Barry Orford: Is this the end for Anglican religious orders?

The restoration of the religious life to the Anglican Church was an enduring achievement of the Oxford Movement. Three hundred years after monasteries were swept away from this country, members of the Church of England felt again the call to serve God in communities.

The early Sisters faced hostility from clergy and laity, who regarded them as agents of popery. Today, mem­bers of the religious orders are found in many dioceses and are represented in General Synod. Countless people are deeply grateful to these Anglicans who have followed a vocation to live under vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

Religious have provided havens for those living their Christian vocation outside community walls; they have worked in the grimmest parishes; and they have guided individuals through spiritual direction. They have sup­ported the Church by their prayers, and borne witness to the priority of the things of the spirit. They have been both visible and invisible: seen when engaged in pastoral work, and hidden when in community.

Something is now clearly amiss with our religious communities, how­ever. Membership is rapidly declin­ing, average age is high, recruitment is desperately low, and some commun­ities have ceased to exist. Many who come to test a vocation leave before taking vows, and some of those actually in vows have also left.

Read it all.


Posted in * Anglican - Episcopal, * Christian Life / Church Life, - Anglican: Commentary, Church History, Spirituality/Prayer

22 comments on “Barry Orford: Is this the end for Anglican religious orders?

  1. Rick H. says:

    Count me as one who left Anglican religious orders. It was not that I had a problem with the order I was in itself, which I found to be an island of sanity in the turmoil of TEC and the larger Communion. It came down to my unwillingness, after years of prayer and discernment, to remain Episcopalian or Anglican. I am happy with my new faith home across the Tiber, I thank God for bringing me here every day, and I have quickly made new and close faith friends, but I miss my former brothers and sisters terribly.

    The problem for our order (the Anglican Dominicans) was that it attracted mostly orthodox people, very serious about their faith and beliefs. Those tend to be the people who are most uncomfortable with the direction of TEC and the Anglican Communion. I can’t speak about whether other orders had similar problems.

  2. rugbyplayingpriest says:

    #1 makes a very telling and poignant point. Those who dedicate life to Jesus are not really interested in the dishonesty and compromise which so sadly lies at the heart of the Anglican church.

  3. Dan Crawford says:

    I began to pay less attention to the Anglican Orders when a number of their religious superiors signed a letter that seemed to embrace wholeheartedly some rather strange notions of celibacy as it applied to those with same-sex attractions. Their subsequent embrace of much of the liberal churches enthusiasms has done nothing to enhance their attractiveness to people seriously desiring to commit themselves to Christ in a vowed religious community.

  4. Hursley says:

    Yes, Dan, that’s true. On top of that one has to question the wisdom of the reforms in the Rules and worship in many Anglican orders. These reforms have often watered-down rather than deepened the observance in the order.

    It’s another sign of how debauched we have become in our quest to worship the god of this age. God’s winnowing fork is certainly busy in this part of the farm.

  5. Ralph says:

    I thought the Order of Preachers is pretty conservative. If so, as a monastic community, it ought to be well-insulated and protected from the TEC leadership, even a diocesan bishop. Have the Dominicans been successfully infected?

    Are there any other traditional monastic-type communities in TEC that are orthodox, celibate, chaste, spiritual, and faithful?

  6. Rick H. says:

    #5, you are mostly correct. The Anglican Dominicans are heavily weighted toward the catholic side, are nearly all conservative and orthodox individually (there are couple of exceptions) and were not infected with any kind of revisionism (despite a penchant I often decried to prefer Rite II liturgies to those of Rite I). The first chapter meeting I attended took place at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry. An endorsement of the current policies of the TEC or the Anglican Canadians would provoke a major rebellion among them, I am certain.

    Note: not all are celibate. Their vow is one of faithfulness in marriage (if married) or celibacy if single. It is not a monastic community. There is no chapter house. The members live all over the country.

  7. Lumen Christie says:

    There is a huge amount to think about here.

    First, I must disagree with the author of the article when he said: “Church of England pres­ently over-weighted towards the Evangelical is not fertile soil for community vocations…” Some of the strongest vocations among the Sisters of St. Mary (Albany) came from women who were decidedly evangelical/charismatic. (There is a similar pattern among Roman nuns also).

    More to the point is the difficulty of distinguishing between forms reflecting the 19th century origins of the communities which are not really central to religious life from forms which are in fact essential. E.g.: silence is a necessary part of a life of prayer. When and how to work it into the horarium is a different question.

