In orders

By Marshall Scott

Two recent coincidences illustrated a concern that I’ve had for some time. It is a concern about how we might support one of the blessings in the spiritual life of the Episcopal Church.

The Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains (AEHC) coordinates its annual meeting each year with the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC). Among the participants this year, new to both meetings, was an Episcopal sister in her habit. I asked about her habit, and learned she was a sister in a new Episcopal community, one which would shortly be applying for recognition by the House of Bishops. She had come to the APC conference because she was newly Board Certified as a Chaplain. We were delighted that she could join with us in the Episcopal activities there.

When I arrived home, I found the May issue of Episcopal Life. In it was the article, “Ancient monk, modern call” by Ron Beathard. (I’m haven’t found it on line, yet.) Ron writes of an old friend who discovered for himself the power and the joy of a life lived following the Rule of St. Benedict. To express that for himself, this friend became an Oblate, a lay member, of St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana. St. Meinrad is one of the more notable Benedictine foundations of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States.

Now, I think these are good things for these individuals. I feel sure each will find life blessed and enriched in the rules of life to which they are committed. I feel sure the life of the Episcopal Church will be blessed and enriched by a new community.

At the same time, I find myself thinking of a corollary to these decisions with some regret. Part of the richness that I cherish in the Episcopal Church is the variety of existing religious orders and communities that are already a part of our life. The monastic tradition is alive and well in our midst. The web site of the Episcopal Church has links to connect to twenty-three religious orders and twelve communities through (respectively) the Conference of Anglican Religious Orders in the Americas (CAROA) ] and the National Association of Episcopal Christian Communities (NAECC). While many base their lives in the Rule of Saint Benedict, not all do; and each is a unique expression of the life of the Spirit in the Church, with a special charism, a spiritual gift to offer.

Within the Episcopal Church, the terms “Religious Order” and “Christian Community” are technical categories, defined in Canons. The essential distinction between a Religious Order and a Christian Community is that members of an Order live a celibate life in community, while members of a Community do not. Otherwise, they have much in common: lives of obedience to a common Rule, accepted in vows made “for life or a term of years.” In addition to professed members, Orders and Communities may have other categories of membership, usually involving a Rule of Life less rigorous than the Rule of the Order or Community, accepted but not vowed by participants and renewed annually. Such categories may be titled Associates, Companions, or Oblates. Their participants make important contributions to the life of the Order or Community, not least with their prayer and financial support. By the same token, the Order or Community offers to each participant spiritual companionship and direction, and opportunities to participate in the shared life and discipline of the professed Brothers and Sisters.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that this is a very important aspect of life in my own household. I have been an Associate of the Order of the Holy Cross , a Benedictine order for men in the Episcopal Church, going on thirty years. My wife is a professed Sister of the Worker Sisters of the Holy Spirit. Each of us has found a spiritual community within the life of the Church, and a Rule with which to order our spiritual lives, to find spiritual formation and, as St. Benedict wrote, “a school for prayer.”

And so, perhaps it’s not surprising that I might feel some regret that more people don’t discover the opportunities for a Rule of Life within the existing Orders and Communities of the Episcopal Church. For the individuals whose experiences began this column, I can believe that in fact this is how the Holy Spirit has led them, one to participate in forming a new Community and the other to make Oblation to a Roman Benedictine foundation. May each be blessed. Still, I wonder whether they were even aware of the resources of such lives that already existed within the Episcopal Church.

And many Episcopalians are not aware. One of the comments one hears at each General Convention from those attending for the first time is, “Who are those folks in habits? Are they ours? Are they Episcopalians?” It is true that our Orders and Communities are relatively small, and known better locally than nationally. However, that is to some extent the responsibility of us who are clergy. How well have we educated our people to the breadth of spiritual living within the Episcopal Church, including Orders and Communities? It’s all too easy to get caught up in the day-to-dayness, to become literally parochial in the lives in our parishes. One could, I think, argue that many of our troubles in recent years arose precisely because many folks couldn’t imagine that a church different from their own congregation was really Episcopal – or, in ecumenical efforts, how a church different from their own congregation was even Christian. Think how much there is to be gained when we hold up and celebrate the varieties of spiritual living that are found within the Episcopal Church, and within the Body of Christ as a whole.

I often wonder, too whether there is an opportunity here for bishops and Commissions on Ministry. I have watched as some sought the guidance of a diocesan Commission on Ministry. Both the applicants and the Commissions assumed certain limited possibilities: a call to ordained ministry or to lay; and if to ordained ministry, to the diaconate or the priesthood. For those in whom a Commission cannot confirm a call to ordained ministry I have rarely seen any guidance in ministry in lay life. That is often left, of course, to the local congregation and the local ordained leadership.

What might it mean, on the other hand, if the Commission saw its own vocation, and the opportunities for structured life in faith, more broadly? Could a Commission offer to an Applicant, “We cannot confirm in you a vocation for ordained ministry, and yet we hear your sense of vocation to a faith life with greater structure and discipline. Have you considered exploring membership in a Christian Community, or association with an Order of the Church?”

For some, albeit rarely, they might suggest exploration of vocation to an Order; for, after all, the celibate life is a special vocation of its own. That would require much of Commission members, including their own awareness of the Orders and Communities of the Church, and broader consideration of the ministries of the Church. At the same time, I have sometimes observed applicants exploring the diaconate when a Commission felt clear that the person had some vocation, but did not feel clear what the vocation might be. For lack of a clear call to priesthood, and lack of consideration of alternatives besides the life in the pew that is the call of most Christians, and life in ordained ministry, diaconal ministry is suggested by default. To me, this is not really respectful of the distinct ministry of the diaconate, nor of the real breadth of models for ministry of the laity in the Church. Perhaps for some life in a Community (and perhaps an Order), structured by a Rule and nourished by community life and prayer, would be a more appropriate vocation.

In these times, when some seem to work so hard to question and even deny the healthy spirit of the Episcopal Church, we are all called to awareness of the great varieties of ministries among the laity, the first order of ministry in the Church. Certainly, monastic life isn’t where most will find their vocation. At the same time, the Orders and Communities of the Episcopal Church are a wonderful resource for the Church for prayer and spiritual formation, and, for some, appropriate settings for ministry. We can celebrate and give thanks for our Episcopal Orders and Communities, and the rich spiritual tradition that they incarnate in our midst.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

Past Posts