Transforming Communities: The formation and impact of monastic communities in the 19th Century And the formation and impact of Episcopal Service Corps houses in the 21st Century
AuthorCobb, David C.
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One of the persistent patterns in Church History has been the emergence, development, and, usually, the decline of intentional communities of a monastic nature. In the 19th century Episcopal Church, against a good deal of suspicion and despite some direct opposition, several orders for men and women, came into being. Some lasted just for a time and others continue to the present. In the late 20th century and as the 21st century began, another pattern of intentional communities emerged in the Episcopal Church as the Episcopal Service Corps began as isolated programs and then grew in numbers. These two institutions work from different lengths of commitment, monastic houses assume a life-time commitment and the Service Corps is for a year or so. Still there are similar themes as both attempt to provide a community that is focused, in different measure, on prayer and service. Both, with different approaches, involve some experience of simplicity of life if not a commitment to poverty. There are in a few places direct connections between the religious orders and the work of deaconesses with the Episcopal Service Corps, and in a few instances, Interns have gone on to explore a vocation to monastic life. This study will examine the story of four communities that arose during the 19th century. Two of them begin as efforts to provide local formation for clergy and a base from which missioners could go out to serve isolated and unchurched areas. One fails, largely because of opposition and suspicion of Romanizing tendency in its founder which was either confirmed or caused his move to the Roman Church; one goes on to become an seminary continuing to serve the Church. The Order of the Holy Cross never focused on offering formation for priests, but began with a mission in New York’s tenements; its first instigator wrote of the likelihood that failures would precede an enduring foundation. The story of Holy Cross is one of transformation, but his comment is borne out in the history of other orders. The Sisterhood of St Mary’s grows out of an attempt to form a community based solely on mutual love and compelling mission; the lack of structure for development and change led to a new beginning which gave rise to St Mary’s. They continue and now offer a connection between their own life under vows and internship program that shares their life. In the 20th and continuing in the 21st Century, the Episcopal Service Corps arose as one of many programs offering young adults a year or more of intentional community and service. It shared with the earlier monastic revival a desire to be engaged in work that responded to human need and to provide time and structure for spiritual formation. In addition, it drew from the monastic tradition a pattern of shared resources and, for at least a time, an experience of limited consumption. The study will present an account of several programs, their development and particular mission; it concludes with reflections from a number of current and former participants in the Episcopal Service Corps. The Christian life has always carried the memory of a deeply communal experience as the Acts of the Apostles’ reminds us in the days after Pentecost when as they “continued in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers”, they also had all things in common. There is a challenge to following Christ that is never quite edited out of the Gospel even in the most prosperous of congregations, “sell all that you have, and come, follow me”. If monastic communities have provided the larger Church with an image of a few who take up that memory and bring it to fruition across a lifetime and in an on-going community, the intentional communities that are formed around the model of Episcopal Service Corps makes it real in a number of people's lives for a period of time. That time might be shorter or longer for the individual or for the hosting community as programs emerge, flourish, and then come to an end. What continues is the impact the experience has on those who participate and on the larger Church that can be inspired to ask something more of itself. For those who take it up for a lifetime, or at a particular juncture in their life, there is grace to be found and that race will, necessarily reach beyond themselves. Rowan Williams, in a lecture reflecting on his perspective of the impact Augustine’s monastic community had during his 6th century mission to Britain, Williams wrote that the “converting power of poverty and vulnerability, of silence and praise, of labour and fidelity.. .” shines in the lives of those who give themselves- and together give to the world a sign of God’s presence and gives to the Church both challenge and encouragement. In every age and in whatever state the Church finds itself, there is the constant need for Christians to learn to live together, to learn to live in generosity, and to pray deeply and honestly. The monastics teach it their way, those who engage newly formed intentional communities will as well. Both in their challenge to a faith that is easily incorporated into ordinary patterns of consumption and competition. Williams goes on to say: “ Monasticism is in this regard a significant defense against the absorption of the newness of the Gospel into the familiarity of this or that cultural environment; and in this way, monasticism is a necessary part of any truly theological strategy of mission” An intern answered the question, “What do you think the impact of the Episcopal Service Corps” is on the Episcopal Church with an emphatic, “it is the lifeblood”. For a time during a Service Corps Year, or for a life time under vows, life in community, offered in service and carried out in intentional simplicity of life expresses the challenge and the invitation that the Gospel poses. The Church’s lifeblood is the converted life shaped in community. When people are drawn into the “the Apostles’ Teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers”, there is an impact within and beyond the Church. For the present moment, one of the most obvious places where that impact is found is the intentional communities of the Episcopal Service Corps, and the impact will shape the Episcopal Church for decades.