Various newspapers have run slightly different variants of monastic statistics in the UK. There are a variety of creative responses. The Cistercian monastery with which I am associated has established a resident lay community alongside the monastic community. The article even featured in New Zealand:
A chance to stay before you pray
It may be the ultimate relaxation break: beautiful medieval buildings, smiling hosts and a spot of gentle gardening to pass the time. But the 5am prayers could be a nasty jolt.
Monasteries and convents are advertising “try being a monk/nun” weekends as a way of encouraging men and women into religious orders.
The number of monks and nuns is falling so quickly that within a generation there could be none left. In 2000, there were about 710 nuns and 230 monks in Anglican religious orders in Britain and Ireland. Eight years later, numbers are down to 470 nuns and 135 monks.
It is no better for Roman Catholic orders. The Vatican revealed last year that numbers worldwide fell 10 per cent in 2005-06 alone.
The Society of the Precious Blood, a contemplative Anglican community in Burnham Abbey, southern England, which dates from 1266, has not had a novice for 10 years.
The Conference of Religious in England and Wales represents around 80 per cent of Catholic communities, some 4930 nuns and 1320 monks. In 2007, just 13 men and 16 women became novices. The average for the previous 10 years was one man and 20 women a year. Numbers have been declining steadily for at least 20 years and the average age of entrants is much higher, with most joining in their 40s or 50s.
Many communities have begun to run residential taster weekends, often advertised in Christian newspapers. At the weekend, four men were trying out monastic life with the eight Redemptorist brothers of Bishop Eton Monastery, a Catholic foundation in Liverpool, northwest England.
Father Kieran Brady, of the order of the Redemptorists, said: “Like any organisation, we have to recruit. And this gives people a chance to experience our way of life and think about joining us.”
Downside Abbey, near Bath, also runs taster weekends. The abbot, the Rt Rev Dom Aidan Bellenger, said: “From the point of view of people joining the monastery, we have seen an increase, with four novices in the past 18 months. Of course, they can go as quickly as they come – that is the problem with these methods: getting them to stay.” He said that, with an average age over 60, the main issue for the monastery was the brothers’ unfortunate propensity to “fall off the perch pretty rapidly”.
Father Luke Jolly, a monk at Worth Abbey in Crawley, near London, leads the Compass Project, a weekend residential course for would-be Catholic novices. “The idea behind this is that, while God is still calling people to become members of religious communities, it is becoming a little more difficult for them to hear and more difficult for them to respond.”
The course, aimed at people aged 20 to 35, is run on behalf of 40 communities. “Younger people probably don’t know anyone else in this kind of life. In years gone by, they would have had uncles or brothers who had gone into these communities, but that is less and less the case these days.”
If all else fails, there is one more option open to convents: importing nuns. Some Irish nunneries have been propping up their numbers with Polish women.
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