Icon (Close Menu)

What is Anglican monasticism?

Cross-posted from The Conciliar Anglican.

Matt writes:

I’ve heard you mention monasticism on your blog several times, and I was wondering if you knew of any traditionalist/conservative Anglican monasteries either in the US or in the Church of England? I’m really interested in Anglican monasticism and I’m trying to learn all about it that I can.

Technically, I could answer this question by just giving an internet link (such as this one, to the official Anglican Religious Communities website) or two (such as this one, to the forthcoming Anglican Religious Life directory) or even three (and finally this one, which links to the traditionalist religious communities affiliated with Forward in Faith). However, I am guessing that this question might also benefit from a slight historical overview, complete with some recommended reading.

A Very Brief History of Anglican Religious Communities

The history of Anglican monasticism is both long and rich. In some ways, it is also rather complex — not because of anything unique to monasticism, but because of the historical complexities of the medieval west. Most simply stated, by the fifteenth century there were a large number of unofficial monastic movements. The most famous of these is the Devotio Moderna (literally “the Modern Devotion,” but also translatable as “the Modern-Day Devout”). The Devotio Moderna was primarily expressed in the Brethren of the Common Life. This group produced Thomas à Kempis, whose great work The Imitation of Christ was the most popular devotional in Europe for two hundred years, from the early-fifteenth through the early-seventeenth centuries. The Brethren also educated Erasmus of Rotterdam, the greatest humanist of the sixteenth century; Erasmus was a reformer who, despite his sympathies with Luther, remained within the Roman Catholic Church. He taught in England when Henry VIII was a young king, and Erasmus’s New Testament Paraphrases were among the official texts of the English reformations (right alongside the Book of Common Prayer, the English translation of the Bible, and the Homilies). The Devotio Moderna is thus important not just as a reform movement which inspired other reform movements, but as a reform movement which directly influenced Anglicanism.

For reasons that I know little about, the Roman Catholic Church formally banned the Brethren of the Common Life at the Council of Trent. They lived on, however, in Lutheran lands until the nineteenth century. Martin Luther had a soft spot for them — no doubt because so much of their work consisted in educating the young, which Luther was a strong proponent of. Contrary to what is popularly assumed, the Lutherans did not formally ban monasticism; several Benedictine houses joined the Lutheran movement in the sixteenth century and still today there are Lutheran monasteries and convents. Although the Lutheran confessions were sharply critical of sixteenth-century monastic practice, they never formally rejected monasticism. I do not write this to argue that Lutheranism was somehow “more Catholic” than later Protestant groups. Rather, I write this as a matter of fact: the Brethren of the Common Life were, together with the Lutheran Benedictines, part of the Lutheran tradition from pretty much the beginning.

All of this is relevant to Anglicanism for two reasons. First, no Anglican confessional document — whether it was written under Henry VIII, Edward VI, or Elizabeth I — ever formally rejected monasticism. Although the monasteries were dissolved under Henry VIII (and their land oftentimes seized, even if only to be sold off to the highest bidder), the fact remains that Henry’s approach to monasticism in the 1530s was deeply influenced by early Lutheranism — and, as I just noted, the Lutherans had monks and nuns. Henry’s attack on monasticism was largely due to the fact that monasticism was deeply tied to the papacy. During the medieval period, the pope became the protecter of monastic orders across western Europe. Monks thus answered directly to the pope and not to the local bishop (which occasionally became a point of tension between the pope and the bishops). Because the king desired to bring the church into line with English law — according to the papacy, clerics and religious could only be tried in the Church’s courts, even for civil offenses — he dissolved the monasteries. This might seem extreme and in some cases it no doubt was. Sadly, one extreme (in this case, papal plenitude of power) often produces another extreme (in this case, royal plenitude of power). Henry’s fundamental quarrel was with the papacy and papal power, and he did whatever he felt he needed to do in order to maintain his own supremacy.

From this comes the second key point: under Charles I, a quasi-monastic community was created at Little Gidding. I write “quasi-monastic” because it was not a formal religious order, but consisted of the Ferrar family, who applied the Book of Common Prayer to the traditional monastic observances of mattins and vespers. (This point is especially interesting as the Anglican services of mattins and vespers were originally developed out of the monastic hours.) Nonetheless, Little Gidding was indeed a religious community. Like the Brethren of the Common Life, they spent time educating children, in additional to more traditional forms of monastic expression and devotion. Puritans hated Little Gidding and derisively called it “the Arminian nunnery” (despite the fact that it had nothing at all to do with Arminianism). It was sacked during the civil wars and dissolved by the late 1650s, when Oliver Cromwell was in charge. This put a serious damper on Anglican religious communities of any sort, but the eighteenth century saw a religious community form around William Law (sadly no one has ever researched this topic!). Although the earliest Methodists were not a monastic community, the Methodists were quite intent on maintaining what they called both a “method” and a “rule” of life. As with earlier, medieval expressions of intense lay devotion, the early Methodists were a voluntary community, even if their community was not something formal like a monastic house. (The later history of Methodism is clearly not the same as modern day Methodism, yet the two are not wholly divorced either.)

