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Hallo again to all.

It is difficult to find a first citation for the common Anglican quote—attributed variously to George Carey or Michael Ramsey—that 'religious orders are the best kept secret in the Church of England' or that 'nuns are the best kept secret of the Anglican Communion'. Historians recognise the Park Village Sisterhood's Pusey-inspired foundation in 1845 as the first such Anglican institution after the Reformation;* stable men's communities formed later, of which the Society of St John the Evangelist (founded at Cowley in 1866) remains the best known around the world. Despite an active population of several thousands today, and a remarkable history of more than 170 years in modern Anglican life, Anglican nuns and monks are indeed so little known in some of our dioceses and parishes that they certainly can be considered a well-kept secret.

Our primary opportunity for contact with Anglican religious orders has been through their ministry of hospitality for retreatants. In the middle of the journey of Lent this year, we had the good fortune to spend three days in near-silence in a monastery we had visited two times before: once in 1996, and again in 2005. The intervals of decades between visits were a remarkable opportunity for reflecting on what had changed and remained the same over the last twenty years, both at the monastery and in life lived outside of it.

As for the monastery, much was identical. The lovely, simple rooms, with red lettering on each door. A crucifix, Bible, Book of Common Prayer, plain bed, desk, sink, and mirror in each room. The same holy freedom to attend as many daily offices as one wishes in the remarkable monastic church. The same inviting library on the top floor, and the same atmosphere of ritual calm in the refectory during meals.

The changes were changes such as one might expect over the passage of time. An extensive renovation had improved both the guesthouse and the chapel, removing decades of incense in the latter to reveal the beauty of stone unseen in living memory. A favourite monk-friend had died in the last year, and his absence was palpable, even though the presence of his life's work (a biography of Charles Chapman Grafton) on the bookstore's shelves made us smile. There were new faces in the choir stalls and in the guest house.

In two decades of secular life since a first visit to the monastery, the dominant notes at first appear to be change: the transition from student life to adult employment; a pattern of hard losses of some of those dearest to us; movings of house and home; libraries assembled and dispersed; growing into fatherhood; setbacks of illness and advances in health. Through the vagaries of moving jobs and educational programmes, we've belonged to four different parishes in twenty years.

Over the same period, in the light of prayer and silence, it was points of steadiness that emerged on reflection. The life-giving faithfulnesses of innumerable friendships. The consistency of capacities for delight, mirth, curiosity, sensitivity, empathy, resilience. The Prayer Book as a guiding rule of life, inspiring devotion as well as academic inquiry and digital evangelism. The attachment to small groups of persons who assemble around a common interest to effect change, encourage piety, or promote wider knowledge. The knowledge that every altar of every church is a place where we can meet the incarnate Lord, 'to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid'. The importance of song in our hearts and in our mouths. The hope, in the words of the old Shaker hymn, to 'know as I am known, and see as I am seen; to keep the sword in motion, which will slay every passion, bringing perfect victory over all that is wrong'.

In a life both digitally-enriched and often too digitally-ruled, it was monastic stillness that provided the gifts of space and time for self-examination to reflect on the changes and chances of two decades. As the home-stretch of Lent begins, we feel gratitude for the gifts Anglican religious orders have to offer those of us outside of them by welcoming us into their continual common offerings of the Eucharist and the Psalter. They make the structure for the quiet in which we could hear the words of Jesus afresh: 'Be of good cheer' and 'Rise, let us be on our way'.

See you next week.

Our Signatures

Richard Mammana

All of us at Anglicans Online

6 March 2016

*Its official name was the Sisterhood of the Holy Cross; it would be absorbed in 1856 by the Devonport Sisters of Mercy or Society of the Most Holy Trinity.

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