Fr Nicholas Stebbing, OSB
Community of the Resurrection (Zimbabwe)
Anglicans and St Benedict
Anyone who knows about English history knows that Henry VIII was famous for his wives, for his break with Rome, and for his destruction of monastic life. All the Protestant Reformers dispensed with monastic life on various theological or moral grounds. Henry’s destruction was neither theological nor moral. He saw that the monasteries and religious orders were where the strongest opposition to his rejection of the Pope would be found. He also needed the money he could raise by selling off the monastic property, and he could gain support from the lay nobility by selling them those estates(1). He used Thomas Cromwell as his agent in this and within a few years between 1532 and 1540 a flourishing monastic life was destroyed.
Three centuries elapsed before religious life returned to the Church of England. Even now most Anglicans probably do not know there is such a thing as Anglican Religious Life. However, in the nineteenth century there was a revival of Catholic life in the Church of England, commonly referred to as the Oxford Movement which later grew into the Anglo-Catholic movement. Anglicans rediscovered the full sacramental life, a strong theology of the Church and a tradition of prayer that went back through the ages. This made them want the religious life, too. They wanted a tradition of prayer that gave them access to a far greater, more generous and more amazing God than that of the National Church. And they wanted women and men who could work in the slum areas of the cities.
The first Anglican communities were of sisters and began in the 1840’s. They needed to prove to the Church that they were not parasites or idle romantics and so they took on parish work, teaching, nursing and social care. At the same time they tended to have a monastic style of life, wearing traditional habits, saying a full office and committing themselves to prayer. They largely imitated their Roman Catholic sisters. By the end of the nineteenth century there were thousands of these Anglican sisters.
On the men’s side, religious life began again with the Society of St John the Evangelist in 1865. In the 1890’s both the Community of the Resurrection and the Society of the Sacred Mission came into existence. All these communities of men were largely priestly, did much in the way of missions and retreats and began mission work in South Africa and India. In the twentieth century a number of small Franciscan communities came together to form the Society of St Francis. Also in the twentieth century, after some abortive attempts, the first Benedictine community, Nashdom Abbey, was founded.
As with the Roman Catholic orders, the years since Vatican II (1962 onwards) have seen a steady decline in numbers as Religious have struggled to adapt their life to a changing world. Many communities have gone out of existence. It is hard to know what the future of Religious Life in the West will be.
When the ecumenical movement brought down the walls between Anglicans and Catholics, Catholic religious began to visit Anglican communities and said ‘You are all Benedictine monks (or nuns)’, except of course the Anglican Franciscans. ‘No, we are not’ we said. ‘Yes, you are.’ And they were right. It seems that Benedictine life was inherent in the Anglican Church and so religious life naturally took that form. Where did it come from?
First, when Archbishop Cranmer reduced the Roman Office to the Anglican version of Morning and Evening Prayer and made that compulsory for all priests, he created an Anglican devotional life that was centred on the same psalmody and scriptural reading that had formed monastic prayer. Though much attenuated, the structure and regularity of the daily office was the same.
Secondly, uniquely in England, most of the cathedrals in medieval times had been Benedictine monasteries. When the monastic life was destroyed, the cathedrals had their deans and chapters of canons who functioned much like a monastic chapter. They had their choirs which sang the daily office. The life of worship went on and was well attended by the laity. The liturgical praise of God came to be one of the cherished glories of the Church of England.
Thirdly, the two universities of Cambridge and Oxford had been largely religious foundations. After the monks had been banished, the fellows and dons remained largely clerical and unmarried. They and their students lived a common life, ate together, prayed together at compulsory chapel worship, and continued the Benedictine practice of sober, sound learning. One must not claim too much: there were many abuses, much laxity and many failures. Yet the principle remained, and when the founders of Anglican religious life in the nineteenth century looked around for a model, they naturally replicated the life of their Colleges. Common life, common prayer and sound learning could be seen as a basis of Benedictine monasticism.
