In October 2019, after just over two years as first a Postulant and then as a Novice, I solemnly promised to live the Oratory life faithfully for the coming year, and to continue my discernment in this time, that I may ‘with all faithfulness at the appointed time renew my profession and intention, if it be the will of God.’ Before I could make my profession, I was asked by the Superior, ‘Have you carefully examined the Rule and Constitution of the Oratory and faithfully considered the pattern of life to which its members are solemnly pledged?’ – I answered, ‘I have’ – and this reflection on various aspects of the Oratory life flows from that ‘careful examination’. It is offered in humility, as the reflections of someone who is still very new to our life, and with frequent references to those who have walked this way faithfully before me.
This is an adapted form of the short history that I wrote for this site, accompanied by my own reflections. The Oratory of the Good Shepherd was founded by Edward Wynn, John How, and Eric Milner White, who were all ministering in different colleges of the University of Cambridge. As they were drawn together into deeper spiritual fellowship, they sought to form a community which would sustain them in their ministry and contribute to the life of the Church in Cambridge. In John How’s own words:
“We three got together I can remember the occasion well and the subject was broached, and in some measure planned; a Fellowship of Catholic-minded priest-dons… living under a common rule and meeting together (as far as possible) for common devotions, at least Mass and one of the Hours. We felt the need of fellowship and a sense of community, though we lived each his own separate life in separate colleges. So it all began. We drew up a simple outline rule, leaving specific details to be filled in after growing experience.”
On March 3rd, 1913, the brethren, joined by Fr John Neville Figgis CR, who acted as an advisor to the group, made a declaration of intention, from which OGS had its beginnings. The First World War interrupted things, but afterwards the brethren came together again, meeting at Little Gidding, the site of Nicholas Ferrar’s community in the seventeenth century. It was here that the rudiments of the way of life were devised. The First World War had a significant impact on the formation of the Oratory, as one of our founders explained to the brethren when he said these words in 1918:
“The Oratory has been cradled in an historical epoch, which must largely determine its mission and labours. There are new needs to be met by the Church, and old needs, as yet unsatisfied by her, have been made visible to all eyes.”
In January 1920, it was decided to open an Oratory House in Cambridge, where some brethren continued to live a common life until 1939. Since 1939 the Oratory has had no permanent base – although, for a season, St Deiniol’s Library in Hawarden functioned as the centre of Oratory life. On occasion two or three brethren have lived together when staffing a parish, and the Oratory Manual makes provision either for brothers to live together or to live a common life in dispersion.
Throughout its history, the Oratory has expanded far beyond Cambridge, and now has Provinces in Europe, North America, Australia, and Southern Africa, and its brothers are engaged in a huge variety of ministries. In the 21st century, the Oratory is unique among traditional Anglican communities, and offers a distinctive witness in the Church today, which Christopher OGS helpfully enumerated in a recent paper as:
- A fellowship of solitaries, of those seeking to live out our discipleship in communion with the Good Shepherd;
- Not conformed to a “uniform” way of living our life, but equally bearing a family resemblance that means we feel and are incomplete without one another;
- Seen as a family who stand with and alongside one another, both in the good and bad times;
- Not shackled to old buildings that we can no longer afford; yet still having the provision in our Rule, even “for a season”, to share a common work and live a common life;
- Seen clearly as men of discipline, prayer and service to Christ and His Church; yet giving space and Liberty for that call to be lived out in the way that for us seems best:
- Whose call to live a life governed by the “Love that makes for peace” means that we have been truly prophetic in staying together as a brotherhood even with so many differing views on certain key-issues current in the Church;
- And perhaps above all as men for whom a celibate call is one of freedom and joy rather than one of necessity and denial; “free to love Christ and our brethren and so free to love all people for His sake”.
This history, and this vision of what the Oratory is today, provide enormous inspiration and remind me of the great tradition we inherit – a tradition populated by men who, sometimes in quiet and unseen ways, have built up the Catholic Church and sought to live lives of unselfish love and service. I am struck when reading our history, particularly Eric Milner White’s Ideals of the Oratory Life, of just how much the context of England after the First World War formed our community, who sought to ‘hold and live by the Catholic Faith with boldness and enthusiasm’ while being mindful of the need to unite the Church in a common witness to an increasingly secular world, and in seeing controversies and partisanship in the Church as ‘fit to die’. Ideals of the Oratory Life are quoted extensively in Fr Henry Brandreth OGS’ history of the Oratory, which is available here. However, the recent history of WWI also created a world that was ‘tuned to high spiritual self-sacrifice for causes and claims, however sacred, less sacred than those of Christ’ – which led our founders to form a community that would provide a context for brethren to lives of unselfish love. It seems to me that our world, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic has again been given many examples of self-sacrifice in those who are working, particularly within the NHS, to bring hope and healing to others. As such, the challenge of Eric Milner White has a renewed vitality, as we seek to be Christ’s disciples and ministers in this context:
‘The Oratory must seek to fulfil a high ideal of self-sacrifice, and rival by a life of poverty and self-sacrifice, the death of that great company, who sacrificed life for country in the Great War. It shall definitely tread a way of the Cross.’
