By Steven R. Ford

Sometimes simple ideas, when put into practice, have the power to change the world, or at least the Church. Such ideas, however, can quickly transform themselves and take on lives of their own, and the results can be quite unintended. It’s only when circumstances force a return to the original vision that the simple ideas regain their power. Such is the story of the Society of the Sacred Mission, a religious order now active in three Anglican provinces. It was my privilege to visit its priory in Maseru, Lesotho, last November.

The seeds of the idea of a monastic order with a sacred mission were planted in the soul of Fr. Herbert Kelly in the 1880s. Kelly, an English mission priest serving in Korea, had a conversation with the Bishop of Korea, who mentioned the need for “ordinary and unpretentious” priests to bolster the Church in Southeast Asia. In the next decade those seeds took root, and Kelly developed the idea of a new order of “ascetic and selfless” monks, grounded in daily Mass and in the common praying of the Offices, whose work would be to serve as (and train) priests for foreign missions.

The Society of the Sacred Mission was officially born in 1893, when Kelly and two other priests made their simple vows as novices. As they matured in the religious life, others began to join them. No particular education or obvious spiritual gifts were required of new novices; they were to be formed and trained in community, and the monastery would be the base for their eventual mission work. “No system can be sound which depends for success upon rare and special gifts, rather than upon the steady use of those more limited and commonplace powers which God ordinarily wills to bestow,” Kelly wrote in 1894.

In 1902, Kelly and other solemnly professed monks began active mission work in Southern Africa, quickly establishing priories in both Cape Town and Lesotho. The monastic formation and training of “common” men for the missionary priesthood continues in these places, and brothers with no priestly vocation are welcomed and empowered for essential lay ministries.

The next year, Kelly and some of his brothers moved on to England, where the society and its founding idea would be transformed beyond recognition. They purchased Kelham Hall, a huge Victorian Gothic structure near Durham, which housed a college with accommodation for 100 students. They eventually added a separate monastery and huge, ostentatious chapel. The college was transformed into a seminary, and the society essentially got into the business of training priests to serve in England.

The monks’ ethos changed as well. Kelham “in its heyday of the late 1930s had certain built-in authoritarian terrors comprising histrionic monologues, directives on notice boards, and a general atmosphere under one roof and round one holy table of a great gulf fixed between them and us,” one graduate wrote. “[T]he Society was too concerned with its own satisfactoriness and permanence to think that communication with people not actually enclosed behind its hedges needed much attention. Nor was there any awareness that … we needed anything of love, sympathy, or care from them.”

Because of a rapid decline in applicants, the seminary closed in 1973 and the society sold Kelham Hall. Priests and brothers moved to smaller priories, and gradually rediscovered the simple idea behind their foundation.

Priests of the Society first arrived in Australia in 1912, establishing a permanent community. By 1947, the Australian monks emulated their English brethren, establishing St. Michael’s House, a theological college near Adelaide. This work ended abruptly in 1983, when both college and monastery were destroyed by a bush fire. Monks relocated to new priories in Western Australia and in Victoria, and reclaimed the original charism of theological education both in and from community.

The priory in Maseru, Lesotho

Today, the society consists of three autonomous provinces: Australian, European, and Southern African. The first two decided a few years back to open their novitiates to women. The first Australian nun of the society recently made solemn vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and the first English sister made vows that are binding for five years.

The priory in which I spent time in Lesotho is unique in that it never entangled itself with institutional work or obligations. It has thereby remained relatively true to Fr. Kelly’s original idea of missionary formation and activity grounded in a monastery. And it works. Ministries both inside and outside the priory are remarkable.

Brothers Max and Masuoe are in charge of in-house formation and education. Fathers Mosia, Moila, and Tanki serve congregations too poor to afford a priest. Fr. Mosia also serves as prior, ensuring that the household runs smoothly. Fr. Michael, who lost both of his hands while opening a letter bomb in the final days of apartheid, is frequently traveling the world to engage in his ministry of healing of memories, particularly among survivors of torture. He is sometimes accompanied by Br. Morketsi, a skilled counselor. Br. Mosuoe’s primary outreach is at an AIDS clinic in Maseru. Brs. Tefo and Mabokaone are day students at nearby schools.

As a priory that has maintained its original charism for 114 years, the Maseru monastery has become the model for post-institutional Sacred Mission priories throughout the world. Many society monks (and now a nun and a sister) wear the Lesotho Cross, designed and made locally.

An Anglican religious order has returned to fulfill the original idea of its founder after a long period of institutional exile. This is called renewal, and we in the Church at large would do well to encourage it. Perhaps the time has come for all of us to end our long exile in the land of money and property and power, since we are losing those things anyway. Maybe it’s time to rediscover and live by the original idea of our founder, Jesus the Lord: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20a). It is certainly worth praying about.

The Rev. Steven R. Ford assists at St. Mark’s/San Marcos, Mesa, Arizona.