Issue 7222 - 20 July, 2001

We few, we happy few

ONE black-veiled nun kneels alone in the chapel of Burnham Abbey all day and most of every night, as the sisters of the Society of the Precious Blood take turns to keep the watch that is at the heart of their work of intercessory prayer.

This contemplative order, founded in 1905, lives within walls that enclosed a community of Augustinian canonesses 700 years ago; the present Anglican nuns, too, follow St Augustine’s Rule in their lives of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Does the public know such people exist or what they do? Or why they do it? And do they care? The Archbishop of Canterbury says that Anglican religious are the Church of England’s best-kept secret. Even the clergy can be hazy on the subject. When a woman recently sought her vicar’s guidance about what she felt was a vocation to the religious life, he said that she would have to become a Roman Catholic first. That vicar should be ashamed of his ignorance, but he’s not alone in it.

The religious life is a hidden life. “One is glad not to be too recognised,” a monk told me. “On the other hand, one can feel ignored, and that nobody knows we’re here.”

There have been monks and nuns in the Anglican Communion for the past 150 years, since the Oxford Movement restored this and other aspects of the Catholic tradition to the Church of England in the mid-19th century.

The orders grew after both world wars, and when Peter Anson catalogued them in 1955 he counted more than 4000 Anglican religious, living in about 120 communities worldwide.

Things are rather different, now. It is hard to establish exact figures, but the Cambridge church historian Dr Petà Dunstan estimates that there are about 2000 Anglican religious in Europe, of whom 750 nuns and 150 male religious now live in about 40 orders in the United Kingdom.

As the communities have shrunk, some have sold their big houses and become more hidden. Some now have very few members, and in the past ten years about ten orders have ceased to exist.

The gravest decline is in vocations. The number of men and women who feel called by God to the religious life has fallen dramatically. Dr Dunstan thinks there might have been 40 last year. The drop-out rate is uncharted, but she reckons that one in three postulants stay to make life vows.

Communities in all the Christian communions are experiencing this. Many have no novices at the moment. The fall is more marked among Roman Catholic religious. The Jesuits have not had a novice in the entire English province for some time.

Most communities now have a growing proportion of members aged 65 and over, a decreasing number of members in early middle age, and few or no members under 30. The younger ones spend more of their time looking after the elderly, and less in work or prayer.

All this is causing anxiety, though people are aware that worrying can make matters worse. Throughout history, religious communities have grown and shrunk: they underwent a major decline in the tenth century, too. But at that time most people still believed in God.

“What is different today is the crisis in belief in society,” says Dr Dunstan. We now have a second or third generation of families in whose lives Church and religion have no part. “They’ve nothing against the Church: but they’re not going to go.” She calls it “indifferentism”, quoting its catch-phrases: “It’s not an issue . . . let’s put the TV on.”

The Church might do more for its religious. The General Synod has praised their witness, and there was the annual Day of Prayer for Vocations to the Religious Life on Sunday. But that’s about it.

“So long as they’re praying for us, they’re at least acknowledging our existence,” says Brother Tristam SSF drily. But many religious think there could be more support. Parish priests could discuss the religious life as an option with people who consult them about vocations.

“We are called by God to this ridiculous life, which goes against all the norms of acceptable behaviour, to be signs of transcendence to people,” says Father Aidan Mayoss CR, chairman of the Communities Consultative Council, a body of elected representatives from all the Anglican religious communities. But it’s not easy. As most male religious are ordained, and as the Church has declining numbers of clergy, “the pond from which vocations are fished is getting smaller,” he explains.

In the past, priests experienced hostility from bishops if they forsook their parishes for an order. Today, Fr Mayoss perceives a “conception of irrelevance” in the priests themselves. “Here I am, very busy, with no obvious successor, and the needs are horrific — why move?” he says, quoting a view he often hears.

Many reasons are offered for the decline in vocations. “It’s a two-way traffic,” said Sister Jane at Burnham Abbey. “God can give the vocation: but it’s the response of the person, too.”

We live in a frenetically secular society. Its materialism, consumerism and individualism make people boggle at the thought of the monastic vows of poverty and obedience. The sexualisation of our culture makes the vow of celibacy look like a notion from another planet. And the media’s bad jokes can harden into hostility.

When Audrey Hepburn played Sister Luke in The Nun’s Story (1959), her superior warned that her habit would not protect her. Now it can attract violence. A sister was attacked while walking along an idyllic country footpath beside Burnham Abbey’s walls.

The nuns of the Society of St Margaret at St Saviour’s Priory in Haggerston, east London, will wear their habits to show solidarity at a candlit vigil for AIDS victims in Trafalgar Square, but otherwise they find it safer to wear ordinary clothes on the streets.

“There’s a lot of anger out there,” says Sister Helen Loder, their leader. This didn’t stop her feisty response when one lad yelled, “Fucking nun!” as she cycled past. She dismounted to shout back, “One or the other, but I can’t be both!”