The Seven Notes
I am reminded daily of the centrality of the Seven Notes to our life as I place around my waist the ‘Profession Belt’ which was given to me in Walsingham. They are a constant source of both challenge and encouragement, and they are rich enough to sustain a lifetime of meditation. The Notes are, in many ways, a distillation of the Gospel, and weave together to form a pattern of life that is undeniably compelling. I have only really begun to scratch the surface of their richness but have found them a wellspring for reflection and inspiration – although it can also be a source of frustration when these century old texts reach into the present and challenge one’s own attitude or priorities! As Bishop Jack Nicholls pithily expressed in his recent Visitation Report, ‘The beating heart of the Oratory, I would suggest, is to be found in the Notes of the Oratory. That is the real treasure.’
Through these early years of my Oratory life, I have committed to a pattern of reading a note every day and am grateful to Nicholas Gandy OGS’ challenge to commit the Notes to memory when he said at Provincial Chapter 2017, ‘Just as in the olden days, confirmands committed the Catechism to memory and, in our younger years, we all learned our times tables, to have the heart of our Rule instantly available would seem a very good thing indeed.’
The aim of the Oratory is the adoration of God in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the imitation of his most holy life. Its fellowship and discipline are intended to encourage and direct its members in achieving this aim. Their membership will remind them that they can carry out their vocation of worship and service only in communion with the Good Shepherd and in the power of the Holy Spirit, they will seek in the Oratory these blessings for themselves and will order their lives for the strengthening of their brethren in accordance with the Notes which follow.
In the Sermon preached at OGS’ 75th Anniversary celebration in 1988, Bishop Colin James (then our Visitor) highlighted the opening words of the Notes as the key to the Oratory life: ‘Adoration and Self-offering; self-offering to God in His love, yet for the sake of others, their unity with God and each other, and their true freedom.’ The heart of being an Oratorian is to be found in this loving adoration of God, which leads us to deeper union with, and imitation of, the Good Shepherd. ‘Obedience to a Calling’ by John Thorold OGS and Dominic Walker OGS opens with these resonant words, ‘Just as our Lord gave himself in total surrender to his Father on the Cross, so will a person drawn to the life of the Oratory respond to the grace offered there so freely and generously.’
Again, we see here the way of the Cross that brothers of the Oratory, in common with all Christians, are called to walk – a life marked first and foremost by prayer and, in particular, by adoration. Through the constant need to correct people who think I am a member of the ‘Order of the Good Shepherd’, I have come to appreciate how wonderful it is to be part of an ‘Oratory’ – a place, a community, whose primary work is prayer. Again, quoting ‘Obedience to a Calling’, ‘The Oratory is, and always has been, as its name implies, a Society of Prayer. It is prayer that gives strength to every Christian life. An Oratorian is called supremely to be a man of prayer’.
The life of ‘adoration’ we are pledged to has a profoundly Trinitarian dimension, as Wilfred Knox OGS so powerfully expressed in his 1946 retreat addresses on the Good Shepherd:
‘The essential being of God is the loving adoration of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; and, in virtue of his union with the Good Shepherd, man can enter into this eternal life of the Godhead … the end for which man was created is to share as fully as possible in that adoring love. That purpose can only be fulfilled by the power of the divine Word, the Good Shepherd of the whole universe, dwelling in our hearts and manifesting Himself in us as adoring love, as the worship of God; for this adoring love has this supreme value, that it is not just man’s feeble attempt to worship a God who is infinitely far removed from him, but the love of God himself dwelling in our hearts and by His indwelling raising us up to himself.’
The first note of its life is fellowship. Individual members will endeavour to merge their lives in the corporate life of the Oratory, so that they will feel incomplete without it and the Oratory incomplete without them. Brethren will find and maintain in the Oratory a true Christian family in love and mutual service. Each member’s work will be an element in the work of the whole. Members will seek the advice of the Oratory in meeting personal problems and difficulties; and in undertaking additional or new work, the corporate life of the Oratory and the College will be taken into account. Brethren must be prepared for criticism as well as encouragement when they ask for advice.
The corporate life of the Oratory will be expressed in the common observance of the Rule, in the sympathy of common work and in the daily fellowship of prayer and sacrament. This fellowship will be deepened by understanding and affection between the Colleges, so that the whole Oratory may grow into a holy temple in the Lord.
Bishop Jack’s Visitation Report highlights just how important this note is for individual brothers when he says that discussion of the Oratory’s fellowship elicited some of the most positive comments from brethren, including these words:
“The Oratory is my family”; “there is a sense of belonging and being valued”; “our differences are held together in joy”; “this College has finally found fellowship”; “our College works well, which is down to personalities”; “our fellowship is so important to me, it makes me weep”.
I am beginning to understand what the Notes mean when they say that brothers ‘will feel incomplete without’ the Oratory. However, there is also the challenge of being a new brother in a community that has seen so many people test their vocation and leave, some after substantial periods of time – and I have tasted a fraction of the pain of this when a brother left in the second year of his probation. Nevertheless, it is clear that fellowship is at the heart of OGS life. However, it has also become clear to me that, as the note says, this fellowship requires brothers to ‘maintain’ it – and the simple tasks of replying to emails, making ‘phone calls, and sometimes writing letters (although, in my case, these are almost invariably sent as emails) are ‘the bread and butter’ of maintaining the depth of fellowship envisioned by the founders.
It is true, as Bishop Jack again says, that:
‘The present climate in some parishes and dioceses, in terms of attitudes to single male priests in general, is one of suspicion… Life, especially as a single male parish priest, can be one of isolation and loneliness. Accompanying this is the fact that the provision of pastoral care for priests in the Anglican Church is often one of neglect.’
