Monastic Orders in the Episcopal Church

by Don Palmer

In turbulent reformation England, monasteries had disappeared by 1538. The remaining monks and nuns had largely become pensioners of the government.  All that was left  behind were ruins of buildings, so anxious were the English to divest themselves of the Romish, the papist influence.

But there is a need for the disciplined, principled monastic life by many earnest Christians.  Actually the vocation was begun in the Egyptian desert.  There under the spiritual direction of St. Anthony,  St. Padnomius started the first Christian monastic communities in a family structure, with the head being the abbot, from the Aramaic word ‘abba”, father;  and the monks assuming the designation of brothers.  Both communal and solitary monastics became popular, filling a need many Christians had.

In 500 AD Benedict chose to be an ascetic monk and promulgated the Benedictine Rule, upon which many communities of “the religious” (monks and nuns) are based.

Back to England.  This destruction of monasteries was doomed.  Monasticism filled the spiritual needs of many.  Religious orders were revived.  It was in the 1840s that some Christian Englishwomen, despairing of widespread immorality in Victorian England, left their homes to serve the poor as nuns.  The idea spread rapidly, and crossed the Atlantic.  There were opponents; it took the women out of the home and their chores.  There were proponents: it gave women a role in the church.   One such group called themselves the Sisters of  St. Mary.  It was composed both of Episcopalians and Roman Catholics.

The Sisters of St. Mary heroically nursed the victims of  yellow fever in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1878,  during an epidemic which so ravaged the city that it lost its charter for 14 years.  It was not known then that mosquitoes were the vector of the disease.  The devastation was incomprehensible.  Thousands fled the city for high ground, recognizing that for whatever reason damp lowlands were dangerous.  Five thousand people died of yellow fever in Memphis.  The mortality rate of infected whites was 70%.  (Of blacks, only 7%.)  Most of the Sisters of St. Mary died caring for the ill.  Still today they are remembered in history as the  Martyrs of Memphis. 

Episcopal men began to form monastic communities.  In 1856 the Rev. Richard Benson founded the Society of St John the Evangelist, SSJE.  Subsequently came the Order of the Holy Cross.   It is not widely known that there are many Episcopal monks and nuns, belonging to several orders and communities.  Most follow the Benedictine rule, “ora et labora”, worship and work.  Membership can be as a monk or nun, but priests and lay can be affiliated in several ways.  Bishop Duncan is a member of the Society of St. John the Evangelist.  Our good friend, Fr. Mark Dunnam, was a Benedictne monk for several years.  (Some monastic “contemplative” orders scorn idle talk and basically practice silence and solitary, withdrawn living.  Mark was not, could not be, of such a persuasion.  We like him better this way.)

The monastic life, monks and nuns, is alive and well in the Church today.

Magnolia Springs, Alabama, USA