Debate on Religious Communities
For the first time since the Reformation, the Church of England is to introduce a Canon which formalises the place of religious communities in the life and mission of the church.Over the past 18 months, Bishop Tim has chaired a working group of the Advisory Council on the Relations of Bishops and Religious Communities which made recommendations about the changes needed.In these notes for a speech on the issue, he explains why religious communities are so important to the church’s life and how a new missional community can fulfil a vital role across the Diocese of Winchester:
I was involved in leading the process of CMS being acknowledged, in 2008, as an ecclesial community of the Church of England. This development was part of the new wave of intentional communities that have emerged in recent decades right across the denominations.
But there is also a deeper story here that is core to the Church of England’s own narrative. The dissolution of the monasteries and the chantry houses during Tudor times removed a whole wing of the church and its mission. It also removed the living reminder that it was these intentional communities (first Celtic and then Benedictine) who brought the gospel to these islands and built up a Christian presence and way of life. The establishing of the parish system came later and is simply another way of doing local mission.
The substantial recovery of this essential dimension of the church – which some call the sodality dimension – took place following the Evangelical and Catholic Revivals of the 18th & 19th Centuries. Both these movements generated a mission spirituality and new communities, bringing back this missing dimension of church life.
So the recovery of sodality-church actually began with the mission societies, who developed an associational life based on a mission intention. The societies were characterised by the hallmarks of religious communities: mutual support, a rule of life, regular prayer, a prophetic reliance on God, and a deep dedication to a vocation and a pioneering charism. It is this combination which brings a vitality to the wider church and, in a mixed economy, brings refreshment to the local church.
For example, it is extraordinary that during its first 200 years CMS enabled over 10,000 people to engage with intentional mission across the world, planting or supporting up to two-thirds of the Anglican Communion, including pioneer work in UK. It did this as a society of the church committed to the greater mission of God.
Reflecting on this journey, Max Warren recognised that CMS was like the earlier Franciscan Third Orders, who were widely engaged with their society and culture. Some might claim the impact of these Third Orders was such that, for example, the Italian Wars (16th Century) ended partly because they made it so difficult to recruit mercenaries.
It is the affirmation of this sodality dimension of the church, in its ordained and lay ministry and in its intentional mission, that I support. So I am fully in favour of introducing a new Canon for Religious Communities – for both the traditional and new communities.I believe it would highlight a whole way of being church, support exemplary discipleship and contribute to the vitality of the Church’s mission.
For the communities themselves, it would enable them to work with accountability but freedom, and to express their prophetic calling within structures of support. For the wider church, we would be recognising a whole dimension of who we are, and of our calling to share God’s life together and with others in new and refreshing ways. In fact, in Winchester Diocese we’ve been developing such a community named after Bishop Birinus who in the 7th century led a second wave of Benedictine mission launched from Southampton to evangelise Wessex.
The Community of St Birinus is already drawing together pioneers and other ministers involved in mission which transcends parish structures.It is working towards becoming an Acknowledged Community, exploring a missional spirituality and rule of life, and aiming to provide a network of support and a platform for the work of pioneers, including chaplains, church planters, evangelists, family/youth workers and social entrepreneurs.