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“The Consecrated Life in the Anglican Tradition and the Ecumenical Journey” – Br Clark Berge SSF

Brother Clark Berge, SSF Minister General presented a  paper  “The Consecrated Life in the Anglican Tradition and the Ecumenical Journey” at an Ecumenical Symposium on the Year of the Consecrated Life.  This event held in the Vatican City from 22-25 January was part of a programme of events to mark The Year of the Consecrated Life proclaimed by Pope Francis and  running from Advent 2014 until Candlemas 2016.   Brother Desmond Alban SSF and Sister Joyce CSF also attended with other Anglican Religious.



I’d like to begin by saying how happy I am to be here and that I think it is a great honor. Thank you very much for the invitation to speak today. I am not an academic so my reflections on the consecrated life in the Anglican Tradition may be perhaps a bit homely, but they are nonetheless heartfelt. My only qualification is that I am an Anglican Franciscan and serve as Minister General of my Order, The Society of St. Francis.


Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, called for a “wild burst of imagination” about religious life[i]. 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 we are embarked on today.


  • First, Anglican religious Orders prioritize prayer and worship, the best place to discern common ground.
  • Second, the lack of church laws and our small sizes allow for us to provoke change in the tradition of religious life, and maybe the Church.
  • Third, Our religious vocation among Anglicans crosses boundaries: denominational as well as boundaries in society.

These three areas are blessings from God. As much as the patriarchs blessed their children in such ways as to determine their future (think of Isaac blessing Jacob), our religious Orders have been blessed and given a way to be in the world. We must begin with this idea of blessing, because religious life is God’s gift, not a problem to be solved. Perhaps the religious ourselves are a problem, but God’s initiative is for freedom and creativity. To be blessed doesn’t mean life is easy. However, if we keep our hearts and minds open to the Holy Spirit we will be guided into new ways of sharing our blessing.


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. In our Prayer Book tradition, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer crafted the services of Morning and Evening Prayer in the early Sixteenth-Century from the old Benedictine monastic offices. His vision was that the whole people of God would gather twice a day to be steeped in Scripture and to pray. The Church of England was to be the church of a people praying in common, hence the name of Cranmer’s seminal book, The Book of Common Prayer. Even though it rapidly became a clerical practice, the inspiration and challenge of Anglican life formed around regular communal prayer persisted.


One of the earliest efforts to reclaim and live out this Prayer Book vision was The Little Gidding founded by Nicholas Ferrar in the Seventeenth-Century in Huntingdonshire, England. They took no vows, and there was no rule, but with his family and friends Ferrar created a community life that sought to live according to the disciplines of the Prayer Book. It didn’t survive long, but demonstrates what the poet Philip Larkin describes in his poem “Church Going”: “someone will forever be surprising a hunger in himself to be more serious” and that hunger “can never be obsolete.”[ii]


This surprising hunger emerged later in the Nineteenth-Century. In 1841 the first Anglican person to take religious vows was Marian Rebecca Hughs in Oxford, and later, in 1849 she founded the Society of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. The first religious community for women in the Anglican Communion was the Sisterhood of the Holy Cross founded in 1845 by Emma Langston. In 1866 Richard Meux Benson founded the Society of St. John the Evangelist, the first religious order for men to survive—even until today in UK and USA.[iii] These early founders were all part of the High Church Oxford Movement.


The disciples of the Oxford Movement largely articulated the theological underpinnings of the Nineteenth-Century foundations. This Movement was touched off by John Keble’s July 1833 Assize Sermon in which he protested Parliament’s actions at reforming the Church. He asserted the Church’s obligation and responsibility to reform itself derived from its foundation by God. Keble touched a nerve, and a series of “Tracts for the Times” appeared, arguing for a renewed appreciation and reclamation of the Catholic heritage of the Church of England, in England and the British Empire, and similarly in the Episcopal Church in the United States. Some talked themselves into joining the Roman Catholic Church, like John Henry Newman, later Cardinal Newman. But the ideas of the Tractarian Oxford Movement became firmly part of the faith and practice of many members of what became the Anglican Communion. Finally there was a home in Anglicanism for the longings some felt for religious life.