    Within the last three years or so, the Sisters of St. John the Baptist (in New Jersey) doubled in number when several young women decided to pursue their vocations with them. The community was flexible enough to accomodate them without losing their identity or the essentials of a monastic life. There are many signs out there that young people are hungry for a life of total dedication, prayer and service, if the communities themselves can connect with them. A similar example among the Romans would be the Benedictines of Regina Laudis (Connecticut)

    It is my own take on all this that our good Lord is renewing religious life by doing some pruning. Sadly, in some Roman and Anglican religious communities alike, there was much that was unworthy and even detrimental to a genuinely Christian community of any sort. Among the Romans there has been a burgeoning movement of new communities and reform groups within old major orders (such as the Franciscans) which are showing great vitality and rgowth, especially among young people. These new groups are utterly dedicated to a real religious life (including habits) but are not stodgy.

    We in Albany have been praying for vocations to religoius life for years. The Sisters of St. Mary certainly need new vocations, but they are hanging in there.

    One surprising development has been the birth of new forms of religious life. New communities exist in many places which include both those in the vow of celibacy alongside married people. (This reflects the ancient Celtic forms of communities). While not specifically “monastic” the Fisher Folk are certainly a newer form of religious life that has lasted for over 30 years. The Community of Jesus, which is ecumenical, has over 250 members, and the Roman Brothers & Sisters of Charity at Little Portion, AK are doing very well.

    Here in Albany, a new community which includes married, single (celibate), clergy and lay people is the Franciscan Community of the Holy Cross. This community has a serious Rule of Life based on authentically Franciscan sources and grew from nine to 35 members in only six years. It is orthodox, fervent and flourishing spiritually as well as in numbers. Everyone involved is doing some kind of ministry, such as providing food and clothing for the homeless, parish based outreach and even foreign missions. A solid prayer life and committed mutual support in community gatherings form the foundation. The FCHC also believes that moving into residential community for at least some of the members is not too far down the road.

    This is real “religious life” in a somewhat non-traditional format. The Franciscan Order has always included “house-holders” since the days of St. Francis himself. God has been renewing the Franciscans by bringing about communities such as this.

    So, don’t despair of “religious life.” There are always new shoots on the old tree, and sometimes a little pruning produces sweeter fruit.

    (BTW — if anyone knows what is happening to the “Franciscan Order Celi De,” I would appreciate hearing about it.)

    Also, if anyone would like more info about the Franciscans of the Holy Cross, post here, and I will find you some.

  8. Lumen Christie says:

    BTW, Rick H. — I was unaware of the existence of these Dominicans. Would you mind providing some more specific info? I would greatly appreciate hearing more about who they are and what they are doing. Do they have a website? Thanks L C

  9. Rick H. says:

    Lumen Christie:

    The web page for the Anglican Dominicans is:

    Hasn’t been updated in a few months.

  10. nwlayman says:

    If there were Anglicans like Dom Gregory Dix still on the earth it might make a difference. There are no dinosaurs left.

  11. stjohnsrector says:

    There is a traditionalist 3rd Order and Oblate Franciscan Group
    The Franciscan Order of the Divine Compassion.
    The Bishop Protector or Keith Ackerman.

  12. Br. Michael says:

    7, we are still around.

  13. The_Archer_of_the_Forest says:

    This article does make me sad. Part of my discernment in the early ordination and seminary process was focused on whether I was called to be a member of a religious order of some kind. I even spent a few months at one time at a monastery in the novitiate.

    I am of course now married with a baby on the way, so obviously the monastic life was not where God ultimately wanted me to be. But I think monasticism is truly a ministry and a calling. I hate to think it is dying away, not just in the Anglican church, but elsewhere in the West.

  14. Irenaeus says:

    [i] A Church of England pres­ently over-weighted towards the Evangelical [/i]

    How about a church leadership weighted down with reappraisers and their allies?

    What about an Archbishop of Canterbury who spares no strategem to protect ECUSA but will do little to provide even basic protection to Anglo-Catholics in the Church of England?

  15. optimus prime says:

    Are there any Anglican orders that are conservative/orthodox that are focused on scholarly service to the Church?

  16. Peter dH says:

    [i]A Church of England pres­ently over-weighted towards the Evangelical[/i]

    This sentence makes as much sense to me as complaining that Christianity is presently over-weighted towards Jesus-lovers. (I wish it were!) But then again, I am profoundly Evangelical.

    And yes, even Evangelicals can be called to the religious life, though I am not one. I guess the religious life will never quite be the same for it, similar to what is happening elsewhere in the church. To me, #7 is spot on. There seems to be a good deal of pruning going on in the church. Confusing times, but exciting as well, and I can’t wait for the fruit. Praise be to God.

    If you find yourself lamenting the loss of the old way of doing things, ask yourself how much of it is nostalgia. (I’m not saying that it is, and maybe the child is thrown out with the bathwater sometimes; but it’s a question worth asking).

  17. austin says:

    Surprise: abandon, then persecute, Catholic faith and order and institutions devoted to Catholic life shrivel up and vanish. What on earth could be the causal link here? Must organize an international summit to begin a process of “listening.”

