Cistercian Revival in the Church of England
Geoff van der Weegen OCistexplains the recent establishment of the Order of Anglican Cistercians
The unique Cistercian charism and the contemplative life that has been present in the Church since 1098 was diminished and ultimately lost at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries in this land. Dissolved by King Henry VIII, monastic life was born again in the Church of England in the nineteenth century focussing on concerns such as health care and education for the disadvantaged or mission work at home and abroad, alongside regular work of prayer. The renaissance of the religious orders within the Church of England was a revival of the pre-Reformation system. The resurgence of religious orders in the Anglican Communion was one of the tangible results of the Oxford Movement. In 1839, the 39-year-old Pusey wrote to John Keble that he and John Henry Newman had independently been led to recognize the desirability of some Sisters of Charity in the Anglican Church. Two years later he received the vows of Marian Rebecca Hughes, who in 1844 became the first Superior of the Convent of the Holy and Undivided Trinity at Oxford.
New religious communities
In 1906, the Sisters of the Community of the Holy Comforter, founded at Edmonton, London in 1891, decided to give up active work and adopt the Rule of St. Benedict In 1907, the first enclosed community, the Sisters of the Love of God at Fairacres, Oxford, was founded. The Fairacres nuns were the first truly contemplative religious community since the Reformation. The Benedictine life for men was first revived by Joseph Leycester Lyne, Fr Ignatius, in 1869. The oldest surviving community, now at Salisbury (from 1926 to 1987 at Nashdom; from 1987 to 2010 at Elmore near Newbury), sprang from the Benedictine community at Caldey.
Although the emergence of religious communities in the mid-Victorian period took the Church of England bishops somewhat by surprise, it now recognizes the importance of religious communities in the Church and values their life and witness. Now, in the twenty-first century, there are numerous communities across the worldwide Anglican Communion whose spiritual roots may be catholic,
Celtic, charismatic, or elsewhere. Fresh expressions of religious community life are continually being explored and new groups are formed even as some older ones complete their tasks. We regret that the religious life is rarely actively promoted, or even mentioned, when prospective candidates are seen by the Bishop’s Examining Chaplains or DDOs, or attend BAP conferences.
Anglican Cistercian Association
One of the founders, the Revd Geoff van der Weegen ocist, had an interest and a love for Cistercians and their contemplative life ever since he was a teenager. Not surprising perhaps, as he was born almost within the sound of the Trappist abbey bells of Koningshoeven (Tilburg), while the Cistercians abbeys of Zundert, Achel and Westmalle were but a bicycle ride away.
Back in 2006 he founded the Anglican Cistercian Association in order to seekfor abetter understanding of the Cistercian charism in his life and in the lives of those thirty+ people dispersed worldwide who joined him in this quest. Over the years it became clear to him that – since the demise of the Ewell Cistercian monastery under Fr Aelred Arnesen oc in 2004 – there was left a wide void in our Church that, he felt, needed restoration. With the help of a small group of Anglican priests and laity and with the support and encouragement of the RC Cistercian Trappist abbot and community at Mount Saint Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire, they approached the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Having confirmed the outline of their vision in writing to Archbishop Rowan, he passed this letter, together with their Rule, to the Bishop of Dudley, who chairs the Advisory Council on the Relations of Bishops and Religious Communities. This Council appointed Abbot Stuart Burns osB (formerly Abbot of Burford, and since the community relocated there, of Mucknell Abbey in Worcestershire) to be our Consultant, who greatly assisted us towards full official recognition as a new religious Order by the House of Bishops. Very detailed governing documents were prepared, containing charter, rule and customary which were subsequently adopted as the order’s constitution at a chapter meeting at Mount Saint Bernard RC Cistercian Abbey in November 2010. The Bishop of Horsham was invited to consider becoming the community’s Episcopal Visitor, and we were delighted when, after due consideration, the Rt Revd Mark Sowerby graciously accepted our invitation.
And so – after much ‘fasting and
prayer’ – a new religious Order was eventually founded in an attempt to (re)introduce silent contemplation and the skills of Lectio divina into the chaos that is the current Church of England, and, where this might be lacking in the parishes, to stress also the importance of praying the Daily Offices.
