I remember a conversation with the Abbot of Triors in about 1997 when he insisted on the value of monastic life in transcending the lines of division in Christian communities, whether they be dioceses, parishes, monasteries, groups defined by ideology or whatever. Those words came back to me as I re-read an old article (2010) about the competing claims to the term Anglican. There are no no fewer than 66 comments, and I find that this is extremely significant in comparison with the way some have reacted to my recent articles on “Sarum” Catholicism from Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Reformed points of view.
The bête noire is the kind of western Catholicism I have unsuccessfully tried to define as Anglican Catholic, Old Catholic, Conciliar Catholic or whatever – (Roman) Catholicism without the Reformation, without the Counter Reformation and without the Papal claims of the nineteenth century or the centralised bureaucracy of now – quite a mouthful.The trouble with this is that such a definition would be entirely in negative terms, like continuing Anglicanism being defined as being against women priests, modern language liturgy and homosexuality. There has to be something positive.
What is it we really want? I have a feeling that there aren’t two persons in agreement, but one thing I do notice among some of my brethren clergy in the ACC’s English diocese is a commitment to monastic values and ways of life in spite of none of us being monks. The Oblature is an old institution, now allowing secular priests and lay people to participate in the spiritual life of a monastic community without living there or wearing the habit, and with the Rule being mitigated and adapted to the reality of life. I am not myself an Oblate, because I know of no existing Benedictine community who would accept a priest of the Anglican Catholic Church as an Oblate. To be an Oblate of the French abbeys, you need to be a Roman Catholic. That is the least of things!
There is a monastery in America, Bethlehem Priory, and the Congregation of the Good Samaritan. I have had no contact with either of those communities, and it seems to make little sense to ask for Oblature to a community in which one could not make one’s yearly retreat for reasons of distance. Monastic life is an essential dimension of a Church, for it rises above the traditional fracture lines between ritualism, the Reformation and the liberalism of the mainstream. I am always brought back to this point.
Whether one has a formal link to a monastery or not, the essential is a single-minded quest for God and the consecration of one’s life to contemplative prayer through the daily living of the way of life mapped out in the Rule of Saint Benedict (or another traditional rule). The main means are prayer, work and community life. We all have to work to earn a living, and that becomes the framework of our daily life. If we don’t live in a monastery, we don’t wear a habit – and we look like everyone else. Our religious life is hidden except to those who have discerned that we are “different”. That difference consists of our life of prayer and the fact we abstain from certain behaviours that many people of our time take for granted. We have our Office book or breviary, which we can read and pray anywhere. All you need is the book and a pair of reading glasses! Those of us who are priests celebrate Mass daily in the church we serve, in our chapels or using a makeshift arrangement at home or away from home.
I have come to the conclusion that using temporal references, whether to the seventeenth or fifteenth or third centuries is unhelpful. Names like Anglican do not unite, but divide according to the different meanings we all give to words. The only approach is an intemporal or timeless one, using guides the Church has given us over the centuries.
One criticism I find of “ritualist” liturgy, especially when using a traditional non-reformed Catholic rite, is that of imitating the baroque period, or the late medieval period for that matter. Such commenters home in to stereotyped characteristics of the religious aesthete, whether he is morally upright or depraved.
Something very healthy I find about the monastic inspiration is introducing simplicity into the liturgy without going to excesses of austerity. My own time in contact with monastic life and monastic-inspired parish clergy has given me a taste for simplicity since my days at Gricigliano – plain albs, a simple altar and an unselfconscious way of going about things. This is something I have found in England with my brother clergy in the ACC. They are a little more “Tridentine” than I am, but the spirit is simplicity without any trace of affectation. That is something that confers nobility and dignity on our Diocese, that first priority is given to prayer and the worship of God – nihil opera Dei praeponatur.
There will always be those who would like to be aligned with reforming movements like that of the sixteenth century or that of the 1960’s and 70’s in the wake of Vatican II, which had its effect on all western Churches and other communities. Recent experience in Roman Catholicism shows the shortcomings of both archaeologism and so-called “pastoral” innovation and inculturation. When considering the issue of Tradition, no one seems to have come up with a more accurate notion than “organic development” such as is set out in John Henry Newman’s work and more recent theologians including Pope Benedict XVI. The alternative is refusing the trajectory of history and the Church’s universality in history and time. This point of view is not without its problems or the risk of itself becoming an ideology.
Certainly, a monastic “philosophy” of life would be helpful in forming our own attitudes and aspirations to be free from the fetters of bigotry and prejudice, or from anything that makes the Church irrespirable for the alienated. The best any of us can do is just to get on with living and doing what we believe to be right and what would keep us in the universal communion of the Catholic Church. If this humble blog can help towards that goal and for spiritual / sacramental unity in something that is beyond and higher than any of us, then we are on the right track.