The great genius of the Oxford Movement was that it did not remain a movement of scholarly opinion confined to the university, but was able to carry its theological and doctrinal insights over into a profound and far-reaching renewal of the liturgical, musical, artistic, pastoral, and spiritual dimensions of church life. Nowhere are the consequences of this renewal more apparent than in the revival of the religious life within Anglicanism.
The term "religious life" describes a state of consecration to God involving vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Communities of monks or nuns have existed since the earliest centuries of Christianity. In the Middle Ages, groups of similar communities were organized into religious orders, such as the Benedictines, Carmelites, Cistercians, Franciscans, and Dominicans.
The Religious Life in England
In the 1530s, Henry VIII suppressed the religious orders in England, seizing monasteries and convents, with their vast estates, for the Crown. Subsequently, from the sixteenth century until the nineteenth century, there were no real communities of monks or nuns in the Church of England.
From its inception, however, the Oxford Movement called Anglicans to the pursuit of holiness. And one feature of genuine movements of Christian renewal is that, sooner or later, they inspire some of their adherents to seek to give up everything in order to follow the Lord. The Oxford Movement proved no exception.
The Anglo-Catholic Sisterhoods
The revival of the religious life in the Church of England began in 1841, when Marion Hughes took life vows before Edward Pusey, one of the Oxford Movement’s primary leaders. Then, in 1845 Priscilla Sellon founded the Park Village West Sisterhood in London.
Similar sisterhoods quickly sprang up in a number of places in England and North America. Their work often involved nursing. In areas of great deprivation, and at great risk to themselves, the sisters cared for those suffering from such diseases as diphtheria, typhus, and scarlet fever. For spiritual sustenance in these harsh conditions, the sisters recited the ancient monastic offices, and, beginning with the Society of Saint Margaret in 1856, instituted the first daily celebrations of the Holy Eucharist in the Church of England since the Reformation.
Anglican Sisterhoods also emerged in the United States. Today, their tradition is continued in the religious life of such places as the Community of Saint Mary in Greenwich, New York, and also the Sisters of the Holy Nativity in Green Lake, Wisconsin.
Men’s Religious Communities
The establishment of men’s religious communities took another twenty years. In 1865, Richard Meux Benson founded the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in the Oxford suburb of Cowley. The order, known as the "Cowley Fathers," established houses in India, North America, and South Africa. One of Benson’s initial partners at Cowley was a young American, Charles Grafton, who later became Bishop of Fond du Lac in Wisconsin.
In 1884, another American priest, James O.S. Huntington, took life vows in the presence of Bishop Henry C. Potter of New York, thus founding the Order of the Holy Cross. The community grew and, in 1900, moved to its present location on the banks of the Hudson River at West Park.
Notable men’s communities in England include two orders founded in the 1890s: the Community of the Resurrection, founded by Charles Gore in 1898, which since 1903 has operated its seminary at Mirfield in Yorkshire; and the Society of the Sacred Mission, which for many years operated a seminary for financially disadvantaged students at Kelham Hall.
Finally, in the early twentieth century, Anglican versions of the Benedictine and Franciscan orders came into being. Both have maintained successful communities in England and North America.
Religious Communities and the Parish
At first glance, all this monastic endeavor may seem a step removed from the spiritual struggles of ordinary parishioners in the pews. But the opposite is true. Apart from their continual intercessory prayer for the Church and the world, as well as ministries to the poor, sick, and aged, Anglican religious communities have offered practical assistance to parish churches in at least three ways:
Retreats and quiet days for parish groups and individuals, usually given at the community’s retreat house, and often conducted by members of the community
Preaching missions and schools of prayer given in parishes by visiting members of religious communities
Spiritual direction offered by members of religious communities to lay people and clergy on an individual basis.
In addition, many Anglican religious communities sponsor networks of associates comprising both clergy and laity living in the world. Associates generally agree to take on a rule of life involving a conscious relationship with the religious community and comprising certain disciplines of prayer and devotion. Such associate affiliation with a religious community can be especially helpful to individuals who cannot regularly attend an Anglo-Catholic parish but are nonetheless seeking to adhere to the spiritual practices of the Catholic life.