One of the most tragic actions taken during the Reformation was the closing of the monasteries and seizing of the monastic lands by King Henry VIII. There can be little doubt that this action was entirely motivated by politics rather than theology. Henry saw the monks as a threat to his power, as did Henry II a few centuries earlier. Thus, Anglicanism was left with a dearth of monastic life for well near three hundred years, until the Oxford Movement revived the practice in the nineteenth century. This absence of monasticism in the Church of England took place during the crucial period in which the theological underpinnings of classical Anglicanism were evolving. So it is all the more interesting that a certain monastic spirit prevails in Anglicanism anyway.
In order to understand this effect, we have to take a step back and notice the way that monasticism shaped life in the Church of England long before the Reformation. After all, unlike many other Protestant churches that sprang into being at the Reformation, the Church of England that emerged independent in the sixteenth century was the same Church that had been in England for more than a millennium prior, only now with a reformed understanding of the Catholic faith. While there appears to have been a church in Britain going back to at least the third century, the foundation of the modern Church of England can readily be traced to Augustine of Canterbury and his mission established in 597. Augustine was a Benedictine monk, and the mission he established at Canterbury had monastic underpinnings. This was hardly, however, the first appearance of monasticism on British soil, as Celtic Christianity was replete with monasticism, the abbots and abbesses taking on special roles of authority in the life of the Church. As the Celtic form gave way to many of the Roman customs in the period following the Synod of Whitby in 663, the influence of monasticism in the Church did not wain. Just note how many Archbishops of Canterbury came to that title by way of being abbots, particularly after the Norman conquest. Many rural towns had monasteries. Many of the cathedrals prayed the hours along with the monks who lived in residence or nearby. By the middle ages, monastic influence upon the English Church was unquestionably strong.
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was not a monk. Nevertheless, when he set about the task of compiling a Book of Common Prayer that would normalize and simplify the liturgy throughout the Church, the monastic office was right at its heart. Cranmer took the seven times of day that monks and nuns prayed and reduced it down to two, Morning and Evening Prayer. In so doing, he made the monastic approach to prayer and spiritual discipline something that was both accessible to the laity and expected of the clergy. The Daily Office would no longer be just some strange thing that was done by guys in robes. It would now be a central aspect of the Christian life for everyone.
What does monasticism contribute to the overall life of the Church? Many things, undoubtedly, but chief among them is a concentrated space in which Christians can live out a life of prayer. Since the days of Saint Antony and the desert fathers, men and women have been leaving the wider world and entering into small communities to try to live out the Christian life without distraction. The vows taken by monks and nuns are not any different than what is expected of every Christian – obedience, simplicity of life, chastity. What makes the monastic’s calling different is that he or she lives these things out in the context of either a specialized community or in solitude, plumbing the depths of each. Not just obedient to the law but also to the rule. Not just simple but impoverished. Not just chaste but celibate. This way of life is difficult but it is a blessing to those who are called to it and it makes it possible for the rest of us to experience a greater depth of the spiritual life than would otherwise be available to us. We are carried by the prayers of monastics. Their communal life, at its best, becomes an icon of Christ just as surely as a marriage does.
All of which is to say, I don’t believe that the spirit of monasticism that lives in Anglicanism is a substitute for having actual monastic orders. We should be grateful to the Oxford Movement for restoring the monastic life to the Anglican churches. We are surely better off for it. Nevertheless, the life of prayer that is characterized by the Book of Common Prayer, that is encouraged by the traditional Anglican ethos, is akin to the monastic way of life in that it encourages us to be intentional about leading a disciplined Christian life. This is not pietism. It is not a substitute for faith or a special kind of works righteousness. Rather, Anglicans who are formed in the Prayer Book tradition are trained, almost intuitively, to see the Christian life as ordered. Indeed, in a fallen world that is filled with disorder and chaos that constantly threatens to pull us apart, the ordered life of prayer and spiritual discipline is a constant reminder that God is always present, always at work redeeming creation, always forgiving us and making us new through the blood of the cross.
While other Christian traditions have the monastic life, not all have a monastic spirit that is so readily accessible to the non-monastic clergy and laity. Thus, this monastic spirit becomes a gift that Anglicanism can offer back to the Church Catholic, provided that we do not lose the Prayer Book tradition that makes it possible.