by the Rt Revd Dr David Walker, Bishop of Manchester
Given the Latin title, Via Media, of this site, it seems appropriate to be typing my latest contribution from Rome. I’ve just started on my way back from a conference that has spent a lot of its time wrestling with tough questions about Christians and sex. More specifically, I’ve been the Anglican speaker at an international symposium on what we are learning to call new monasticism.
Across much of the world, and in many denominations, we are beginning to see signs of fresh interest in the living of life as part of a community whose members are joined by formal promises and mechanisms of mutual accountability. Archbishop Justin has himself gone on record as saying that a recovery of these forms of life is a necessary condition for the wider revival of the church. These new communities are breaking fresh ground in many ways: they are often ecumenical, do not all live together, and aren’t single gender. Within the communities that lie within the ambit of the Roman Catholic tradition however, one of the biggest victories has been to achieve the recognition of Religious Orders that have relaxed the traditional vow of celibacy sufficiently to allow those who are married to join.
The question as to whether there is a place in the Religious Life for those who are committed to the vows of marriage is not a new one. St Francis of Assisi faced it eight centuries ago and came up with the notion of a Third Order, which existed alongside and in addition to the separate orders he had founded for celibate men and women. It was open to people in all walks of life and responsibilities who wished to follow Jesus after his example, in an ordered and accountable life. It’s probably fair to say that the wider church, both in Francis’s day and for centuries after, has been happy to see such efforts confined to the fringes.
Even where theology fails to support it, there is a recurrent tendency among Christians in many cultures to see celibacy both as a higher calling and as a legitimate requirement to be imposed on an individual prior to them being allowed to fulfil their vocation. One of the arguments that the emerging new Catholic communities have had to combat is the fear that having women, and married people of both sexes, holding positions of authority within them, would undermine the position of the celibate male priesthood, first in the community itself, then in the wider church. Two days of hearing stories from a variety of deeply holy men and women, many of them relatively young, has brought home to me what a huge step they have taken in gaining support for their wider view of monasticism.
The fruits of their efforts are clear to see. Mission work is greatly enriched by its being undertaken by groups mixed in sex and status. Pastoral work benefits from the wider perspectives available. Couples already vowed to each other are able to make a joint commitment that both will then strive to help the other achieve. Children are brought up in ways that offer a prophetic example to the wider world. A witness is given that the path of lifelong sanctification is not just for that special few who do not have other ties to bind them, but is open to all Christ’s brothers and sisters.
My time among the representatives of these emerging communities in Rome has magnified the respect I already had for what they are doing, often in the most difficult contexts of modern urban life. Yet it has also made me more open to the suspicion that there may be aspects of my own Anglican tradition and my personal faith that remain culturally conditioned to similar views about sex and celibacy, even where both our theology and the evidence of the lives God blesses in his service, that is in front of our very eyes, would deny it.