Saturday, October 27, 2012

II Why Religious Life Died

Anglican religious had their own set of problems. They were founded in the mid-nineteenth century as an offshoot of the Oxford Movement, to the consternation of much of the rest of the Church of England.
One of the main difficulties was that, like the movement from which it sprang, Anglican religious looked to, and took its stereotypes of what religious life ought to be like—the original fallacy—from a romantic fantasy of a Tridentine 'Catholic' church that never existed, just as extreme Anglo- and some Roman Catholics do today. Anglican communities were often the brainchild of, or subjected themselves to, the judgement of ordained men who were misogynist, and had absolutely no idea, much less experience, of religious life or, for that matter, knowledge of human psychology. Thus the Anglican women's communities suffered from a double dose of the authenticity problem: they not only had to endure the often sadistic ideas of misogynistic men about how women religious should live, they also lived with one eye on Roman Catholic religious. Their perpetual question was, and in some cases still is, 'Are we real religious?' And of course as long as you are asking this question, you cannot be real, that is, authentic. You re-present instead of manifesting. In North America, a third layer was added: religious not only had one eye on what the Roman Catholics were doing, they had the other eye on what the English communities were doing.
Another problem was that there were inherent conflicts between the Anglican and the Tridentine points of view, which were inserted into the Anglican Communion not only by Oxford Movement clegy, but also by people such as Evelyn Underhill, who was a wannabe Roman Catholic, and whose cold, icy ideas of life in God—and, it is said, her retreat house—had been cycled through Baron von Hugel. The more extravagant solipsistic devotions such as those centring on reparation, and the destruction of humanity for a kind of angelism, didn't sit well with Anglican middle-of-the-road common sense, not to mention its stiff upper (class) lip. Anglican theology itself was halted between two opinions, or two poles; among its compromises was a liturgy that contradicted itself theologically every other paragraph, a situation that still obtains today.
No one, it seems, had the sense to get a like-minded group of people together to live the life and allow it to unfold as it would in the light of the Spirit, without the superficial competitiveness, vanity, class, manners, dressing-up, exhibitionism and stereotyping borrowed from other religious houses, legend, and myth. Nuns in priories such as Ascot wore habits with huge sleeves and trains. It is said that when Queen Victoria visited, as she was walking down the cloister with the Prioress, a sister approached who curtsied before she passed by. The Queen remonstrated to the Prioress that she, Victoria, had specifically requested that no one take notice of her royal presence by any particular gesture. The Prioress replied, 'It was not you to whom she was curtseying, your majesty.'
For all of these problems, several communities became world-wide presences, and the mere existence of religious in the Anglican Communion presented a challenge to what in the twentieth century was an often wishy-washy, bland, formulaic, success-oriented religion. Some of the work of these religious was world-changing, such as that of the Mirfield fathers in South Africa, which influenced Desmond Tutu. There were many similar, if not as widely celebrated, but equally important works that flourished and changed lives under the auspices of Anglican religious.
Winfred Douglas and the Community of St Mary did everyone an incalculable service when, in 1932, they published the Latin Divine Office in English, and edited Gregorian chant to fit. This updating of the liturgy came long before Vatican II and is still, in my view, the best and most sing-able vernacular version of the monastic Office, standing out from a quagmire of banalities. The 1979 American Book of Common Prayer's Psalter and Offices are probably the best contemporary vernacular English versions, though not without their own problems.


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