I was a probationer when I was made deacon in June 2018, and so my short time in ministry has been entirely lived within the Oratory, however I have already experienced how isolating it can be to live as a single male priest in a church served principally by married, or civilly-partnered, clergy. Even the most well-meaning married priest can sometimes fail to take into account the particular challenges of doing ministry as a single man, challenges that have only become more acute in this time of ‘self-isolation’. In this context, I find myself enormously grateful to brethren for their prayers, support and good-cheer.
The Note on Fellowship, along with the later note on Discipline, clarify how obedience functions in the Oratory. Members of the Oratory are ‘men under authority’ (Note on Discipline) but this authority is not like that of an Abbot towards his monks but is worked out in discussion with the college. As this note puts it:
‘Members will seek the advice of the Oratory in meeting personal problems and difficulties; and in undertaking additional or new work, the corporate life of the Oratory and the College will be taken into account. Brethren must be prepared for criticism as well as encouragement when they ask for advice.’
George Tibbatts OGS’ own reflections on this note, given as part of his 1962 General Chapter retreat addresses, highlight how important this need to consult brethren about new or additional work really is, when he tells brethren that ‘there is always the danger of excessive individualism in a Society such as ours’. He goes on to soberingly remind his hearers that ‘it is easier than we like to contemplate to be a bad and irresponsible member of the Oratory and get away with it.’ I have sought to follow the advice given in ‘Obedience to a Calling’ to ‘err on the side of caution’ and to develop a habit of asking brothers for advice in order to ‘develop a frame of mind which naturally submits self-will to the scrutiny, wisdom and counsel of the brethren’.
However, that being said, this has been, for me, one of the most challenging aspect of our life – and it is much easier to wish for brothers who are merely ‘cheer-leaders’ for the direction we have already decided. I have found it helpful to meditate on the fact that, in Jesus, obedience and love are one – his love for the Father is the source of his obedience, most powerfully revealed on the Cross. This is so clearly expressed in the 5th chapter of the Rule of St Benedict:
‘Thus do they seize the narrow way of which the Lord says: “Narrow is the way that leads to life”; so that not guiding themselves in life by their own judgment they obey not their own desires and wishes, but walking by the judgment and commands of another, pass their life in community and are more than content to have an abbot over them. Without doubt such as these reproduce that maxim of the Lord’s wherein he says: “I came not to do my will, but his who sent me.”’
We may not have an abbot over us, but the ideal of a life lived not by our own wilfulness, which St Augustine would equate with pride (the greatest enemy of virtuous living), but in common submission to one another and to Christ is surely the pattern of life to which this note summons us.
The Oratory will allow full scope for the development of individual talents while insisting on fellowship as the first note of its life. It will encourage its members to develop their personal gifts and thus to enrich the offering laid at the feet of Christ. The same liberty will be claimed for an Oratory College as for an individual.
Immediately following the Note on Fellowship is a call to ‘liberty’, the freedom to explore our God given talents and to ‘follow him [the Good Shepherd] wherever he leads’ as one of the prayers in the Manual puts it. Michael Bartlett OGS, in his 2017 retreat address on this note, reminds us:
‘To refer to the “Lists” of brethren, companions and associates, printed each year, one immediately becomes aware of the wide, varied and worthwhile Spiritual gifts which have been bestowed upon members of this “family”, by the Grace of God and which have been laid at His feet.’ (The reflections on the Notes, quoted extensively in this reflection, can be found here).
This note, following as it does the note on Fellowship, seems to me to provide a framework for living St Paul’s injunction to the Galatians,
‘For you were called to freedom (ἐλευθερία), brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.’ (Galatians 5.13).
The liberty of the Oratory life, of the single life in general, can certainly become ‘an opportunity for self-indulgence’, and I can think of several examples from my own life that show how our way of living the consecrated life can become nothing more than bachelorhood, and a type of worldly freedom which equates the liberty of the Spirit (c.f. 2 Corinthians 3.17) with freedom to make our own choices. Instead, true liberty requires us to listen to St Augustine when he tells us, commenting on John 8.36, that ‘this is our hope… that we be set free by the one who is free; and by setting us free he makes us slaves. For we were slaves of lust; freed we are made slaves of love.’
The liberty which the Notes give us is the liberty to become ‘slaves of love’, to follow the Good Shepherd and to discern where the Spirit of freedom is calling us. This expansive liberty, the true freedom of those who serve God, is why this note can only be read ‘while insisting on fellowship as the first note of its life’.
Members of the Oratory will always strive to regard material possessions, as well as spiritual and personal gifts, as a stewardship of wealth to be consecrated to the service of God. Brethren are not required to renounce worldly possessions or to surrender positions of influence or moderate comfort, but they are required to render an account of their stewardship, and if necessary the Oratory will criticize or condemn.
This note again combines liberty and fellowship, and calls brothers – not to the poverty of many religious orders – but to a real stewardship of wealth and talents, which sees them not as my possession but as a gift given for us to use to God’s glory. On the days given to reflect on this note, I often find myself singing Keble’s hymn ‘New Every Morning is the Love’, with its mysterious affirmation that God gives us ‘treasures’ in order for us to give them back to him, and its prayer that God would give us ‘room to deny ourselves’.
If on our daily course our mind
be set to hallow all we find,
new treasures still, of countless price,
God will provide for sacrifice.
