What is Anglican Religious Life?

“What does God want me to do with my life?” These days regular church-going Christians are fewer than in the past. But the question of “what to do with my life?” is a basic one for all humans. “Who am I? As an individual? And in relation to others?”. These are questions perhaps all of us struggle with at times. Membership of a church brings opportunities to gather for worship in fellowship with others. But for some this doesn’t answer their deepest longing. They long for some way of making a deeper commitment to Christian life and witness.

Ordination is one track some follow and they serve as ordained deacons or priests in local church ministry or in chaplaincy. But for others the deep longing of their heart (what we could call vocation), doesn’t lead them to ordination for this sort of ministry, although ordination might come later. Perhaps the yearning they feel is to deepen their experience of prayer. Or perhaps to live in community with others in some form of disciplined life. Perhaps to engage in some form of radical Kingdom action. Perhaps something of all these. Thus, some come to explore religious community life. 

History of Anglican Religious Life

Many people are really surprised to hear that there are forms of community life in the Anglican Church—not only in England but through much of the Anglican Communion internationally. Before the Reformation in the 16th century, there were many such communities of monks or nuns or canons or friars. These communities were disbanded as part of the wider aims of the Reformation. But even though the structures were closed, people still felt the call to live in religious community life.

It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that such communities began to be revived. At first these took shape in such ways as communities of single women ministering in poor areas in social, educational or nursing ministries. For men their communities perhaps worked in ministries such as parish ministry or preaching, or conducting retreats. Both men’s and women’s communities gradually took on a wider range of ministries such as hospitality, handcrafts, writing and publishing. Some of those founded for active ministries gradually turned from active to contemplative life.

Other movements grew up alongside these communities. Associates and Third Order or similar ways gave a way of those not able to join the community life to be part of it in some way and to share the life and work of the community. Much more recently there has been a resurgence of new forms of religious community life. Sometimes these movements are called “new monastic”. They draw on some elements of traditional religious monastic life (such as regular prayer and life under a Rule), but their members don’t live in community, or perhaps do so for only a temporary period. Often they are mixed male and female in membership. Perhaps they include married as well as single members. Many of them are ecumenical and include members from different churches.