The culture of the time was fascinated by medieval-ism, and religious Orders were congenial with that; but religious life was also a strategic response to social problems. Concern for the poor was a major motivation for the early Anglican Founders. 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. This historical praxis resonates profoundly with the modern observations of Rowan Williams when he was Archbishop of Canterbury and spoke to Roman Catholic Bishops: “To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit.”[iv]


I could cite many examples of great service borne out of a deep love for Christ and courage nurtured by contemplation and prayer. But one that moves me deeply is the example 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. Rather the sisters and other supporters stayed on, offering 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.”[v]


Anglican religious have run schools, hospitals and settlement houses. They have traveled throughout the world. The women’s communities especially are widespread throughout the Anglican Communion, with 57 communities for women; there are 13 communities for men and 7 for men and women. Our largest communities and orders are in Africa and Melanesia, and there are several groups in formation that I am working with in Cameroon and Tanzania. Totaled, there are about 2,000 traditional religious who take vows and live in community and another 3,000 members of religious communities, which are more diverse in their way of life, and about 3,000 members of the Third Order of the Society of St. Francis, secular Franciscans. These 8,000 dedicated souls are partof 85 million Anglicans.


As you can see, Anglican Orders are a mere drop in the church bucket. As Justin Welby correctly states, “Let us be clear [Religious life] has often, almost always since the beginning of modernity, and especially in the last 100 years, been treated as a side line…”[vi] But let me hasten to remind us of Episcopalian Margaret Meade, the anthropologist, who offers hope to the small group on the margins of society: “Never doubt a small group of people can change the world: it’s all that ever has.”[vii]




Lack of Church Laws and our Small Size

Another title for this section could be the blessings of freedom and minority. These are distinguishing features of Anglican religious life. There are benefits in operating in a church that historically does not have elaborate canon law governing religious life. For instance there are only two pages governing religious orders in the canon law of The Episcopal Church.[viii] This is freedom! Throughout the Anglican Communion people have responded to the Spirit’s call with a sense of adventure and innovation. An example of this: in 1925 a young Melanesian man in the Solomon Islands Ini Kopuria, founded a religious order for men called The Melanesian Brotherhood. It was a very different kind of 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, but prayed with great gusto: the singing lifts the rafters of their humble churches and chapels. Other Orders appeared ringing changes on the traditional religious life of monastic communities and friars. My own order, The Society of St. Francis is another good example of this characteristic innovation. We have diverse roots, some of them in an Indian ashram in Pune, India,some in communal living with homeless men (wayfarers) in the English countryside where all who lived there were called “brother” without regard for their condition in life, some in Orders with pastoral work among the urban poor of London which eventually joined together in The Society of St. Francis, and conventual life in America. We have First Order Brothers and First Order Sisters, which always cause a murmur among Roman Catholic Franciscans. It makes for a rich heritage and allows for the possibility of other kinds of innovation, though we take our time over radical proposals. Many of the early religious communities enjoyed a period of growth and prosperity—though two or three hundred members would seem huge by our Anglican standards, even in their heyday.


But today, many of us struggle. There are different reasons for the decline of religious orders in the last 50 years. Dr. Petà Dunstan, editor of the Anglican Religious Life Yearbook and author of several books on different Anglican religious Orders, commented to The Church Times in November that our society is one in which young people’s interest is in relationships and not the structures: “In the 1920’s and 30’s,” she said, “people were very much into structure. Everyone wanted to join something, and everyone wanted to be in a uniform; everyone had a very institutional view of everything. Religious life was part of that, and so it flourished. When individualism took over, people didn’t want that any more. They felt that going into uniforms and institutions had led to all kinds of suffering and everyone had to find their own place…”[ix]



While lamenting the decline in numbers and having to deal with small, aging communities, from an insider’s perspective 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. Small groups mean you know the names of every member of the order; there is great intimacy and possibility for family life. At our best we have taken risks and have pioneered new directions. Those who haven’t been able to make these adaptations have generally not flourished, some have died out. For some, the lessons of minority have resulted in renewal. A couple of months ago I visited the Benedictine Community at Mucknell Abbey in Worcestershire, England. The Order started as a community of Anglican Benedictine nuns at Burford, near Oxford, and then in the 1980’s when most people thought the community was finished,the vision was enlarged to include a group of men and eventually people from other denominations. Recently the brothers and sisters moved from their old, inadequate buildings in Oxford to a beautiful new monastery at Mucknell. They are running out of space already. They welcome several young men and women every year as members of the community but not vowed. It is part of the recognition that in this post-modern age, very few people have any idea about religious Orders. Living with the community as “along-siders” often awakens a sense of vocation and some subsequently join the Order. But even in other cases, the church gains men and women who have been deeply formed by the religious life, and the religious Orders benefit from their devotion and enthusiasm during their stay. This bodes well for the renewal and growth of the Church at large. It is important to remember that we are members of religious Orders in and for the Church—the universal Church. So it is as brothers and sisters the challenge before us is to remain faithful to our charism but not fearing to adapt to the needs of our contemporary society. We must take heart from one another; lessons learned in adversity can bear much fruit as the example of Mucknell Abbey demonstrates.