The trivial round, the common task,
will furnish all we need to ask,
room to deny ourselves, a road
to bring us daily nearer God.
There is an echo here of the words of the prayers at the preparation of the Altar at the Eucharist, ‘Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you’. God gives us his abundant gifts in order that we may give them back to him, and there is no more powerful example of this than the Aqeidah, the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). Thus, the Note on Stewardship has not been first and foremost for me a matter of fastidious accounting but of learning to see the things I have in a new light – although it’s without doubt that the monthly recording of expenditure is a key part in acquiring this new way of seeing. It was the desire for accountability that first led me to the Oratory, and the simple act of writing and sending our monthly reports has already begun to shape the way I think about money, although my first report (May 2017) was far more straightforward, when I was living in St Padarn’s and only receiving the modest Church in Wales’ training grant!
These words of Wilfred Knox OGS, offered in a 1946 retreat address, and quoted by George Tibbatts OGS certainly set before us a daunting challenge when it comes to how we understand our duty of stewardship:
‘We must always be aiming at being more careful to consult our brethren over our use of money, more ready to deny ourselves this or that luxury, less ready to excuse ourselves with the rationalisation that it is necessary for our work, or that it will help us to do our work better. A rationalisation may look quite satisfactory at a Chapter meeting; it may look a great deal less satisfactory on the day when the judgment is set and the books are opened.’
Henri Nouwen, in his book Clowning in Rome, places ‘voluntary simplicity’ at the heart of the celibate life and claims that ‘the choice to live simply is probably one of the most striking signs of a celibate lifestyle’. He rightly reminds the reader that wherever there is ‘vitality’ in individuals there is ‘a certain poverty’; a concrete decision to live simply and in solidarity with others. While acknowledging that working out what simplicity means for each individual is not always straightforward, and there is huge latitude in this note’s reminder that brethren are not called to give up ‘moderate comfort’, I still take seriously Nouwen’s call to simplicity, not least for its evangelistic potential. Like the rich young man who came to Jesus (Matthew 19.16-30), I am wont to cling to the comfort and security of my lifestyle, but I can’t help but think that this only leads me to ‘go away grieving’. This Note is not first and foremost, as I first thought, a way of avoiding the evangelical poverty to which other religious are vowed, but is instead a positive call to a life of simplicity and discernment, and a call to develop a new way of seeing all that we have as at Christ’s disposal.
Labour of the Mind
Its birth in a University and the learned tradition in religious communities give the Oratory a duty of thought and study. Members will endeavour to worship God with their minds as well as with heart and soul. They will be fearless in following truth, and will constantly try to express it, so that Christ may be fully presented as thought and word allow. They will have a private rule of reading. Each brother will seek according to his ability to bring new thought and knowledge under the discipline of Christ, and to interpret them to a better understanding of the loving purposes of God.
There is an evident history of learned and scholarly members of the Oratory, from Wilfred Knox OGS to Alec Vidler OGS and Eric Mascall OGS; indeed, our founders were all university men, and this history can often make our own study seem shallow in comparison. However, I take great comfort in knowing that George Tibbatts OGS could speak of this note as ‘daunting’ in 1962, thus serving to dispel the myth that living this note was ever easy. Personally, I am very grateful to Michael Bullock OGS’ words from 2017:
‘A lot of the labour of the mind of the solitary student, or dispersed Oratorian, is likely to be a matter of informing oneself rather than gaining wisdom, but I suggest there is such a thing as holy curiosity, one fruit for example being Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne, and maybe in works some Oratorians have produced if not published. Holy curiosity, I suggest, is an essential tool for any parish priest and a delight for any Christian.’
The Labour of the Mind is a challenge to cultivate this ‘holy curiosity’, and I regard it as a great blessing when brothers relax the privacy of their ‘private rule of reading’ and include details of what they’ve read in their reports or share books in College Chapter. ‘Thought and study’ are, as Fr Michael points out, vital for the parish priest, and I’m aware of how what I’m reading – both theological and non-theological – resource my own preaching and teaching. At ordination I promised, with the help of God, to be ‘diligent in prayer, in studying the Holy Scriptures and in continuing to equip [myself] for ministry in the Church’, and I am grateful to the Oratory for help and encouragement in doing that.
I am also heartened by the fact that, when the founders drafted these notes in the vicarage of St Nicolas’ Guildford in 1919, they chose to refer to the ‘duty of thought and study’ as a ‘labour’. Any true labour requires discipline and perseverance, it is not an easy thing, but a true effort, under God, to be faithful to the ‘learned tradition’ that we have inherited.
As Fr Michael ends his reflection on this note, ‘behind it all and in front of it all is the adoration of God.’ All study, whether explicitly theological or study of created things, has the ultimate aim of leading us to adoration. One of my great theological heroes is the patristic writer known variously as Pseudo- Dionysius the Areopagite or Denys, who writes in The Divine Names that, although God is ultimately ‘the inscrutable one… beyond the reach of every rational process’ he is also to be ‘praised by every name – and as the Nameless One’. However inadequate our study may seem, I am encouraged by the fact that what we offer may deepen our sense of wonder, leading us to praise the Inscrutable God and to feed his people. I have found great riches, when considering these things, in singing the words of John Mason, a Calvinistic Anglican priest and poet’s famous hymn How Shall I Sing that Majesty?:
Enlighten with faith’s light my heart,
inflame it with love’s fire;
then shall I sing and bear a part
with that celestial choir.
