The Minister General of the First Order Brothers of the Anglican Society of St Francis, Brother Christopher John SSF, reflects on religious communities after having been to the conference 'The renewal of prayer and religious community life'.
Already there have been conferences on two of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s three priorities: (1) Evangelism and witness, and (2) Reconciliation. In May, it was the turn for the conference exploring the third of these: The renewal of prayer and religious community life. The venue, St Paul’s University, Limuru, Kenya, was an inspired choice. The Anglican Church there has no tradition of religious communities, but it certainly has the experience of prayer, prayer at the centre of all its life, just as prayer is at the centre of religious community life.
The conference consisted of eleven papers presented by a variety of people, some were professional theologians, the others were members of religious orders. Each paper was responded to and then followed by a generous time for discussion. After further editing the papers and responses will be published as a book early next year.
I was struck by how God’s call to Christians to live in community seems to keep bubbling up like springs from an underground reservoir. My own community, the Society of St Francis, is just one expression of this call to live in community. Newer forms of religious life are another way, and there were representatives from the Chemin Neuf Community and the Community of St Anselm present at the conference as well.
But for me one of the moments of enlightenment came when various Kenyans asked why there weren’t religious communities for Anglicans in their own country. Indeed, why not? They probably won’t look like my own community. Any communities which arise should come out of Kenyan soil and, rooted in the gospel, reflect the religious practice of that country. Or whatever other country in which communities might spring up.
Orders such as my own have generally spread within the confines of dioceses and provinces with similar traditions of church worship and culture. That has been easy and natural. Yet it seems the Spirit is leading people to seek out forms of community life in many other places as well.
There are differences between various styles of communities. Some wear a distinct form of dress (a habit), others do not. Some are single-sex, others are mixed. Some are all single people, others include married couples. There are differences in styles of prayer, forms of commitment, and so on. But underneath these things there is a deeper calling. Christians desiring to form community as an expression of what it is to be in the body of Christ.
Community life is a way to share resources, to support one another, to work together. Those are good things, but there is a deeper reality. Community is the place to learn from the challenges of living together. To learn of God’s love. Because in the end it is only the love of God that sustains community life. And the ultimate witness of a religious community is not the preaching or pastoral care or other ministries carried out by its members—the ultimate witness is the love, God’s love, which sustains the common life of the most unlikely of individuals who, in response to God’s call come together to live a common life.