11 September 2014, The Tablet

Prayer for today

Renewing monasticism – 1

Religious communities have been quietly present at Lambeth Palace at other times in recent history. But no modern Archbishop of Canterbury has come up with an arrangement as radical as Justin Welby.

The archbishop has announced plans to welcome a group of young people to live and worship together at Lambeth Palace under a Benedictine-inspired rule of life. The community will be dedicated to St Anselm (1033-1109), a former Archbishop of Canterbury and Doctor of the Church.

From September next year, 16 people aged between 20 and 35 will embark on a one-year project living as the Community of St Anselm in Lambeth, dedicating themselves to prayer, study and service. They will live alongside and be supported by four members of the French Catholic community Chemin Neuf, which Archbishop Welby invited to Lambeth in 2013. The new community’s abbot will be Archbishop Welby himself.

The order of St Benedict has been an important influence on the archbishop; he has been an oblate of the Anglican Benedictines for several years and his spiritual director is a Catholic monk. A job advertisement has already gone out to recruit a prior, who will be paid an annual salary of £26,000.

St Anselm’s is a long way from conventional religious life and the latest example of what Anglicans call the “new monasticism”. These groups often comprise people in their twenties and thirties who desire a deeper spiritual life alongside working in the world, without committing themselves to lifelong vows, such as the traditional ones of stability and chastity. New models of living in religious communities have also been explored within the Catholic Church where it has often been given an ecumenical spin.

Applications to the community of St Anselm will be open to anyone, anywhere, from February 2015, including non-Anglicans and married couples. The 16 full-time members will be housed in shared rooms in Lambeth Palace and will be supported by 40 part-time companions. Archbishop Welby’s chaplain, Revd Dr Jo Wells, believes he had the idea of creating a religious community at Lambeth even before he was formally appointed. It is the latest in a series of moves that have underscored his own attitude towards prayer: on taking office in March 2013, he named renewal of prayer and religious life his top priority.

With the Community of St Anselm and Chemin Neuf, Archbishop Welby is putting prayer at the geographical and administrative heart of the Anglican Communion.

While much emphasis is being put on what the 16 community members will reap from the experience at Lambeth, Wells explained that the archbishop will no doubt derive strength from their presence, saying: “Archbishop Welby exists within a community that is deeply prayerful. It is fundamental to the way he works.”

Archbishop Welby told BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme that the members would bear fruit that will benefit the whole Church. “They will go back to their homes and when, in 20 or 30 years’ time, they’re doing something spectacular, in their community or their church, I hope when asked why are you doing it, they say, ‘This is what I learnt from the Community of St Anselm,’” said the archbishop.

While the prior will shape the final screening process, Lambeth Palace says it is not looking for “credentials on a CV”, but rather a “longing to go deep and the willingness to make sacrifice and undertake the discipline that monastic life will demand”.

There is no sense that Archbishop Welby’s initiative is a means by which to recruit young people to the religious life. Dr Wells hopes that the year will enable members to travel for the rest of their lives “in deep communion with God” – whether that is into industry, education or the City.

Lambeth Palace believes that a short-term commitment will appeal to young people, to which Wells added: “I think that makes a lot of sense. When people don’t understand the nature of vows – even marriage vows – in society at large, we lose confidence in taking them.”

Alan Morley-Fletcher, a member of the Chemin Neuf community at Lambeth Palace, says that one reason the movement exists is to work around a contemporary “nervousness” about lifelong commitment. He understands the new monasticism and new movements as a way to make the riches of monastic life available for everyone – married or single.

A similar awareness prompted Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight to begin its internship programme, run by Fr Luke Bell, who explained: “There’s a huge spiritual longing but something about coming to a monastery is daunting. There’s a need we’re responding to.”

So what kind of young people are interested in experiencing the religious life temporarily? I spoke to one of Quarr’s interns, Sam Davidson, 22, about what attracted him to the project shortly after he dropped out of university. “I felt like I didn’t have a grasp on something solid, something based in truth. I was worried I was being overwhelmed by the noise of existence,” he said. Davidson had converted to Catholicism as a teenager, but says he still felt drawn to Eastern mysticism. He was considering joining a Buddhist monastery when he heard about Quarr and realised that the active mysticism he sought already existed within his own Church.

Far from shrinking away from the discipline and order of religious life, Davidson found that it was the rhythm of prayer that he was searching for all along. Since leaving, he has relinquished Facebook, and rarely uses the internet. He thinks that one problem for his generation is a nebulous sense of where priorities should lie – when you worry about everything from Facebook status “likes” to re-tweets, the noise and anxiety can become overwhelming.

“We’re a generation who can’t commit to what to have in our sandwiches,” said Davidson, describing the experience of living at Quarr as profound. “Since the internship, if I go too long without spending some time without meditating or praying, I forget what I am, what I’m supposed to be doing. Things like this are a great idea – it’s only silence that allows you to get a grip on the noise.”

Lambeth’s search for 16 young people prepared to dedicate the vast majority of a year to prayer is a bold risk; but Alan Morley-Fletcher says not to underestimate today’s youth. “My experience is that they are really happy to be engaged in something that takes them beyond themselves, in terms of their relationship with God,” he said. “They are very prepared to take this sort of programme really seriously. There are things they find difficult – like having no phones or computers – but they manage it for a short time.”

Certainly Lambeth is not shying away from the challenge, as Wells said: “There’s a bit of me that thinks the higher you set the bar, the more radical it is, the harder it is, the more attractive it is to young people.” However, she has resisted calling the project a spiritual gap year, concerned about the connotations with lying on a beach: “This is not simply about pleasure. Actually it’s the opposite, it’s about sacrifice.”

If the benefits of the Community of St Anselm match those the interns have brought to the permanent monastic community at Quarr, they will be rich indeed. “It’s been wonderful for us and wonderful for them. For the community, it’s life, it’s making the abbey known, it’s intellectual stimulation and conversation,” says Fr Bell.

Sam Davidson believes that projects like Quarr’s and Lambeth Palace’s are the best way to reinvigorate religious life in Britain. So does Morley-Fletcher, who identifies the spiritual thirst felt by many young people as “a dissatisfaction that the world is not providing my deepest needs, my deepest requirement to find and search for God”.

Perhaps the most radical prediction is that of Wells, who hopes that the changes a year at Lambeth can have on its young community will go on to affect the whole world. “I think at base we all know something is deeply wrong in ourselves and with the world, and the solution to that has to be radical,” she said. “The solution to any kind of hope of making a difference has to begin with oneself. The change has to begin with me. That’s clearly what the year will demand. It’s not for the faint-hearted.”

What do you think?


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