I shall, I fear, be dark and cold,
with all my fire and light;
yet when thou dost accept their gold,
Lord, treasure up my mite.
The Love that Makes for Peace
The foundation of Oratory life will be that mutual love which has always been the essence of community life in the Catholic Church. The unfailing love of its members one towards another will be increased by extending this love to all people, whether within the Church or without it. Members will have a concern for living interests and problems in Church and State, and in discussing opinions which differ from their own will avoid harsh judgments. Brethren must try to understand these differing opinions, in the hope that they may help to restore the unity of all Christian people in the spirit of charity and peace. They will recognise in all people those for whom Christ died, and will treat them with the courtesy and reverence due to his great love.
George Tibbatts OGS began his reflections on this note by saying, ‘this note is obviously right, yet it is the hardest thing in the world to practice.’ Bishop Jack, in his Visitation report, reminds us that, ‘despite the many differences in background and culture, and the differences of opinion the brethren may have on many issues, it is the love that makes for peace that gives the Oratory its binding unity’. However, even with this ‘binding unity’ the history of the Oratory has not been without what David Johnson OGS calls, ‘times of tension and disagreement’. Each day, as I read the list of departed brethren, I am reminded of the fact that two of our founding fathers left the Oratory – John How to get married – although it is a lovely fact of history that Eric Milner White performed the ceremony and Edward Wynn said the Nuptial Mass – and Eric Milner White, because he objected to the resolution of the 1938 General Chapter which stated that ‘The word “profession” as used by the Oratory, has not the implications that it has when used in the technical sense of taking vows in a religious order.’ [Perhaps, for me, Eric Milner White’s departure is more painful to consider as, unlike John How, I am highly unlikely to leave the Oratory because a woman has swept me off my feet, but I do share, in many ways, Eric Milner White’s view of the profession I made in October!]
However, despite those significant departures, the Oratory’s history is also characterised by a willingness to remain in community despite disagreements on issues that have divided many parts of the Anglican Communion – principally the ordination of women, and views on human sexuality. However, in much smaller ways, I am moved by how brethren put up with one another’s foibles and continue to love each other… even if they may not like each other! George Tibbatts OGS comments, ‘it is fortunate for us that loving and liking are not the same thing’. Love is not a feeling or a sentiment, it is an act of the will – to love is to will the good of the other – and that is the love to which Oratorians are called.
Although couched in typically technical and philosophical language, St Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of love (caritas, charity) and friendship in the Summa Theologiae has been particularly illuminating for me as I reflect on this note. Rooted in the words of Jesus, ‘no longer will I call you servants but friends’ (John 15.15), Aquinas argues that ‘charity is friendship’. He then explores Aristotle’s understanding of friendship in the Nichomachean Ethics. Friendship, claims Aristotle, is reciprocal benevolence, and only truly exists between equals. Aquinas reworks this assertion to claim that the believer becomes God-like through love, coming to share in the pattern of divine sonship through grace. Love is the source and fulfilment of the process of growing in Christlikeness and participating in the divine nature (c.f. 2 Peter 1.4). This friendship of love, which finds its supreme analogy in the nature of God as Trinity, is not a jealously guarded thing between God and the individual. St Thomas teaches us that one ought to be friends with your friend’s friends by virtue of the friendship you share. And so, the Christian is called to love all people simply by virtue of the fact that all creatures share, to some degree, in friendship with the God who loved them into being. Of course, there is a natural order to this love (as Aquinas explains in ST §II.II.26) – we ought to love God more than our neighbour, ourselves more than our neighbour, parents more than children, kin more than stranger and so forth – but this doesn’t take away from the moral duty to recognise God’s love towards all people, and thus the call to treat ‘all people with the courtesy and reverence due to his great love’.
It is this call to love that leads brethren to have ‘a concern for living interests and problems in Church and State’ and to seek reconciliation. This is a powerful witness in a political climate that increasingly eschews reasoned debate and conversation, with opposing sides just trading in pre-packaged slogans and insults. Returning to Aquinas, it is remarkable that, throughout his Summa, he always presents the opposing view with the utmost respect, and often in a more convincing form than his opponents ever could! St Thomas’ own magisterial resolution of the matter – ‘Respondeo dicendum quod…’ – only comes having respectfully and fully stated the views of those who disagreed with him. In the same way, ‘brethren must try to understand these differing opinions’ in order to ‘help restore’ unity, rather than to further entrench division. I hope that, as I inhabit this note more fully, I would become a person who is capable of this kind of loving debate, not trading insults or parodying the views of the ecclesial or political group I would disagree with, but entering into loving and respectful dialogue.
Members of the Oratory are men under authority, pledged to assist in maintaining its common discipline. They will be particularly careful in the practice of internal discipline and surrender to the will of God, which it is the purpose of the Oratory to assist them to attain, and in submitting to the degree of corporate control demanded by the Oratory and their College. Each brother will have a share in the formation of that common mind, and will accept it in a spirit of love and loyalty, and in confidence in the combined experience of the whole fellowship. It is his duty to see that his own contribution to the corporate mind of the Oratory will strengthen the authority of the whole society over individual members.
In his 2017 paper on this note, Peter Hibbert OGS comments on this revealing text from the Lord’s engagement with the pharisees where he said, ‘You tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God’ (Luke 11.42), and offers this helpful comment:
‘If the Pharisees in ancient times erred on the side of discipline without love, there is equally a danger that, in our present liberal society, we may err on the side of love without discipline.’