The nineteenth century saw the great revival of monasticism within Anglicanism through the development of formal religious orders. This growth continued both in England and elsewhere in the world until the mid-late twentieth century, which saw great cultural upheavals such as the sexual revolution. Among the more prolific orders which developed during this century were the Society of St. John the Evangelist, the Community of the Resurrection, and the Society of the Sacred Mission. The Society of St. John the Evangelist gave us Fr. Richard Benson of Cowley, one of the great spiritual directors of the Anglican tradition; the Community of the Resurrection gave us both Charles Gore, one of the great theologian bishops of the early twentieth century, and Trevor Huddleston, who worked tirelessly for the ending of apartheid in South Africa (which he lived to see, happily); the Society of the Sacred Mission gave us Fr. Gabriel Hebert, one of our great liturgical scholars of the twentieth century and a leading light of the Parish Communion movement (if you like receiving the Eucharist every Sunday, thank Fr. Hebert, SSM, among others). Today, Anglican religious orders exist all over the world (see the above link on Anglican Religious Communities for loads of websites).

Lastly, if you are interested in a really marvelous portrayal of Anglican monasticism, I cannot highly enough recommend the BBC series Call the Midwife. It is about a fictional (but historically based) convent called Nonnatus House, which contains midwives and sisters who work during the late 1950s in the east end of London, and thus among the poorest of the poor. My wife and I get a bit misty-eyed during practically every episode. It is oftentimes quite beautiful in its portrayals of childbirth and parenthood, and just as moving in its portrayals of sorrow, loss, and death. The show does not flinch from showing the religious basis for much of their work, but it also avoids being preachy. Again, I highly recommend it.

Recommended Reading:

For the Devotio Moderna, see John van Engen’s two volumes Devotio Moderna: Basic Writings (Paulist Press, 1988) and Sisters and Brothers of the Common Life: The Devotio Moderna and the World of the Later Middle Ages (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008). Erasmus’s influence on England (albeit without reference to the Devotio Moderna) is discussed in Gregory D. Dodds, Exploiting Erasmus: The Erasmian Legacy and Religious Change in Early Modern England (University of Toronto Press, 2009).

The classic history of the revival of Anglican monasticism is A.M. Allchin, The Silent Rebellion: Anglican Religious Communities 1845-1900 (SCM Press, 1958). A.L. Maycock also wrote several volumes on Little Gidding in the early twentieth century. The writings of both Allchin and Maycock are out of print, although used copies may be found. There is some recent research on Ferrar that I have not yet read: Joyce Ransome, The Web of Friendship: Nicholas Ferrar and Little Gidding (James Clarke & Co., 2011), and Kate E. Riley’s doctoral dissertation (available in full at the following link), The Good Old Way Revisited: The Ferrar Family of Little Gidding 1625-1637.

The most famous and influential Anglican monk in the twentieth century is no doubt Dom Gregory Dix, OSB; a very good sampling of his writings may be found in Simon Jones (ed.), The Sacramental life: Gregory Dix and His Writings (Canterbury Press, 2007). Canterbury Press has published several histories of various Anglican monastic orders, including Petà Dunstan, The Labour of Obedience: The Benecitines of Peshore, Nashdom and Elmore: A History (Canterbury Press, 2009). A large amount of Anglican monastic writing is included in Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, and Rowan Williams (eds.), Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Last but far from least, the largest Anglican monastic order today is the Melanesian Brotherhood. The story of its seven martyrs is retold wonderfully in Richard Anthony Carter, In Search of the Lost: The death and life of seven peacemakers of the Melanesian Brotherhood (Canterbury Press, 2006). I recommend this book highly and you may read my review of it here. (Fwiw, I originally posted this review many years ago on Amazon.com and Br. Carter sent me a message saying that he felt it communicated the substance of the book more than any other review that he had read!)


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


Get Covenant every weekday:


Most Recent

Wycliffe College and the Character of Anglicanism

Wycliffe College came into being in the midst of a bitter dispute over what it meant to be...

The Sabbath and the Dignity of the Weak

If you cannot keep the Sabbath, you cannot save a life. This is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s bold implication...

Singleness: Eschatological and Evangelical

The Meaning of Singleness: Retrieving an Eschatological Vision for the Contemporary Church By Danielle Treweek IVP Academic, 336 pages, $35 This important...

Anglican Mysteries

If you’re on the hunt for some summer reading, my reading in the past ten years commends the...