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A Global Perspective:
Anglican Religious Around the World

Br. Clark Berge, SSF
Minister General, Society of St. Francis

I have been blessed during the past few years to serve as the Minister General of the Society of St. Francis. We are located in ten different countries, and during my tenure I have visited the brothers in all our friaries throughout the world, multiple times! A side benefit is being able to meet up with members of other Anglican religious orders. These encounters have resulted in some great friendships and occasional opportunities to work with different orders. CAROA has asked me to offer a few reflections from this global perspective about Anglican religious life.

The Conference of Anglican Religious Orders of the Americas is part of a world-wide family of Anglican religious orders. There are 13 orders for men, 57 orders for women and 7 for men and women. There are about 2000 traditional celibate religious in the Anglican Communion, with about 3000 members of the Third order of the Society of St. Francis, and another 3,000 people who are part of a variety of non-traditional religious communities. So we are a very small group in the Anglican Communion.

We have a pretty remarkable history. Growing out of the Oxford Movement the religious orders have been a force to reckon with. Anglican religious have gone throughout the world, working with people and making a big impact way out of proportion to our small size.

Just think of the Community of the Resurrection’s influence on the young Desmond Tutu.

Sometimes in the past the religious orders have offered heroic service that I find deeply humbling. For instance, Mother Constance and her sisters of the Community of St. Mary in Memphis, Tennessee elected to stay in the city to nurse the sick during a yellow fever epidemic in 1878. All of the sisters died from yellow fever.

The bush brotherhoods in Australia carried the message of the Gospel in a humble yet lovely way, making a lasting impact on many Australians.

Not so long ago, in the Solomon Islands, the Melanesian Brotherhood lost seven brothers during the ethnic tension which gripped the country from 1999 until 2004. One of them had been captured by militants and the others went to rescue him. All of them were viciously tortured and murdered. In his book, In Search of the Lost Richard Carter, priest, chaplain to the brothers and for a time a brother too, writes: “Of one thing I am certain: these seven men will live on in the hearts and minds of the Community. Their sacrifice seems too great and hard to believe...[T]hese young men believed in peace and goodness. They knew that there was a better way. They were prepared to oppose violence and to risk much. At the end of the day they stand against all acts of brutality which are at present disfiguring our world, and bravely, boldly, and with love lived what most of us proclaim only from the safety of a church. Oh how much the world wide Anglican church at the moment could learn from their witness! And when such real-life issues are so much at stake in our world, is not this what the Gospel should be?”

These brothers are remembered as the Martyrs of Melanesia and a memorial was installed in the Chapel of the Modern Day Saints and Martyrs in Canterbury Cathedral during the 2008 Lambeth Conference. Christians, and maybe members of religious orders most of all, call it joy when we serve Christ in the poor, the sick, the outcast, not counting the cost, knowing, like St. Paul, “All this I do for the Gospel’s sake in order to share in its blessings” (1 Corinthians 9:23).

I believe it is the vows that we take that protect in us deep down the courage and strength to live for God, to help God create a world we want to live in, a world of love. Our world is full of violence, poverty, no education, sickness, pollution. Either we can live with all this, or we can choose to change it, doing whatever we can to shine the light of Christ all around us.

To change it means we need to make the hard choice to love at hard times—times when we want to say,

“I hate you.”

“I hurt too much.”

“I don’t know what to do.”

“I am only one person.”

“We need more money.”

“It’s not my problem.”

All of these things we might say when we are hurting very much, physically or spiritually.

The experience of God’s love in prayer can help us to choose to be open for change for ourselves. And when we are changed by God’s love we can help other people be open to God in prayer. As Peter Block, in his book Community: The Structure of Belonging says it is together we can begin the work of creating a world we want to live in.

I know a brother in the Society of the Sacred Mission, Father Michael Lapsley, who was sent by his Order to work in South Africa. He joined the fight to end apartheid, and became a target of the government. In his book, Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer, Father Lapsley writes: “I was sent a letter bomb that took away my hands and one eye but failed to kill me, just as the brutality of apartheid failed to crush the aspirations of the South African people. I returned to South Africa, where I soon saw that everyone had been damaged by the apartheid years and had a story to tell, and I resolved to become a healer of the nation.”

From there he became a wounded healer with a global mission. Because millions of people suffer all over the world from violence Michael Lapsley answered God’s call to make a difference out of his terrible situation. He started The Institute for Healing Memories. Now he travels to countries everywhere listening to people, serving them, helping them to experience real love, real hope, and real peace. And he invites them to share this work.

The martyred brothers of Melanesia, the Sisters of the Community of St. Mary in Memphis, Fr. Lapsely are a pledge of the hope of our calling as religious.

What makes such a radical commitment possible? Over and over again I hear the value of people of different cultures and traditions living together. In the Solomon Islands each of the four Anglican religious orders were deeply involved in the peace work during the ethnic tension. Thank God no other religious were killed. Fundamental to their witness, the communities refused to take sides in the conflict, and they affirmed repeatedly that membership in the community trumped ethnic identity. Being brothers and sisters in Christ was the single most important part of their life and witness.

The impact of the rhythm of our daily life sustained these brothers and sisters in Melanesia. Faced with tremendous pressures to support one side or the other, it was their commitment to the daily office and tasks around their religious houses that gave them a deep sense of commitment and framed their days. Radical ministry always has its roots in the “menial offices” of the house and garden. To these they added a fox hole ministry (literally taking turns camping between warring factions in order to pray with and for the militants as opportunity arose), ferrying the dead to bereaved families, transporting food to hungry villages. Peace became possible because of their radical perspective that saw brothers and sisters not enemies when they looked at each other. And this deeply humanizing perspective became the basis for their encounters with the militants.

In November 2010 there was an historic gathering of over 125 members of the four Anglican Religious orders in the Solomon Islands. They were part of a training program for social justice facilitated by Franciscans International. It was the first time the two communities for women and the two communities for men had lived and studied together, and the first time they addressed the issues of environmental degradation, violence against women and government corruption as part of their formation and visioning process for their communities. Now they continue to collaborate in implementing action plans addressing these issues and more in their island nation.

In a comment that has been widely quoted yet of uncertain provenance, Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt the power of small groups to change the world. It’s all that ever has.” What are the blessings of smallness? As Franciscans we have a word, “minority.” Being “lesser” or “little” we can get out from under the burden of high office (!), and our size permits us greater ease in trying things out. It is easier to negotiate change among a few people rather than a huge number; the leadership style is relational. We know each other fairly well around the world, and are able to pray monthly for each member of the community by name. Sometimes we struggle to claim these blessings. The expectation of world wide meetings of our Order sometimes feels unwieldy for such a small group of people. But the challenge implied in Margaret Meade’s comment remains for all of us Anglican religious. Small groups of people living a radical witness can champion a course that works like sand in an oyster. Deeply irritating or at least a kind of sacred agitation for the larger society in time we can become a pearl of great value. Smallness is only a liability if we allow it to be. It can be a great asset.

My lasting impression of Anglican religious around the world is of tremendous beauty and freedom. I see real vitality. At the same time we can be our own worst enemy, wringing our hands over things we have no control over, like getting older! But when we pay attention to the things that count people are inspired, and in some parts of the world many have been moved to ask: “Is this for me? Is God calling me to join these people in their Christian life and witness?”

 
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"...My lasting impression of Anglican religious around the world is of tremendous beauty and freedom. I see real vitality... "

 
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