Discipline is intimately related to the love that should exist between the brethren, because both discipline and love are the hallmarks of Christian discipleship, and of Christian community. Our communal discipline is, of course, about discipline to the spirit and rule of Oratory life – keeping the rule, attending chapter meetings, humbly seeking advice before making important decisions – but it is also about ‘internal discipline’. We are called, as I said above, to use our freedom in the service of Christ and of his Church.
When I became a postulant, I was perhaps most nervous about this note, and particularly the idea that ‘it is his duty to see that his own contribution to the corporate mind of the Oratory will strengthen the authority of the whole society over individual members’ – it’s a reminder that we don’t receive orders ‘under obedience’, which in many ways would be more straightforward, but instead are responsible to each other for ensuring that we continue to live disciplined lives, and ensuring that our community doesn’t just become a gentlemen’s club or a society for the like-minded to affirm one another. As Bishop Jack’s Visitation Report noted, ‘self-discipline is much easier within an enclosed community, it requires a greater effort when a community is dispersed’.
The Greek word that we translate as obedience in the New Testament is ὑπακοὴν (hupakoe) – which has the two root words ‘akuo’ (to hear) and ‘hypo’ (beneath) – thus, to be obedient is to listen attentively. This seems to relate closely to this prayer in the Manual, ‘help us to know him as our Lord, to listen to his voice, and to follow him wherever he leads’ – the Oratory life calls us then to attune our ears to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and to discern where he is leading us, and the work of the College is to help us to ‘listen with the ear of the heart’ (the opening words of the Rule of St Benedict).
Members of the Oratory will regularly make thanksgiving to God for his love until thanksgiving be spontaneous and perpetual. They will be regular in recreation; they will avoid anxiety and fuss; they will disown discouragement and depression, and check all complaint and bitterness as destructive of the brethren’s joy as well of their own. They will accept gladly their share of weariness and sorrow in the joyful spirit of the saints, and the faithful following of him who for the joy that was set before him endured the Cross. They will welcome any labour or sacrifice which will minister to the joy of others, looking toward that most blessed voice, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”
‘The joy of thy Lord’ is what we hope will be the fulfilment of our pilgrimage – just as Jesus endured the cross ‘for the sake of the joy that was set before him’ (Hebrews 12.2), so we too persevere in our discipleship in the hope that one day we will share with the saints in the fullness of joy. Again, this note is not setting up various rules for us to follow but trying to adjust our vision, helping us to set our minds ‘on things that are above’ (Colossians 3.2). We are called to cultivate a joy that isn’t contingent on the vicissitudes of life, however depressing or overwhelming they may seem, but on the unchanging nature of God, for ‘thy nature and thy name is love’ as Charles Wesley put it.
However, in order to adjust our vision, the founders give some practical advice, first, that we should ‘regularly make thanksgiving to God for his love’. As Nicholas Gandy OGS wisely comments,
‘Here we are encouraged to be regular in thanksgiving. Regular implies being intentional. It suggests commitment to a practice; a practice of paying attention to what in our experience is a gift of God’s love: a gift of grace… That wise old adage beloved of pious grandmothers, ‘Count your blessings’ makes for contentment that the glass is at least half full.’
Brethren are also called to be ‘regular in recreation’. Not taking your ‘day off’ or holiday entitlement gives certain bragging rights, particularly amongst clergy newer in ministry, and the founders here challenge this attitude with their simple advice. To be regular in recreation is to enter into that rest which the Lord promises to those who listen to his voice (c.f. Psalm 95), and is a reminder, in a world of busyness and anxious activity, that God is in control and ultimately, he doesn’t need us. One thought that has come back to me again and again in prayer, and indeed became the theme of a harvest sermon I preached at Dylan’s invitation in Ruthin, is that God shares his work with us in the same way that a parent loves to invite a toddler to help with baking a cake – not because the toddler helps in any practical sense, indeed they make the work harder, but because the parent delights in sharing this work with their child. That is how we participate in God’s saving work.
St Irenaeus’ Against the Heresies is one of the great works of patristic theology and many people know the beautiful quote from Book 4, ‘Gloria Dei est vivens homo’ (the glory of God is a human being fully alive). St Irenaeus says this in order to show his reader how different the true God is from the pagan gods and goddesses, whose glory was a human being in submission, providing the sacrifices they needed. In contrast, the true God does not need our sacrifices or our praise (c.f. Psalm 40 or Psalm 51.6), instead God lavishes his love upon us, and we respond with praise not because he needs our praise, but because we need him. We are, as the Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel, famously put it the ‘cantors of the universe’, beings capable of singing praise and thanks to God in the name of all the rest. Giving voice to the silent praise of all creation.
Being regular in recreation, refusing to be part of the spirit of anxiety and busyness that infects the world, and the Church, is how we render true thanksgiving to God – because we acknowledge that he doesn’t need us but that we need him. We acknowledge that we are ‘ministers and not messiahs’.
College Life and Fellowship
The heart of Oratory life, at least for me, has been the college, and I am thankful for having been in two colleges who have had a real depth of fellowship. If all my reflections on the Seven Notes above can seem a little abstract, it is in college life that ‘the rubber hits the road’.
