican ‘orders’ hitherto mentioned have several characteristics in common. In the first place they rest upon the traditional pillars of the religious life (which the early reformers uprooted), with permanent vows of chastity, poverty (with certain restrictions) and community life under obedience. Next, they adopt in whole or in part the monastic version of the divine office and the Roman missal, and the Opus Dei is performed with dignity in a setting of beauty. In this again they are traditional. Thirdly, they have all been deeply concerned with missionary and social work overseas, particularly in countries that until 1945 were members of the British Empire (or Commonwealth). How far the dissolution of the Commonwealth has limited and will still further limit the scope of their work is not yet fully clear. Finally, there is in all three of these bodies a strongly English, vernacular, wholesome and bracing ingredient, an avoidance of extravagance, romance, antiquarianism and aestheticism.

Contrary to the vague opinion of many, the number of ‘monks’ in the Church of England is small. The spectacular vagaries of Father Ignatius of Llanthony and elsewhere, and the widespread réclame created for his abbey by the first abbot of Caldey, both before and after the ‘conversion’ of the community in 1913, added to the unsuccessful attempts of individuals to establish monastic groups here and there, have established in many minds the image of numerous monastic bodies of varying degrees of eccentricity. In fact, there is only a single monastic body that has been in existence for anything approaching fifty years’ space. This is Nashdom Abbey, Burnham, Bucks, which in its present state is a staid and retiring establishment. The community derives from Caldey through Dom Anselm Mardon, the only solemnly professed monk of Caldey who in 1913 remained in the Anglican communion. He established himself with one or two ex-Caldey brothers at Pershore, with the Rev. Denys Prideaux, an oblate of Caldey in holy orders, as chaplain. When Dom Mardon himself left to join the Roman Catholic church Father Denys, after the difficult years of the First World War, was induced to make his profession and become abbot. He was a scholar of parts, and gradually gave to his community a spirit different from that of Caldey. Caldey, apart from its abbot, was Cistercian rather than Benedictine in spirit; few of its members had had a university education. Abbot Prideaux favoured the traditional Benedictine life of the liturgy, richly performed in ample buildings, and an emphasis on learned work. In 1926 he purchased Nashdom, a magnificent creation of Lutyens for a Russian client, and gradually built up a monastic life that satisfied his ideal. His successors have continued his work and a community of forty now conducts a solemn performance of the liturgy according to the Roman monastic rite, following a time-table similar to that of the typical continental Benedictine house of today. House and garden work are done by the monks, many of whom devote themselves to study or writing, while others preach, give retreats and minister to the needs of their neighbours, spiritual and physical. There is a constant succession of guests, clerical and lay, who come for retreats and spiritual counsel. Whereas Caldey in its Anglican days, partly in self-defence, adopted the historically indefensible position that Benedictine abbeys in the early middle ages were extra- diocesan and outside episcopal control, Nashdom has assumed and accepted a place in Anglican life under the patronage of bishops. One of their number, Dom Bernard Clements, was given the Vicarage of All Saints, Margaret Street, London, by the bishop of London, and Gregory Dix, Benedict Frost and Anselm Hughes have made reputations in the fields of liturgiology, mystical theology and musicology. Nevertheless, to an outsider it seems a plant of a more exotic character than, say, Cowley or Mirfield. Though these very naturally make use of ancient and more modern Catholic spirituality, the end-product of their teaching is essentially English, Anglican, non-Roman. Nashdom, on the contrary, is a Benedictine abbey, akin (at least to the casual observer) in life, liturgy and spirituality to a hundred others, and though sincerely rooted in the Anglican church it is not those roots that nourish its flower and fruit.

[28] In this chapter I have drawn heavily on Peter Anson, The Call of the Cloister, 2 ed., London , 1964.