For a young Victorian woman, the religious life could bring a freedom and dignity unavailable in spinster-hood, or even marriage, as she cast away her corsets and crinolines (the habit meant wearing fewer clothes) and entered a life of service. Now a young woman can enter any profession, and fulfil a vocation as an ordained priest. To become a postulant, she may have to give up a flat and job she has worked hard to achieve, then return to the job and housing markets at the bottom if things don’t work out in the convent.

More people now come to the religious life in maturity. The old rigid rules and hierarchical structures, such as for the “formation” of novices (in the days when they were young and malleable), can seem inappropriate and disrespectful to the new entrants’ experience and skills. The Society of St John the Evangelist has radically changed its formation, to give men time to find out what their vocations might be before they make any vows. It also gives suitable training, and the opportunity to take part in the running of the community — “because they are the future of the community,” says Father Peter Huckle.

A cheering exception to the trend of decline is the Melanesian Brotherhood of the south Pacific, which has 120 young novices and full waiting lists. What is its secret?

Father Richard Carter, an English brother, compares the order in the Solomon Islands to monastic life in its flowering in medieval England. For a young man brought up in a village, joining the order is “quite an exciting adventure”, offering opportunities and training he would not get otherwise.

Above all, the life offers a sense of purpose. “The brothers are greatly loved; respected as peacemakers in the ethnic troubles; and called for healing by families long before the doctor,” Fr Carter says. Though the temptations are there, there is great idealism and faith in both the brothers and the community. “I think that has been lost in English culture in the past 20 years,” he says.

The Melanesian Brotherhood has no life vows, though brothers may renew their temporary vows (“for as long as God calls me to serve”, as they promise) in four-year blocks, which is in harmony with their community’s customs.

Could temporary vows be a future development for other orders? Fr Mayoss thinks not. Difficult dynamics would be set up between those who were in life vows and those who were not.

Yet our society has a clear antipathy to commitment and permanence. The idea of a “job for life” has been lost to history. Fragmented nuclear and extended families are now the norm, as are sexual relationships that do not end in marriage and marriages that end in divorce. People find it hard to commit their time even to a football team, says Fr Huckle. “They just want to turn up when they want to play.”

The world outside the monastery walls has changed utterly in 150 years, and religious orders cannot but be changed by that. Not all communities espouse change as creatively as others; but they all have to live with it.

EARLY ONE MORNING, I visit the Franciscan friary at Stepney in London’s East End. Brother Bernard leads morning prayer and the eucharist in the little front room that is their chapel, in a terrace house with a brown front door. Two outside people join the three brothers and one sister.

After breakfast, Sister Chris goes to her work with Deaf Blind UK, Brother Martin to his duties as chaplain in the London Hospital, a novice to study, and Brother Bernard to welcome someone for spiritual direction.

The house is full of light and spirit. Yet Bernard speaks with some sadness. “I see young people with a great mission for the Third World, and to change the world”: rightly so. When he was a young friar, there was a global scope to the order’s work. But now social change and lower numbers have reduced this. The state has taken on much of their work with the poor and marginalised. There is still great suffering on the streets, but the Franciscans don’t have the resources to help there, as they want to.

“On my first day in the East End I tried to help a homeless man find a bed, and five places turned us away. In the end we had to find the least draughty alley and some sacks.” This friary at Stepney, the first set up to house both sisters and brothers, had some “hairy times” dealing with drug addicts, which put the sisters at risk. It is the first where Bernard (now 73) cannot offer shelter to someone in need. These losses are painful to him.

The monastic life has never been an easy option. The Rt Revd Timothy Bavin OSB was Bishop of Portsmouth until, at 60, he allowed himself to fulfil his lifelong wish and entered the enclosed Benedictine order at Alton Abbey. “I thought that, after 20 years as a bishop of a diocese, I could probably contribute more to the life of the Church through the offering of myself in prayer and in community as a monk.”

He is grateful to his community for accepting him at an age when it’s harder to adjust to the foibles of one’s brethren. “We are nine very different people, with nine different ways of doing everything; and at my worst moments I think I’d like to go off and be a hermit — though I don’t think I’d last more than three days if I did.”

But he is truly glad to be there. “It is the handing over to God of the few loaves I’ve got, for him to use. And I think the Church needs its religious communities. They are its beating heart; a kind of spiritual powerhouse.”

PRAYER is the core of each community’s life, whether the community is active or contemplative. Even the most active feel that their private prayer and shared office are what nourish them in everything else they do. “It’s like food,” says Sister Chris in Stepney. Brother Bernard notes that St Francis passionately wanted to be a hermit, but believed that God required him to work in the world.

As communities shrink and the outside work they can undertake diminishes, they may look at themselves. In Haggerston and in Burnham, a process of community discernment has meant a rigorous examination of how they live and work.

