Archbishop hails revival of religious communities as young people respond to 'commitment-phobic' society

Olivia Rudgard
The Rt Rev David Walker, Bishop of Manchester, is part of the trend - PA

In the popular imagination, monks and nuns probably belong in the medieval period. 

But the Archbishop of Canterbury says religious communities are enjoying an unexpected revival. 

Justin Welby said that despite society's "commitment-phobia", they have been resurrected, with young Christians increasingly joining for a year or juggling a religious order with a full-time job.

Religious communities offer an "ancient and powerful answer" to loneliness and isolation, he argued. 

"With endless options and opportunities for pleasure, distraction, and personal advancement, fewer and fewer of us are willing to commit ourselves to something.

"Coupled with that, we have seen, in the West, more generally a trend towards people being more isolated, and communities more atomised," he wrote in the Church Times

The Archbishop launched a push to revive the communities in the Church of England in 2013.

In February its General Synod heard that they were being revived, with new-style orders removing many of the strictest rules such as the need to stay long-term and a commitment to celibacy.

The Archbishop also contrasted the movement with the grand ambition of social media giants to link up millions of people all over the world. 

"Last year, the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, announced the social-media company’s vision for “building global community” — no mean feat, with two billion users worldwide. 

"Religious communities come at things from the exact opposite direction: small numbers of people living together and learning to accept each other, in real life, without the possibility of “blocking” those whom they do not like, or whose ideas they find challenging. Their impact can be enormous," he said. 

There's a real hunger for proper community, in a society that is really fractured

Revd. Kate Seagrave

Some "dispersed" groups, such as the Anglican Cistercians, also define themselves by initiatives such as allowing communities to say their daily prayers over Skype. 

Figures show that traditional communities have declined. In 2017 there were 38 formal recognised communities in the Church of England with at total of 340 members, about one in five of whom are ordained, down from 641 in 2002. 

However, more than 5,000 people are thought to be members of "acknowledged communities", which do not require members to take a vow of celibacy and allow them to work and live outside of conventional arrangements such as monasteries and nunneries. 

A paper published by the Bishop of Manchester, David Walker, revealed that much of the growth has been in these informal communities.

They have "come to birth and grown very significantly in recent years," it said. Around 15 groups are currently acknowledged and several others have expressed interest in achieving this status.  

Speaking at the General Synod meeting in February, the bishop, who is chair of the advisory council for relations between bishops and religious communities, said: "New communities are springing up as men and women come together to address, for God's sake, the prevailing social ills of our time."

New communities have particularly targeted young people between 20 and 35, including the Archbishop's Community of St Anselm, launched in 2015, and the Community of St Frideswide, in Oxford, which launched on Sunday.

The Revd. Kate Seagrave, mission priest to the community, said she was "astonished" by the level of interest from young people in the idea.

"There's a real hunger for proper community, in a society that is really fractured. People often feel disconnected from each other," she told the Daily Telegraph.

"There's a deep, deep hunger for spiritual things."

Members can also become affiliated with an order, while continuing to live in general society. The most recent figures show that 2,310 people have done this. 

The Bishop of Manchester said he was part of the trend after he discovered a Franciscan order, Third Order of the Society of St Francis, which allows people who are married to join.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is also a Benedictine Oblate, an associate of the Benedictine community of monks.