Episcopalians Finding Role in Monastery Life
Unlike Catholic Counterparts, They Enjoy Independence From Church Hierarchy

By Lilly Fowler
Religion News Service
Saturday, April 12, 2008

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Mount Calvary looks like your typical monastery. Visitors are greeted by a painting of a white-robed monk, a large cross around his neck and a Bible in his hand, staring ahead.

But the monk in the painting isn't a Catholic, and neither are the men in white-hooded habits who scurry about, welcoming visitors as they prepare the day's meals.

Mount Calvary is actually an Episcopal monastery, one of five monastic communities belonging to the Order of the Holy Cross. The United States and Canada are home to 23 distinct Anglican religious orders, said David Bryan Hoopes, president of the Conference of Anglican Religious Orders in the Americas, yet many people don't know Anglican monks and nuns exist.

Marcela Perett found them during work on her dissertation at the University of Notre Dame. She decided she needed to get away, and as an Episcopalian, she assumed that any monastery she settled on would be run by the Catholic Church.

"I did not know that Protestant denominations had monasteries," she said.

Then a friend from her home parish mentioned St. Gregory's Abbey in Three Rivers, Mich., an Episcopal monastery, "as a place where people from our dioceses go, when they need to get away."

Once there, Perett said she enjoyed the vow of silence imposed on both the guests and the monks, who welcomed her to join the daily cycle of prayer and the chanting of the psalms.

It's not much different from what visitors would find at a Catholic monastery, said Robert Sevensky, the prior at Mount Calvary. What sets them apart is the complete independence of Episcopal orders.

"Pretty much we're self-governing," Sevensky said.

Roy Parker, a monk and ordained priest at Mount Calvary, agreed, noting that Episcopalians -- despite a liturgy that looks and feels like a Catholic one -- don't have to answer to the same hierarchy.

"I think the Roman Catholic tradition doesn't respect the democratic process as much as the Episcopal Church does," he said.

Still, the two churches share a centuries-old monastic tradition that pre-dates the 16th-century Reformation that split the two traditions. "We weren't papists, but (on) everything else we were pretty close to them," said Laurence Harms, also a monk at Mount Calvary.

Friar Gregory Fruehwirth of the Order of Julian Norwich in Wisconsin said that there is great variety to be found within both Episcopal and Catholic communities. Episcopal monasteries, he said, have a "similar breadth, just on a much, much smaller scale."

The monastery to which he belongs, for example, has men and women living side by side, which he said "provides a balanced atmosphere psychologically" and sets them apart from other monastic communities.

Fruehwirth said that like Catholic communities, each Episcopal community decides how and to what extent they participate in local church life. Some may supply parish priests while others might take part in mission work. Still others may choose to remain more isolated, making prayer their main contribution to the church, he said.

Part of the reason for Episcopal monasteries' shrouded identities may be the complex history that surrounds them, said Deborah Vess, a professor of history at Georgia College and State University.

"The Protestant Reformation essentially disbanded monasteries, as Luther and others argued against monasticism as a special way of life and advocated the family as the fundamental unit of a Christian society," she said.

In the 19th century, however, "Protestant groups began to revive monasticism as a way of leading a prayerful life devoted to God."

Many of the early pioneers in reviving Anglican monasticism were women. The Community of Saint Mary in New York, made up of women, was the first monastic community to be received by the Episcopal Church, in 1865.

Sevensky said it was also in New York that Anglicans established his order, the Order of the Holy Cross, at a time when "members of the English church were trying to regain some of the elements of the tradition that were lost at the time of the Reformation."

Mount Calvary now follows the Rule of St. Benedict, a set of guidelines created in the 6th century. Found in many Catholic and Episcopal monasteries, it calls for vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and features hospitality as a principle ministry.

Sevensky said monastic life isn't quite as different from everyday life as some might think. "It's terribly ordinary and people think of monastic life as something quite exotic," he said. "But at least the way we live it, it's not."

Mount Calvary has about 2,500 visitors a year, which helps financially support the household. The Episcopal Church, he said, gives little financial assistance.

"Being forced to carry our own weight," Sevensky said, "keeps us from thinking too highly of ourselves."

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