On 8 September 2011, on the Feast of the Birth of the Virgin Mary, three of our number made their temporary vows and were clothed in the Cistercian habit before Abbot Stuart Burns osB, in the presence of our Episcopal Visitor, Bishop Mark Sowerby, who also presided at the Profession Eucharist. The preacher was the Acting Chairman of the Archbishop’s Advisory Council, Bishop David Walker. We were extremely grateful to Abbot Stuart and the Anglican Benedictine Community at Mucknell Abbey for their magnanimous welcome and hospitality and for allowing our Profession Service to take place in the new and beautiful abbey Oratory. In addition, we have been very blessed with the reassuring assistance and loving friendships enjoyed with Abbot Joseph Delargy ocso and the Monks of Mount Saint Bernard RC Cistercian Abbey. One of their monks, Br Martin Horwath ocso, took an active part in the Profession Service. He represented his abbot and fellow monks, because Abbot Joseph himself was unable to be with us on that day, as he was attending the Order’s General Chapter in Assisi, Italy.
We made the traditional three Benedictine vows. The vow of Stability: in stabilitatas cordis (stability of the heart) in respect of our Order, our Brothers of the Order, and the Cistercian charism as expressed in the reformed tradition of Cîteaux. The vow of Conversatio (Conversion of Life): the daily step-by-step following in the monastically inspired life and the gradual transformation of ourselves into the likeness of Christ in the scola cbaritatis (school of love). And the vow of Obedience: to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, acknowledging Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour; the articles of faith contained in Scripture, Creeds and Tradition of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church; our Charter; the directives of a ‘Father in God’ when such will be elected or appointed. In addition, for ordained priests: to his Ordination Vows.
Each day we pray according to our own daily rhythm, and to the best of our ability, in subjection to the Lord, with those in our own close family and/or with those whose life we share, as well as with Cistercians
throughout the world. In common with our Cistercian brothers and sisters throughout the world we strive to mark the hours of the day in simple prayer, consecrating each part of the day by God’s grace to the Holy Spirit. Thus, we seek to be strengthened in our aim that nothing should take precedence over the love of God, or as St Benedict wrote in his Rule, ‘Prefer nothing to the love of Christ’. Our Opus Dei best reflects the Cistercian scheme, i.e. Vigils, Lauds, Vespers, Compline and at least one of the Little Offices (Tierce, Sext, None). Vigils is to be prayed as early in the day as possible. It is most appropriate (and traditional) to pray this Office as the rest of the world is still asleep, or at dawn.
The new Order currently consists of three professed priests, one lay novice and one postulant. In addition, there are also a number of Inquirers, ordained and lay people who have shown an interest to discern their vocation with our Order and the Cistercian life. Traditionally, all Cistercian Abbeys are dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. We have chosen as our patroness Our Lady of Hailes, and annually celebrate as our feast day the day of the dedication of her Gloucestershire Abbey (5 November 1251).The Order’s motto is ‘Vacate et videte’ – ‘Be still and know’ [Psalm 46.10], that reflects the fact that we are a contemplative Order, because in contemplative silence we want to listen what God wants to communicate to us; to realize his presence, and in silence to listen to his message in each present time.
A formal ecumenical link with the wider Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, whose Generality is based in Rome, has been forged. The Abbot General of the Order, a lovely Irish monk, Dom Eamon Fitzgerald ocso, wrote us a very supportive letter assuring the Anglican Cistercians of his prayers, when he learned of our Profession Service. This link is expressed in the special relationship we enjoy with the Roman Catholic Cistercian Abbey of Mount Saint Bernard in Leicestershire, and this link is a continuation of a former link that existed between the Roman Catholic Order of Cistercians (OCSO) and the former Anglican Cistercian Monastery at Ewell (1966–2004).
When this community began in 1966, it was clear that modern Anglican Cistercian life would need to be seen as Anglican rather than a copy of a Roman Catholic model. Rome accepted them as truly Cistercian on this basis and were voted by the Cistercian Order to be in spiritual communion with our Roman Catholic Cistercian sisters and brothers. The brotherly link of our two communities is very precious. What counts for everything for us is the real call to live the life of a Cistercian in the Anglican Church.
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