“I feel we have to respond to the fall in vocations by asking, ‘Who are we? What do we do? Why are we here?’ ” said a Burnham sister. “In the past, it was more ‘me and God’. Now, it’s ‘How do we, as a community, work with God? Where are we being guided now?’ ” This was a theme I heard in many conversations.

Most religious I met ultimately put their predicament into God’s hands. “If God wants a community to continue, it will. If he thinks it’s done its work, fine!” said one sister. “Fine for you!” a younger sister laughed, but with a troubled look.

These people are under pressure, but they are privileged, too. Parish clergy and bishops now suffer heavy workloads of committees, red tape, finance, administration, episcopal and archdeacons’ visitations. Monks and nuns are free of all this, and some see the opportunities of that freedom.

“Our role is to be a gadfly on the body politic of the Church,” says Fr Mayoss. “We’re not here to be part of the establishment.” He lived up to his vision by giving GMTV an interview about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s insistence on celibacy for gay clergy. It’s one of many areas of disagreement between us, said Fr Mayoss happily, and got 20 minutes on air.

Many orders are looking at how they can serve the world in new ways. One irony is that, while the communities are losing vocations, people from the secular world are flocking into their houses. Companies offer retreats for executives; people leading high-pressure lives withdraw from their office politics and emails to the quiet behind hallowed walls.

Key aspects of the monastic life — community, spirituality, stillness — are today’s buzz-words. The truth behind the beauty, peace and order of religious orders may be complicated, but there is a widespread hunger for what they represent.

Fr Huckle says: “I can accept only ten per cent of what comes over my desk every day.” Invitations and requests for preaching, teaching, spiritual direction, parish missions and quiet days pour in.

Some object to this. “People will go to quiet days, but they won’t go on a preached retreat,” Dr Dunstan says. “They seek a sense of belonging, but they want the comfort without the hard work that is necessary to build community,” says Sister Monica at Haggerston.

Yet those who go on retreats often become companions, oblates, associates of the orders. Franciscans have always had their Tertiaries or Third Order, but their numbers have doubled in the past 25 years to about 1500. Dr Dunstan sees this growth as a source of hope. “It’s taking the core values of the religious life out into the Church and the world.”

To Richard Carter of the Melanesian Brotherhood, “It’s time for the religious life to become central to the Christian Church again.” He sees many people “looking for a place of deep spiritual faith. They want not just people who can talk about it on the media, but who live it in a radical way — a faith that is not just a Sunday faith, but part of their breathing and living every day, day after day.”

Last year, the brothers brought a mission to Chester and Exeter, using dance and drama, leading worship in the cathedrals, going into prisons and young-offender institutions. He watched all who witnessed them being “struck by their faith and ministry, and their way of expressing the love of God”: he believes this is what the Church needs, and what its religious have to offer.

THE LEADERS of the religious communities held their annual conference in Whitby in June on the theme of anger. As this suggests, some are facing their situation with verve. Mother Barbara Claire of the Community of St Mary the Virgin spoke of “creative diminishment”, and urged that next year’s conference should be on the future of the religious life.

Sister Helen Loder SSM, who has been leader at Haggerston for only four months, brings a quiet radicalism to this subject. “I’ve always felt that the religious communities are a prophetic voice outside the Church. We’re facing change ourselves, and we’re involved with people on the edge and margins of society.”

After Sister Helen arrived here in 1968, her experience was one of frustration and rebellion against the old traditions, pressing for change. Now she rejoices that it has come. The sisters offer crisis-listening, complementary therapy, clothes and food for people in need. Sister Helen, an ordained priest, deliberately combines her spiritual-direction work with articulate middle-class people with those who come to the Dunloe Centre, “who are often drunk, and think they’re the lowest of the low”.

She has been helping young girls who have been pregnant and had abortions or miscarriages, without telling their parents of their pregnancies; and have then had breakdowns. One girl had saved the body of the foetus; another had aborted twins. Helen let the first bury her baby in the church garden, and was able to tell the second that God forgave her.

At the heart of all this, the community is singing its office four times a day, welcoming its visitors to share it, and — like the Taizé community in France — is constantly evolving its liturgy. Yet this order, too, has no novices. Its life and work may be coming to an end.

A terrible loss? “We are in the business of loss,” says Sister Helen; “of losing our lives in order to save them. What’s wrong with dying — if it is to live again in a different way?”

Fr Carter says: “I feel the religious communities are beginning a new ministry; searching themselves as to how they will be used. In discovering that, we may have to lose things that are precious to us, to become what God wants us to be.

“Religious life grows, declines, reforms, finds new inspiration. But I think it’s a necessity. Because there needs to be a group of people living in the footsteps of Christ, so you can see not only what they do, but what they are.

“I believe that the religious life is of God, and that God will use it again.”