Devotional Societies

Since the Middle Ages, members of the Church have joined together to form voluntary associations for pious and charitable purposes. In addition to the medieval guilds— membership in which was based on a shared trade or craft— there also developed devotional societies known as confraternities or sodalities.

 

The nineteenth century Catholic Revival saw the foundation of dozens of such devotional societies in the Church of England. More than anything else, perhaps, they were responsible for the cultivation of Anglo-Catholic spirituality among the laity. Firmly rooted in parish life, these societies generally sought to promote some neglected aspect of Catholic doctrine and practice. A number of them crossed the Atlantic to gain a foothold in the Episcopal Church.

 

The four most prominent Anglo-Catholic devotional societies that have survived and flourished are the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, the Guild of All Souls, the Society of Mary, and the Society of King Charles the Martyr.

 

Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament

 

Arguably the oldest Catholic devotional society in the Anglican Communion, the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament (CBS) was founded in 1862 by the Rev’d Thomas T. Carter, Vicar of Clewer, who became its first president. An independent American branch was established in New York in 1868.

 

Throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the very different influences of rationalism and Evangelicalism had led to neglect of the sacramental life in the Church of England. Celebrations of the Eucharist were rare, and performed with scant ceremony. In such an atmosphere, the emergence of a Confraternity emphasizing the mystery of Christ's Real Presence in the Eucharist seemed a radical development, and was regarded with extreme suspicion in many quarters. In both England and the United States, some bishops tried to ban formation of CBS wards and refused to admit clergy members to their dioceses. Despite this persecution, the Confraternity’s influence became ever more widespread. It has been instrumental in reestablishing a Catholic understanding of the Eucharist throughout the Anglican Communion.

 

The principal objectives of the CBS are to promote (1) the honor and adoration due to Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood; (2) prayer for one another at the Eucharist; (3) careful preparation for and reception of Holy Communion, including the Eucharistic fast; (4) the reverent and dignified celebration of the Eucharist, and the reservation and veneration of the Blessed Sacrament. Members promise to take part in the celebration of the Eucharist on all Sundays and major Holy Days, and to promote daily Masses where possible.

 

Guild of All Souls

 

The Guild of All Souls was founded in England in 1873. Its first president was the Rev’d Arthur Tooth (who also figures in Anglo-Catholic history as one of the Ritualist priests prosecuted and imprisoned in the 1870s under the provisions of the Public Worship Regulation Act). The American branch was formed in 1884, and became fully independent and self-governing in 1888.

 

The Guild of All Souls seeks “to promote the Church’s teaching concerning the Faithful Departed through intercessory prayer for the Dying and the Repose of the Souls of the Departed, encouraging Christian customs at burials, especially the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and promoting the two great doctrines of the Christian Creed: the Communion of Saints and the Resurrection from the Dead.”

 

Since the Reformation, prayers for the dead had been largely neglected within Anglicanism on the basis of the Protestant belief that immediately upon death the departed soul went either to heaven or hell, so that such prayers were either superfluous or futile. The Guild helped recover the Catholic understanding of an intermediate state between this world and the next where the soul continues to grow in perfection and be purged of its sins—and where it can be assisted by the prayers both of the saints in heaven and of the Church on earth. The Guild thus helps promote the Catholic teaching that the Church is a fellowship consisting of all its members throughout all ages—not merely those alive on earth at any given time.

 

The chief privilege of membership in the Guild of All Souls is to be prayed for annually on the anniversary of one’s death. The Guild publishes an intercession paper listing the names of departed members by date of death. Guild members undertake to pray by name at least once a week for the departed members so listed, and to support parish Masses and devotions for the faithful departed.

 

Society of Mary

 

The Society of Mary was formed in the Church of England in 1931 by the union of the Confraternity of Our Lady (founded in 1880) and the League of Our Lady (founded in 1902). The American branch was established in 1962.

 

Regarded with suspicion in the Church of England since the Reformation, devotion to the Virgin Mary and the Saints has has gained greater acceptance within Anglicanism in more recent years. For example, the 2005 Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission’s agreed statement, Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ affirms ways in which both Churches may understand the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption. It is thanks to the witness of such groups as the Society of Mary that these breakthroughs have been made.

 

The objects of the Society are (1) to love and honor Mary; (2) to spread devotion to her in reparation for past neglect and misunderstanding; and (3) to take Mary as a model in purity, personal relationships, and family life. Members of the Society promise to keep a rule of life that includes special devotions such as the Angelus, the Rosary, and attending Mass on the principal Feasts of our Lady.

 

Society of King Charles the Martyr

 

The Society of King Charles the Martyr (SKCM) was founded in England in 1894. The Annual High Mass of the Society is offered at the Banqueting Hall, Whitehall, on the anniversary of the beheading of Charles I which took place there on January 30, 1649. The American branch of the Society dates from 1949.

 

Anglo-Catholics venerate King Charles because his refusal to renounce episcopacy in favor of a Presbyterian form of Church order led to his illegal execution. After his death, the Puritan Parliament abolished the Book of Common Prayer and the Episcopate. During the eleven years of the Interregnum, underground Anglican worship and devotion centered on the memory of the Martyr King, helping to ensure the eventual restoration of the Anglican Church upon the accession of his son, Charles II, in 1660.

 

The objectives of the Society include: (1) Promotion of the observance of the Feast of Saint Charles on January 30; (2) work for the reinstatement of the Feast of Saint Charles in the Calendar of The Book of Common Prayer; (3) propagation of knowledge about the life and times of Saint Charles and the debt Anglicanism owes him; and (4) support of efforts to build and equip churches dedicated to Saint Charles the Martyr, both in England and overseas. The Society also works to promote the crafting and installation of statues, busts, images, and banners of Saint Charles in churches throughout the Anglican Communion.

 

Benefits of the Devotional Societies

 

Anglo-Catholic devotional societies enrich parish life in multiple ways. A ward or chapter functioning within a parish can provide opportunities for its members to attend Mass and pray together, to meet for fellowship and study, and to undertake worthwhile projects in the parish and wider community.

 

These devotional societies also provide opportunities to get to know members in other parishes both nearby and far away. The congregations of Anglo-Catholic parishes can feel isolated from their sister congregations in other cities and states. Individual members of a devotional society sometimes live in areas and attend parishes lacking the full privileges of Catholic worship. Belonging to these societies helps such people realize that they too are part of a larger Anglo-Catholic community. Devotional societies thus furnish an important vehicle for networking and building relationships with like-minded Anglo-Catholics elsewhere. As with the Associates of Anglican religious orders, membership in these societies help lone Anglo-Catholics hold fast to Catholic disciplines and spirituality in an alien environment.

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