The Decline of Religion

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.


12 thoughts on “The Decline of Religion”

  1. I take great comfort from knowing that the nuns of Holy Trinity in Hereford are praying for us all. I have taken to reading their daily prayer posted on face book. It makes me find the priorities in life. Our soon to be retired incumbent has told me not to worry how the church will be in the future,God has a plan. Love and prayer is the answer (though my Christian Faith is sorely tested at times) The churches use of social media is to be applauded. Jesus would have used it to get his message over. Don’t give up ,keep your faith, that drip, drip, of love will eventually fill the void.

  2. We all owe a debt of gratitude to you and your monastery for all the prayers you have offered on our behalf.Thank you
    May Almighty God keep you well and shower you with blessings.

  3. I admire greatly your dedication and discipline to vocation, the daily renewal of faith in our Lord and the bringing of His grace and love to us miserable sinners. We can dip into your monastic life and carry on with our diversions without having to abandon those luxuries you and your Sisters forego. We are blessed and humbled by your lives, witness and love for the Lord and humanity. Thank you. God bless and care for you all. May His grace, peace and love be with you now and forever.

  4. Giving thanks for this Community and especially for the “hidden sides” of your vocations that sustain the prayer. May we encourage each other in all of our vocations. Amen.

  5. Thank you for all your prayers, daily “progress report” and for keeping me up to date with ongoing issues, especially today’s out take. Prayers also please for those making important decisions which may affect the lives of communities here and overseas, may they be blessed with the courage and clear thinking necessary for all their challenging work.

  6. A profound gratitude for your prayers and all you do and have done for so many in your online outreach. Your small community is and has been a blessing to many of us who seek God and were at sea, so to speak, in out search. May the Lord God bless you in perseverance and in all good things. Thank you.

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