Pope St John Paul II’s post-synodal exhortation Vita Consecrata includes these words, which set before us a high ideal of ‘fraternal love’:
The fraternal life, understood as a life shared in love, is an eloquent sign of ecclesial communion. It is practised with special care in Religious Institutes and in Societies of Apostolic Life, where community living acquires special significance. Nor is the dimension of fraternal communion alien to Secular Institutes, or even to forms of the consecrated life lived individually… All these people, by practising evangelical discipleship, commit themselves to fulfilling the Lord’s “new commandment”, to love one another as he has loved us (cf. Jn 13:34). Love led Christ to the gift of self, even to the supreme sacrifice of the Cross. So too, among his disciples, there can be no true unity without that unconditional mutual love which demands a readiness to serve others generously, a willingness to welcome them as they are, without “judging” them (cf. Mt 7:1-2), and an ability to forgive up to “seventy times seven” (Mt 18:22).
I have certainly seen how these high ideals are enfleshed in the Oratory, in the willingness of brothers to bear with one another and to maintain a sense of community, even with those who we find difficult or frustrating. I had a very enlightening conversation on this subject with Edward Simonton OGS at Walsingham, who spoke to me about the almost miraculous work of God’s grace in ‘knocking the edges off’ Oratorians and, over time, making brethren gentler and more loving. Although there is always the potential for ‘bitching’ and moaning, this is held within a context of genuine mutual love, and a real desire to support one another. This love and support is particularly obvious when brothers are in particular need, and I have experienced this first-hand when I have sought prayerful support for my mother. David Johnson OGS bears eloquent witness to this support and encouragement in his paper on ‘the love that makes for peace’.
George Tibbatts OGS is clear about the potential hazards which can damage community life when he says,
‘It is easy to suffer from impatience, and this also drives away the love that makes for peace. We find that many people have mannerisms which get on our nerves, as we say, and this impatience makes us intolerant and hard. In the English Church it is quite normal for priests to conduct services in many different, and sometimes highly individualistic, ways. Many of us have pet topics for conversation, and these are frequently boring, and produce impatience and intolerance. We develop habits of speech which irritate when we notice them in other people. Why does A always say this or do that in this particular way? Why is B so stupid? Why is C such a bore? And before we know where we are we have given way to temptations which destroy love, or at any rate hinder its growth. In addition to all this, there is the inherent selfishness which refuses to give way even when we know that we are wrong.’
One particular aspect of Oratory life that I have struggled to adjust to is the huge variety of different ways that OGS is understood by different brothers, even within the same college, and the different role it plays in our lives. As Dominic Walker OGS reflected in his 2019 Provincial’s Report,
‘If you asked brethren to describe the Oratory you would find different viewpoints – it is a family; it is a way of living the consecrated life; a framework for living the evangelical counsels; a way of combining the religious life with personal ministry; a fellowship providing love, support and encouragement; a dispersed community of prayer, study and accountability. It is indeed all of those things and more because we know that it is grace that binds us together as the Seven Notes are lived and internalised and that in turn brings both peace and joy.’
Learning to find ‘peace and joy’ in this diversity has been, and I suspect will remain, a personal challenge. The only way I have found so far is to try to be faithful to what I think the Good Shepherd is calling me to – that is, to the consecrated life lived in the world and in close communion with my brothers. When people ask me ‘what are you?’ I typically respond that I am a brother of a religious community and a priest in North East Wales, as these two aspects of my identity have become the foundation stones of my life and the way I seek to live out my baptismal consecration. I am a baptised Christian, whose baptism is lived out as a professed brother of OGS; and I am an Oratorian, whose ‘adoration of God in the service of the Lord Jesus Christ’ is lived out as a priest.
The Oratory Rule is, as ‘Obedience to a Calling’ puts it, ‘simple and straight forward, and basically, it involves the daily Eucharist (wherever possible, and one must make every effort to explore possibilities), the Divine Office (to be recited with care and reverence) and interior prayer (meditation, mental prayer, contemplation)’ and daily prayer for the brethren by name. The Rule is not intended to be burdensome, but instead expresses the ideal of a catholic life, rooted in prayer and sacrament, from which flows all life and ministry. As Eric Milner White expresses in his ‘Ideals of the Oratory Life’,
‘[the Rule] shall be made so severe as to necessitate every day a real effort of love on the part of each brother; and so light as will not enchain his charitable energy in the course of his daily round.’
For me, the Rule has provided a framework for life and, after a few years of settling into it, has become something of what Peter Hibbert OGS describes:
‘It is not something to brag about if you attain its requirements. Neither is it something with which to crush yourself with guilt, if you fail to meet its stipulations. It is more in the nature a life-line for each of us to hold on to, to give structure and meaning to our daily life, and to help us each day to begin, again.’
Spinoza, the Dutch rationalist philosopher of the 17th century, famously claimed that there are no vacuums in nature. It is very easy, at least for me, for ‘prayer’ to become a way of filling up the vacuum of the day, and simply a way to be busy with God rather than busy with people (c.f. 1 Corinthians 7.32ff.) – and, because of this temptation , I am grateful for the simplicity of our rule – with its emphasis on the primacy of the hour of ‘interior prayer’. We are called to what Klaus Issler called ‘wasting time with God’, a phrase which has struck me ever since I first read it in a short exhortation to prayerfrom the Sisters of Jesus’ Way, an Evangelical Anglican community on the Wirral, by the same name.
