The British Social Attitudes Survey showing a decline in religious affiliation among the UK population drew some predictable headlines yesterday from the Guardian and others. To those of us who are active churchgoers, it was hardly news. With some remarkable exceptions, we have watched congregations becoming older and fewer in number. Inevitably, there will be more calls for the privileges of the Churches to be abolished, although I have a suspicion that there will be less enthusiasm for ending all the charitable work done by Christian organizations.
Time was, of course, when ‘the decline of religion’ would have meant something more specific: the decline of monks, nuns and monasteries. Today is our Foundation Day here at Howton Grove and I have been thinking about the way in which monasticism has lost some of its vigour in the UK during my lifetime. There has been a sharp numerical decline; there have been experiments in ‘new monasticism’ that have very little that is truly monastic about them except the name; and there has been an expansion of what I call ‘monasticism lite’ such as that propounded by Rob Drehrer which largely consists in rejecting the world rather than seeking to redeem it. Before anyone howls in protest, let me say that I think the essence of monasticism is simple: it is the wholehearted search for God in community, lived under a rule and an abbot, as Benedict says. For a few — a very few, and only after long testing — it is an eremitical vocation; but for most monks and nuns it is the daily living out of one’s vocation within a fallible, physical community that knocks the rust off, so to say. It implies total renunciation of private ownership, lifelong single chastity, an obedience not merely modelled on that of Christ but participating in his obedience to the Father. As such, it is not for everybody.*
I am sometimes asked why we do not have more vocations to the community here. People are sometime surprised when I answer that I think we have had a few but either we, or the one to whom the vocation was given, have not responded as generously as we might. It takes courage to join a small community; it also takes courage to welcome into community someone who is going to make enormous demands on the community’s time and resources and change the community by belonging to it. I hope we are flexible about secondary matters, but we are not prepared to soften or play down any of the demands of our monastic commitment. The vows we make are vows, not ‘maybes’ or ‘with reservations’.
That, I think, is the crux of the matter. Monasteries do not have to go on doing the same things in the same way to be true to their vocation, but they do have to go on being utterly faithful to their commitment to monastic living. I see our development of an online community as being a great grace, a way of allowing us to fulfil our duty of hospitality, of extending a welcome to many we could not otherwise meet. But that outreach is only possible insofar as we maintain the hidden side of our lives: the unseen hours of private prayer, study, work and renunciation that characterize a monastic vocation.
Today we give thanks for all the blessings we have received as a community: for those who have supported us, encouraged us, joined themselves to us as oblates or formed part of our online community. We also renew our commitment to service and to praying for those who have no time to pray or who do not know how great is their need of God. May the Lord God bless us all.
*I am not writing here of oblates but only of monks and nuns.