Crossing Boundaries


Historically there have been communities that took a prophetic stance in society and resisted social convention. The Community of the Resurrection of Our Lord in South Africa welcomed women of color as members and fell afoul of the apartheid laws of that country. Refusing to change their convictions, they were persecuted, and the community shrank. However now, women of all races are requesting to test their vocations. The Community of the Resurrection (a men’s community), also serving in South Africa during the Twentieth-Century, nurtured and inspired the young Desmond Tutu. In another dramatic case, the four religious orders working in the Anglican Church of Melanesia, the Melanesian Brotherhood, the Community of the Sisters of Melanesia, the Community of the Sisters of the Church, and The Society of St. Francis were enlisted by the Anglican Archbishop of the Church of Melanesia to help bring peace during a civil war, or the ethnic tension as they called it. 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. The two men’s communities devised a Rota for their members to go in turn to an encampment between the warring factions. They would stay there, and in the mornings teams would go to both sides and call the militants to prayer. In the evenings they would switch sides and pray with another group of militants. In all of this they tried to remind the combatants of their Christian faith, and the humanity of their so-called enemies. They never revealed numbers of people to an opposing side, only reporting family members—fathers, brothers, uncles who were shooting at each other–and the evil of such internecine fighting. The deaths, the martyrdoms, of 7 young brothers of the Melanesian Brotherhood at the hands of some militants shocked the nation. This tragedy was instrumental in bringing the conflict to an end. It was the brothers who were trusted to collect the guns from the populace and take them far out to sea and throw them into the deeps, to rust in peace.


These stories of crossing false and inhuman boundaries is congruent with the willingness of many Anglican religious to welcome people of other denominations into their Orders. Increasingly it is quite common. This blurring of the boundaries is perhaps an inevitable thing showing we are all engaged in the same task of making Christ known and loved throughout the world. Ecclesiastical allegiance doesn’t count for much in the everyday disciplines of community life; but love, generosity, compassion makes all the difference. When we can show the world how much we love each other, Christianity and community life begins to make sense and we can “encourage each other in walking more and more deeply into the light that is Christ.”[x]


New Developments

 The religious life in the Anglican Communion is experiencing a warm glow of attention because our Archbishop of Canterbury has made the religious life a priority in his care for the renewal of the Church. Recently it was announced that the Community of St. Anselm would be starting up 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. The Community of St. Anselm is perhaps the most high profile of recent “new monastic” communities that have come into being around the world. Larkin’s surprising hunger to be more serious is engaging a new generation of men and women. 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. Some of these young people have come later on to the more traditional orders. 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, European Province, a special community, The Hilfield Community, is developing at one of our friaries in Dorset, the south of England. 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 period of 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 no matter what skill or interest you have, it can be put to the use of the community.


The vowed life, whether lived in temporary commitments or solemn profession, equips us and challenges us to take responsibility for creating the kind of world we want to live in.




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. Anglican religious life has proved to be very adaptable, and more communities are taking seriously the applications of people from other denominations. 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. I doubt you are interested in reforming canon law, but perhaps that needs a “wild burst of imagination” in all our traditions, and could be an area for fruitful discussion. The future for Anglican religious depends on how skillfully 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. This is an ecumenical imperative. None of us are served by a sense of competition among religious traditions. In the developing world, so much peace and stability depends on formation and finding ways to support vibrant civic life, of which church life and ministry is such a big part; we must find a way to develop a consecrated life that is post-colonial, developing best practices for self-sustaining, ecumenically minded, culturally appropriate religious life. In the end, 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.



[i] Justin Welby, available from: http://archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/5272/archbishop-calls-for-wild-burst-of-imagination (accessed November 10, 2014).


[ii] Philip Larkin, Church Going; available from http://www.shigeku.org/xlib/lingshidao/waiwen/larkin.htm (accessed November 30, 2014).


[iii] Clark Berge, The Vows Book: Anglican Teaching on the Vows of Obedience, Poverty and Chastity (Mt. Sinai, NY: Vest Pocket Publications, 2014), 20.


[iv] Rowan Williams, available from: http://rowanwilliams.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/2645/archbishops-address-to-the-synod-of-bishops-in-rome (accessed November 30, 2014).


[v] Welby, op. cit.


[vi] Welby, op.cit.


[vii] Berge, The Vows Book, 21.


[viii] The Episcopal Church, Constitution and Canons together with the rules of order of The Episcopal Church, 2009; available from www.episcopalarchives.org/CandC_2009pdf (accessed November 30, 2014).



[ix] Pat Ashworth, “New Habits of the Religious Life,” The Church Times, November 14, 2014; available from: www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2014/14-november/features/new-habits-of-the-religious-life (accessed November 30, 2014).


[x] Welby, op.cit.