All this happened so naturally it was largely unnoticed. It was only as Roman Catholic Benedictine life came to renew itself in the twentieth century, and as ecumenical contacts drew the two sides together that we realised how naturally Benedict finds himself in the Anglican Communion. He was always there!
What difference did this make?
Our own Community of the Resurrection with its mother house at Mirfield in Yorkshire made friends after Vatican II with the Benedictine Abbey of St Matthias in Trier. This friendship grew steadily and has become deeply important to both sides. We visit each other and learn from each other. The monks at Trier were developing a new style of monastic life faithful to the teaching of Benedict yet very much engaged with the life of the city. They showed us that Benedictine life is not all of one style. There is room in it for many different charisms each living in faithful dialogue with the orginal Rule. To be honest it has not been easy for many members of our Community to accept a Benedictine identity and to become part of the Benedictine family. Many couldn’t see the need. Many were afraid this would impose unacceptable changes on them and their ministries. It has taken about twenty years for the apprehensions to die away and finally in 2018 we asked for and were given affiliation to the Congregation of the Annunciation. We are still exploring what this will mean in our Community life but some things have become clear:
- We are part of a bigger family and in dialogue with a great tradition. Instead of the really small world of Anglican Religious Life with its short history of less than two hundred years, we can now draw on the huge resources of fifteen centuries of Benedictine life.
- A key area is in the matter of formation, both initial formation of novices and the ongoing formation of the Community. In the past new members came to us largely as ordained priests who had had their formation in seminaries run in a quasi-monastic pattern. Those who came as laymen generally had a strong formation in the life of Anglo-Catholic devotion. All that was required was that they be socialised in our Community ways and traditions. If that was ever so (and some doubt it) it is not true now. Much of the tradition has died in Anglicanism. People come to us with little reliable formation in prayer and the sacramental life. This has to be built up on solid foundations and a good strong monastic orientation needs to be uncovered as well. Weaknesses in our living of the monastic life are very clear to some of us and the difficulties of on-going formation need to be faced. This is a problem we share with many other Benedictine communities.
- We have found that Benedict’s Rule, instead of removing us from a real world of Christian life into some exotic monastic world (as some feared) actually does the opposite. It has helped us to see that the real coalface of the life is our brethren living together day after day with the brothers or sisters God has given us and accepting that it is that process which really enables us to grow into the people God wants us to be. It really is the Sermon on the Mount which all Christians try to live by.
- At the same time it has helped us set the various ministries we do into a context that makes it possible for them to be better integrated into our monastic life. We still teach theology, preach in churches, talk with retreatants, visit Europe in various kinds of ecumenical exchanges, work with the Church in Zimbabwe and South Africa and even do things in the United States. It is a lot for a small and ageing community but it seems to be working and it seems also that there are now some young people who want to join us in it. That is the best proof that something good is happening!
Do we Anglicans have anything to offer the great Benedictine world? Well, there is the fact we are Anglicans. St Benedict wrote his Rule before the current major schisms in the Church had happened, and Benedictine life flourished in Europe and England for nearly a thousand years before the Reformation so tragically tore Christians apart. We who follow the Rule of St Benedict are united in far more than what divides us. If we can heal some of the breaches that still divide us we have a real gift to offer the Universal Church. Ut omnes unum sint – ‘that all may be one’ is something we need to do more than just pray. In living the Rule together we make our prayer more real.
Pray for us brothers and sisters of St Benedict!
 An interesting parallel can be found in Zimbabwe from 2000 onwards. Robert Mugabe needed to break the power of the opposition and buy support from his followers. So he sent in his ‘war vets’ and others to take over white farmers’ land without compensation. The farms, which were supposed to be given to the poor were mostly given to his own supporters, with disastrous consequences for the country. Similar stories can be told of life in Eastern Europe under Communism or indeed in the Roman Empire under Pompey and Caesar!