  18. Pageantmaster Ù† says:

    #16 Well said Peter dH
    I have however never seen retreats as popular as they are now, the contemplative and prayerful life exerts a powerful pull, still! I wonder if religious orders need to look at their presentation to the outside world, marketing themselves, and in order to do that you have to consider what needs people have which you answer, and whether you deliver what people expect?

    But is no more than the church at large is having to consider.

    And I regret to say that I think it is the case of the baby being thrown out with the bathwater at the moment as one house after another closes.

  19. Terry Tee says:

    In answer to # 15’s query, I think that among men, the Community of the Resurrection, centered at Mirfield in Yorkshire, would pretty will fit the bill. Among women, the quite large Benedictine community at West Malling is very impressive, as are the Sisters of the Love of God at Fairacres in Oxford, who have a broadly Carmelite spirituality. The SLG sisters are also intellectually in the first rank (apologies for sounding patronising: my respect for them is very real).

  20. The young fogey says:

    Sad but I’m not surprised. Anglo-Catholicism is on life support (in Episcopalianism, as a movement it’s now dead: no Catholic bishops, no church) and its monks and nuns always were very few indeed. (‘[i]The Episcopal Church has [/i]nuns?’)

    Most of the Catholic Anglicans have died or left for Rome and Orthodoxy whilst most of the orders have gone along with the changes in Anglican churches, some enthusiastically. The orders lost their nerve in the late 1960s: when Rome caught a cold they caught pneumonia. There’s a bit of truth to ‘Anglican religious order = two queens and a sewing machine’ and ‘home for old gays who can’t hook up at the bars any more’.

    (True story: a member of an Episcopalian order which shall remain nameless had as his recruiting opening line: [i]’We’re not celibate you know'[/i].)

    But as has been suggested I wouldn’t sign the death certificate of religious life in Anglicanism even if no longer Catholic. There are young Anglicans who are credally orthodox and high-church, certainly interested in Catholic spirituality though not really on Catholic terms (they believe in a fallible church so they’re on board with gay weddings for example). But these are sincere Christians in ways parallelling other contemporary movements orthodoxwards (which appeal to the youngish) such as Pope Benedict’s RC revival and the Orthodox convert boomlet.

    Episcopalianism will probably dip below a million members (unless its young people have lots of kids, which won’t happen) but won’t put itself out of business. (Lots of viable churches have only a few thousand practising members, like the real numbers of the Orthodox in America.) Anglican religious orders’ future is much more doubtful but who knows?

    I’m sorry but given the nose-dive in RC vocations over 40 years (translation: you don’t see that many nuns any more and certainly next to no young ones in most places) Sister Joan Chittister is among the last people I’d ask for advice on reviving religious orders!

    [url=]High-church libertarian curmudgeon[/url]

  21. optimus prime says:

    Thank you #19!

  22. MPM says:

    I have been thinking about this issue of the “disappearances” of religious life within the Anglican Communion and the various ideas as to why such has occurred. Through out the history of Christianity, religious orders, monasteries have arisen and disappeared actually too numerous to account for. Most of the communities we would not recognize. As a former Roman Catholic pre-Vatican II I grew up with what seemed like an army of sisters and nuns and the men’s communities. What were once in the several 100,000 are fewer than 57,000 at least in the U.S. Religious life in the Anglican Communion began as a result of the Oxford Movement and was a response to very particular social needs.

    It is my belief that the God within the Church (the entire Church of God) raises up what is needed for the health and promotion of Christianity. Studying the rise of religious communities would help us see as to why they came into existence and conversely why they appear to be disappearing. The times have changed and with it the needs of the church. It maybe a reasonable question to raise, as to whether religious life as we know it continues to serve the Holy Spirit as it once did.

    I do not think religious life is not dying merely changing. I am thinking of the “new monasticism” movement or what is also called the “new Friars”. This is a remarkable group of dedicated Christian who chose to live in intention community in many of the most poor and violent neighborhoods through out the world. They are made up of committed men and women, married or not who wish to live out the call to follow Christ. These communities are characterized by their ecumenical nature coming out of evangelical traditions and who find the arguments of orthodoxy tiresome and interfering of the mission of witnessing God’s love for the world.

    Additionally we have the “rediscovery of the diaconate as a separate and equal order. I think we have yet to see the full range of the mission of deacons. However I see them (us) as a response of the church to care for “the least, the lost and the left out.” Perhaps we deacons will form the nucleus of new religious life.

    I find it distasteful to mock other people’s attempts to respond to what they perceive as the call of Christ. All of the founders of the great religious tradition were consider a bit odd when they began. I am also surprised at Christianity’s insistence that it is a special club characterized by whom it keeps out. Having spent most of my life as an RC I am tired of this sectarianism. In becoming an Episcopalian I discovered a quote by Richard Hooker that I love and keep in mind always especially when I start to feel exclusionary: “Many might, some should, none must.”
    Br. Michael OSF