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THE CONSECRATED LIFE IN THE ANGLICAN TRADITION – CLARK BERGE SSF

Br Clark Berge with Br John and the Sisters in Bamenda

Br Clark Berge with Br John and the Sisters in Bamenda

Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, called for a ‘wild burst of imagination’ about religious life. In many ways imagination has characterized Anglican Religious Orders from the beginning. Conceived with spiritual optimism yet born in controversy about the Catholic tradition of Anglicans, religious Orders have blazed a path that is still serviceable today. We simply have to have the courage of our convictions. I think the Anglican religious Orders have three specific contributions to make to the ecumenical journey.

Prayer and Worship

Anglican Religious Life is about prayer and worship. The religious Orders have always been the place to go to for space and time to pray, and often religious have been the ones to teach about contemplation. Religious life and monastic worship is the DNA of

Anglican worship.

Concern for the poor was a major motivation for the first Anglican Founders of the mid-nineteenth century. Religious communities were seen as effective ways to offer material and spiritual support to the poor. There are many examples of great love and service shown by these Anglican religious. Without doubt their spiritual fire came from prayer and contemplation. One example of this that moves me deeply is that of an American Episcopalian Order called the Community of St. Mary in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1878 the sisters refused to abandon their people in the face of a yellow fever epidemic. They offered care and support until eventually they all succumbed to the disease. As Justin Welby comments, ‘The church should always be engaged in doing things that make no sense if God does not exist’.

Anglican religious have run schools, hospitals and settlement houses. In the Anglican Communion, there are now 57 orders for women; 13 orders for men, and 7 orders for men and women. Our largest communities are in Africa and Melanesia. In total, about 2,000 traditional religious take vows and live in community and another 3,000 members of religious communities are more diverse in their way of life, and there are about 3,000 members of the Third Order of the Society of St. Francis, our ‘secular’ Franciscans. These 8,000 dedicated souls are part of 85 million Anglicans.

Lack of Church Laws and our Small Size

Another title for this section could be ‘the blessings of freedom and minority’. There are benefits in operating in a church that historically does not have elaborate canon law governing religious life. This is freedom! Throughout the Anglican Communion people have responded to the Spirit’s call with a sense of adventure and innovation. In 1925 a young Melanesian man in the Solomon Islands, Ini Kopuria, founded The Melanesian Brotherhood. It was a very different kind of religious Order: habited in clothing appropriate to the climate and culture, vowed for a term of years then released to pursue family life, dedicated to primary evangelism among the indigenous people, their forms of worship were and are very traditionally Anglican.

Today, many orders struggle. While having to deal with small, often aging communities, this smallness, or minority as we Franciscans would call it, can also be considered a blessing. The happiest scenarios have demonstrated that living in small groups we have been able to change direction, change residences, experiment with different ministries and ways of living. At our best we have taken risks and have pioneered new directions.

Crossing Boundaries

Historically there have been communities that took a prophetic stance in society. The Community of the Resurrection of Our Lord in South Africa welcomed women of colour and fell afoul of the apartheid laws. Refusing to change their convictions, they were persecuted, and the community shrank. However now, women of all races are requesting to test their vocations.

In the Anglican Church of Melanesia, the four religious orders there were enlisted by the Anglican Archbishop of the Church of Melanesia to help bring peace during the ‘ethnic tension’ or civil war. Because of their conviction that God’s call does not discriminate against ethnicities, they refused to take sides in the conflict. They worked for peace using the resources they had — they transported people and goods across lines, took the dead to their families, and most importantly, they prayed with the militants. Later, it was the brothers who were trusted to collect the guns from the populace and take them far out to sea to throw them into the deeps, to rust in peace.

Anglican religious are also beginning to welcome people of other denominations into their Orders. Ecclesiastical allegiance doesn’t count for much in the everyday disciplines of community life; but love, generosity, compassion makes all the difference.

The religious life in the Anglican Communion is experiencing a warm glow of attention because the Archbishop of Canterbury has focused on religious life in his care for the renewal of the Church. His initiative will see the inauguration of The Community of St. Anselm, based at Lambeth Palace in London, as a religious community for young men and women interested in living together under vows for a year of prayer, study and service. This is one of many ‘new monastic’ communities that have come into being around the world. These are perhaps the future of religious life in Anglicanism; or perhaps they are a ‘bridge development’ helping people who have no acquaintance with religious life to learn about it and to test it out. These developments are not isolated in Anglicanism, but are part of a family of communities in many different denominations.

In the Society of St Francis, the Hilfield Community is developing one of our friaries in Dorset. There is a small core of life vowed Franciscan brothers living with a larger community of men and women, married and single, who make promises to the community and a commitment to live together for a year or so. They are all dedicated to a common purpose: care for the environment. But this includes a life of prayer, and working at organic farming, woodlands management, and various educational efforts. It seems that no matter what skill or interest you have, it can be put to use in the community.

Conclusion

Our ecumenical journey as Christians takes its cue from Jesus’ prayer that we all become one, and I believe we can take encouragement from the work and historical example of developments in the consecrated life, especially where communities welcome all Christians. Our history shows us to be tenacious and idealistic. We exist for the glory of God: our greatest hope is to help others discover Jesus Christ in all his beauty through introducing people to contemplation and the disciplines of community life. Perhaps we need a ‘wild burst of imagination’ in all our traditions, which could be an area for fruitful discussion. The future for Anglican religious depends on how skilfully and faithfully we help a basically ‘un-churched’ generation in the so-called Western world find a way to explore the spiritual hunger that has surprised so many of us in the midst of our lives. We must find ways to develop the consecrated life that is post-colonial, ecumenically minded, and culturally appropriate. It is my experience that Anglican religious Orders offer a unique experience and a deep desire to join with religious of every tradition in making Christ known and loved throughout the world. f

This is an edited version of Clark Berge’s address to the Ecumenical Symposium on the Consecrated Life, held in Rome, 22-25 January 2015.