Anglican Franciscan story
In the beginning
The Franciscan story within the Anglican Church is a relatively recent one. All vowed religious orders, including the Franciscans, were dissolved during the reign of Henry VIII and were banned from Britain until the return of Roman Catholic religious orders in the first part of the nineteenth century. The re-discovery of catholic tradition within the Church of England around the same time led to the establishment of Anglican religious orders from the middle of the century, but it was not until just over one hundred years ago, following renewed interest in St Francis of Assisi and his seeking to follow Jesus Christ simply in the way of the Gospel, that Franciscan religious communities began to emerge.
Sister Rosina – Founder CSF 1905 Sister Helen Elizabeth Mother 1910 – 1950
The earliest Anglican Franciscan community which continues to this day is that of the Community of St Francis (CSF) sisters which began in Hull in 1905 with the aim of serving the Church and living and working among the poorest of the poor. After a couple of years the sisters moved to Dalston in London’s East end, and, despite early defections to the Roman Catholic church, the harshness of the life, and the disruption of bomb damage in World War II, they kept alive the witness of Franciscan life until a new flowering in the 1950s and 1960s.
The SSF brothers have a number of separate roots: The Society of Divine Compassion, a community of priests and lay brothers which started in the East End of London in the 1890s, a community known as the Christa Seva Sangha, begun at Poona in India in 1919 with a foundation some years later in England, and the Brotherhood of St Francis of Assisi, founded in 1921 at Flowers Farm, Batcombe in Dorset. This last community, under the leadership of Br Douglas, combined both preaching Christ with evangelical simplicity and also working for the rehabilitation of homeless men; it was joined in 1937 by Fr Algy and others from the English branch of the Christa Seva Sangha, who brought a more catholic and church orientated perspective to what was then for the first time called ‘The Society of St Francis’. The defining document of the First Order today is The Principles, in large measure derived from the documents of the Christa Seva Sangha.
The 1960s saw an expansion of both the brothers’ and sisters’ communities, with a considerable increase of those joining and the foundation of new houses. The brothers had begun a house in Cambridge in 1938 and after the war there were new communities established in Plaistow, Stepney, and in Dorset at St Francis’ School, Hooke; the brothers at all these places were committed to holding together the particular SSF synthesis of catholic devotion, evangelical preaching and a concern to work among and live alongside the marginal and dispossessed.
The monastery of St Mary at the Cross at Glasshampton in Worcestershire, which had been founded earlier by Fr William, a member of the Society of Divine Compassion, became a place of prayer, enclosure and study, particularly for those in their time of novice formation, and in 1961 a northern friary was established at Alnmouth in Northumberland.
Around the same time the sisters moved from Dalston to a manor house in the hamlet of Compton Durville in Somerset, bringing with them the East End ladies for whom they had been caring; the move allowed closer co-operation with the brothers and in 1968 a formal link was made under the ‘umbrella’ of the Society of St Francis. Over the years there have been sisters’ houses in London, Birmingham, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Dover and Belfast, among other places.
Over the past forty years there has been expansion, both of numbers of brothers and sisters and of community houses, and also contraction. The Society has moved away from institutional work. such as running a school or a nursing home, which became hard to maintain financially and in terms of staffing, and some of the smaller houses have closed. Vocations have declined from the heady days of the 1960s and 1970’s when there were novices in abundance, but men and women are still joining from all walks of life and different parts of the Christian Church, and new houses continue to be established in response to invitations to witness to the Franciscan life.
Despite the secularism of western society and the diminishment of institutional church life there remains a keen spiritual hunger among many for authentic spirituality which holds together the desire for God and a commitment to God’s world – in the way of Blessed Francis and Clare of Assisi.
A brief history of CSF from its beginnings to the present day has been written by sister Helen Julian. Click here to read more.