Monasticism in Anglicanism: A Very Brief History
The Anglican church has had a rich history of monks and monastic orders of both men and women from its earliest days. By the 7th century, religious orders were well developed and organized, having performed missionary work for centuries. However, Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in 1536 and, for about 300 years, the rich colorful hues which monasticism had given to the Anglican church for centuries unceremoniously faded yet remained indelible. About the time of the Oxford Movement, in the mid 1800s, there seems to have been a renewed interest and a return of religious orders that continues through present day. One example of this is Oxford professor and Tractarian, Edward Bouverie Pusey, who, in 1845, helped to found the first Anglican convent in London since the 1500’s. Monasticism had returned to the Anglican Church. But what does that look like? What should it look like today?
In Saint Francis’ day, he too saw a need for a new kind of monasticism; one that is not cloistered off away from the world, but in the very thick of it, in the nitty-gritty-ness of everyday life. In the city, in the town, and wherever he went, Francis encountered lepers, the medieval poor, the discarded sick, ex-prisoners, the mediocre student, the overwhelmed businessman, the societal outcast, the influential, even Pope Innocent III in Rome, and the Sultan nephew of Islamic general, Saladin. He loved them all. Many of these became brothers of the order. If he saw someone with tattered clothing worse than his own, Francis would insist they trade clothes with him. Francis would walk away more tattered than what he had been to begin with. Quite a picture. This kind of monasticism found form in the life of Francis as an incarnational life of prayer that gives itself away in solidarity with others, accepting them where they are. In this unknowable, ever-changing, hard, nitty-gritty world a new kind of monasticism calls us to enter in with people where they are, and to reflect Christ there as we work, pray, and try to live out the Sermon on the Mount.
A New Type of Monasticism
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his brother Karl-Friedrich in early 1935, describing this new kind of monasticism.
...the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ. I think it is time to gather people together to do this…
Bonhoeffer was voicing a longing that resonates to this day. At The Mission School of Ministry in Chattanooga we prepare ordinands and other church leaders, by providing spiritual formation which is founded on the ideas of our rich monastic heritage as Anglicans. We agree with Bonhoeffer, It’s time to gather people together to do this. For The Mission, and many Anglicans, the New Monasticism has more to do with reconnecting with our monastic heritage than Bonhoeffer suggested, but living life as a disciple in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount is foundational in this pursuit.
Monastic Renewal in the Anglican Church
Mary I.M. Bell, in her work Before and After the Oxford Movement for The Catholic Literature Association in 1933, quotes Anglican Archdeacon Farrar from 1889 saying:
The work of monasteries and convents has now become an established part of the life of the Church of England.
It seems religious orders quickly made a notable comeback within the life of the Anglican Church and have remained strong up to this day with both cloistered and non-cloistered communities.
Today, The Anglican Church of North America has two non-cloistered communities which I am aware of who live into monastic charism in the 21st century: The Anglican Communion of Benedictines is an international Benedictine Prayer Society with chapter houses in the USA and Africa. They are in concordat with The Company of Jesus (ACNA), which is a blended Benedictine, Franciscan, Celtic order with chapters both in the U.S. and abroad. I would encourage you to get to know both!
We are not, in many ways, that far removed from Francis, Pusey, or Bonhoeffer. The 21st century calls us into a new kind of monasticism to keep our hearts and minds on Christ while living into the ancient rhythm and discipleship of incarnational prayer and witness, and also living life in solidarity with all whom we share this nitty-gritty world.