When I have read the early history of OGS, I am struck by how the first brethren were motivated by a desire ‘for the wider dissemination of Catholic faith and practice’ and the principle work of the Oratory in Cambridge was the Daily Mass in St Edward’s Church; the spiritual nurturing of choristers, and in organising spiritual and theological conferences. Thus, the spiritual discipline of brethren is, I think, partly about equipping us to teach others about prayer and to encourage them to seek that deeper communion with Christ which is the true end of all spiritual endeavour; ‘it is hard work but gloriously worthwhile’.
In many ways, the monthly reports are the place where we regularly exercise the fellowship and mutual discipline which the Notes call us to. It is a rather unfashionable thing, especially the ‘chapter of faults’ but it is in our regular reporting that the mutual accountability that I sought in OGS is most evident. I have found it helpful to keep a regular note (saved on my phone) of things I wish to include in my report, especially any ‘faults’ or things I have read – in many ways, the most valuable thing about the reporting process is the opportunity for self-reflection it gives, and a chance to share both good and bad news, along with the financial accountability, which I discussed above.
At the heart of the Religious Life is the vocation to celibacy, although this reality is only fleetingly referred to in our Manual. In the midst of our hedonistic culture, I am discovering just how powerful a witness celibacy is – as it is truly counter-cultural to refuse to take part in in the prevailing sexual culture, which Pope Francis describes in Amoris Laetitia (§153):
‘In our own day, sexuality risks being poisoned by the mentality of “use and discard”. The body of the other is often viewed as an object to be used as long as it offers satisfaction, and rejected once it is no longer appealing.’
In the midst of this culture, our vocation to be celibate is not a grim denial of worldly pleasure, but a ‘yes’ to love, and the freedom to love in a non-possessive way. As Christopher Powell OGS put it succinctly, ‘free to love Christ and our brethren and so free to love all people for His sake’.
Pope St John Paul II teaches, in Vita Consecrata, that the celibate life lived well reveals that ‘in Christ it is possible to love God with all one’s heart, putting him above every other love, and thus to love every creature with the freedom of God!’ These are lofty ambitions, and I pray that God, ‘who has begun this good work… will bring it to completion’ (Philippians 1.6).
However, all this is to make celibacy seem like a practical or useful thing, and there are certainly useful fruit to the celibate life… but, first and foremost, it is part of our ‘adoration of God… and the imitation of his [Christ’s] most holy life’. As Henri Nouwen simply puts it, ‘Jesus never presented celibacy as a very practical, useful or efficient lifestyle’ – we must be conscious of ‘the foolishness of making oneself eunuch for the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 19.12)’.
However, I cannot pretend that celibacy has been, or indeed is, easy for me – and the ready availability of temptation through instant communication and the internet are particular challenges. I recently read the very insightful Crossing by Mark Barrett OSB (a monk at Worth Abbey) and in it he explores the idea of the celibate state as one of ‘radical incompleteness’ – and he describes the celibate as someone who is ‘a sign of the incompleteness of all humanity until all our hearts rest in the one for whom they are created’. In the book, he urges the reader to understand that, while celibacy is a worthy calling, it is not an easy option, and requires a depth of emotional and spiritual maturity to be lived well, a maturity which begins by acknowledging the woundedness of our humanity. In a powerful paragraph he writes,
‘The imagery occasionally encountered of God as the ‘spouse’ of the celibate religious may be fine at some level of discourse, but in almost every way that matters it is desperately misleading. God is no use in bed. God does not hold you when you are down. He does not take you clubbing, to the cinema, or cook you a meal. He doesn’t smell good and feel warm beside you… I had chosen not to have these experiences, and suddenly I needed to mourn the life that had not been.’
I find this a helpful reminder that simply ignoring the natural desire for physical and emotional intimacy, or brushing them aside with pious platitudes, is not enough to sustain a lifetime of consecrated celibacy. As ‘Obedience to a Calling’ helpfully states, ‘Celibacy requires great personal integrity regarding a self-knowledge of sexual orientation and a recognition of when a relationship is straining human emotions’ – and I am grateful to belong to a community with brethren to whom I can turn for counsel in such times of strain.
For many, Mark Barratt’s reflections may strike them as strange, as their decision to make vows of celibacy was about completeness and not incompleteness. Indeed, there are many reasons why people may feel called to the celibate life: as a secondary requirement to another vocation, such as a Latin Rite Roman Catholic priest or certain missionaries; as a means to sanctify one’s sexual orientation; as a way of living widowhood; or as a way of belonging to a particular religious community. There is a tension between the ‘radical incompleteness’ of the celibate life, which is often highlighted for me when friends deepen their relationships or have children, but there is also a sense of ‘wholeness’ found in following God’s call, Jesus himself promised that he would return a-hundredfold what we give up for his sake in this life (Mark 10.31).
This rather piecemeal reflection on my first few years in OGS has been, in many ways, a helpful process – I have sought to distillate my own thoughts and feelings about the last few years, and in particular my first profession on the feast of St Teresa of Avila 2019. In my reflection on the Rite of Profession itself, I commented on the relationship between the perfection of the Eucharistic sacrifice and the rather faltering sacrifice that I made of myself on that day. Having written out my profession document, it was placed under the corporal, as the offering of my life was joined to the Eucharistic offering and I prayed that day that my own often tepid, faltering self-offering would somehow be taken up and transformed by the same Spirit who is at work in consecrating the Church’s sacrifice of praise. I think over these very few years, I have begun to realise just how true are the words that it is ‘only in communion with the Good Shepherd’ that we can hope to live this life faithfully.