The Public Making of Personal Vows
There have always been some who believe that they are called by God to dedicate themselves by a vow and to live as consecrated celibates, whose primary concern is to build up the body of Christ in unity and love, though without living a common life under a superior and a common Rule. This autonomous vowed life has been recognised in the Eastern and Western Churches from earliest times as an authentic Christian vocation. Because it is not a life lived in community according to the norms of the Religious Life, it does not come within the normal scope of the Advisory Council; but since it has some similarities to the situation of Religious living under vows, bishops and others have frequently referred cases to the Council. Therefore the Council has set up a Personal Vows Advisory Group to which these requests are to be referred. Their paper and Guidelines are to be found on page 89 of this Handbook.
The Council offers the following guidelines:
The whole-hearted commitment, dedication and offering of any Christian to God is to be encouraged and supported by the Church. However, the desire of anyone to make the commitment publicly by pronouncing a vow of celibacy needs to be examined and discerned carefully and wisely. A person believing they are called to do so should discuss this with their parish priest and their spiritual director, and with their support approach the diocesan bishop. The bishop, who alone has authority to receive such a public commitment by vow, is strongly advised to avail themselves of the further guidance and support of the Personal Vows Advisory Group set up by the Advisory Council for testing these vocations, which can also provide a service for making and blessing the vow.
It is unlikely that people living alone within the context of, say, a parish community could undertake the other traditional vows of poverty and obedience, since these vows would imply shared ownership of resources and communally ordered decision-making for the sake of the kingdom. Therefore normally only the vow of celibacy should be undertaken.
The wearing of a habit similar to that worn by members of a Religious community is inappropriate, since those who make a vow outside of a Religious community are not included in the formal category of Religious. For the same reason it is not desirable that a Religious name or title be adopted.
In receiving this vow, the bishop should make it clear that they or their successors are not responsible for providing work, an income, or accommodation. As chief pastor of the diocese, they take spiritual responsibility for the person under vow, though they would normally delegate this to a designated priest of experience.
Should the person under vow move into another diocese, the bishop who has previously acted as guardian of the vow should commend that person to the care of the bishop of the receiving diocese. Likewise, a retiring bishop should commend any such under their care to their successor.
The bishop should register with the Administrative Secretary of the Advisory Council the names of all those who make this vow in public.
The dispensing authority for this vow is the bishop who is currently the guardian of the vow.
For those living the single consecrated life
The Bible commends chastity lived out in life-long marriage or celibacy as ways of living the Christian life. From earliest times, inspired by the Holy Spirit, some have followed the call of God to live their vocation in a covenant relationship of consecrated celibacy.
Throughout history this charism has taken a variety of forms. In the early Church, the place of consecrated virgins and widows was honoured. Tertullian was the first to equate such a vocation with marriage so that consecration to celibacy was seen as a spiritual espousal.
The monastic life developed in Syria and Egypt with its eremitic and coenobitic traditions incorporating celibacy. From this developed the celibate Religious Life in its various Western expressions. The rules of cloistered enclosure were introduced in the thirteenth century at a time when the mendicant preaching orders were being established. The Middle Ages witnessed the Beguine movement in the Low Countries and consecrated tertiaries living in the world like St Catherine of Siena and St Rose of Lima. In the seventeenth century, Mary Ward and St Vincent de Paul established new forms of the Religious Life.
Celtic monasticism and anchorites were a particular British expression of the Religious Life. Today in Britain and elsewhere we see new forms of the consecrated life emerging – among them secular institutes, dispersed communities, the Order of Consecrated Virgins in the Roman Catholic Church and a growth in those seeking to live as hermits and solitaries. Alongside these are men and women who wish to consecrate their lives in celibacy to live as single people in the world for the sake of the kingdom of God.
Celibacy as a charism
At times in the history of the Church, celibacy has been elevated as a superior vocation, but in a post-modern society it is often regarded as irrelevant and life-denying. For some, it has been sought as a refuge from sexuality, commitment and intimacy, or it is regarded as the fate of the sad, the unlucky and the ugly! There is a need to reinterpret and renew this biblical vocation and for the Church to support and encourage those who are called to this way of life.
Celibacy is an invitation, a gift and a means of grace. Those who seek to make a vow of celibacy, usually through a bishop, do so in a way similar to that which others choose when they make a vow of marriage.
It is a loving response to a God who invites someone to consecrate his or her sexuality in this way.
It is a distinctive charism and is incarnational; it is a counter-cultural witness in a world obsessed with sex and binds the vowed person to Christ to serve him with a new freedom. Those who respond to this invitation discover that God does indeed bless them. They are more available to others and they have an inner solitude that can foster prayer, but they also learn that like their married friends, they need to renew their vow every day.
For some, celibacy is a secondary vocation which may develop into a charism, but is freely accepted as part of another vocation – for example, a commitment to serve the poor, missionary service, a dedication to widowhood, membership of a Religious community or the Roman Catholic priesthood.
For others, celibacy is a primary vocation. It is indeed like a ‘spiritual marriage’ and they feel ‘complete’ through their consecration of celibacy. Here there is also an eschatological dimension, for in heaven
‘they neither marry nor are given in marriage’ (Mark 12:25).
From Apostolic times, God has called people to consecrated celibacy. Today, we need to respond positively to those who are being called and to make the Church aware of this gift and way of life. We need to support and encourage those who seek to live out this consecration in the world in response to God’s invitation to follow the way of Christ.
These are promises made to a bishop (or his delegate) by an individual who is not a member of a Religious community for a temporary period or for life. They are better not described as private vows because they are being officially received and recognised and of course, all vows are ‘personal’ in that they are made by a person to God. The term personal vow is therefore preferred to private or individual vow.
The personal vow will be that of ‘consecrated celibacy’, which is the touchstone of the Religious Life. The vow both recognises the ‘call’ of the person making it, and the gift the person has received and now offers back to God and the Church for the sake of the kingdom.
The single consecrated life
Those living the single consecrated life are distinguished from hermits who are professed Religious vowed to the evangelical counsels or the Benedictine Rule. Some who choose the single consecrated life will be called to an active apostolate and others to a mixed or contemplative spiritual life.
A vocation to the single consecrated life should be tested over a period of time before temporary vows are made.
The candidate should have a spiritual director who is familiar with this form of consecration.
A proper enquiry should be made of the candidate – and the attached questionnaire indicates the areas of enquiry.
The vocation is rooted in God – it is about ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ – but the vocation also needs to be rooted in the Church by association with a parish, chaplaincy or Religious community.
After a period of probation, annual temporary vows may be received, and renewed, using a form of service that recognises the maturity, perseverance and significance of the consecration being made and renewed.
The length of time in temporary vows will depend on each particular candidate, but life vows should only be made with the support of those who have been involved in the discernment process. Temporary vows may be renewed and thirty should be regarded as the minimum age for making a life vow.
Candidates should be single, widowed or divorced. Someone who is still bound to marriage vows may not take a vow of celibacy.
A ring and/or a cross may be appropriate symbols of the covenant relationship being undertaken.
A personal vow should be received by a bishop who will keep a record of it and also inform the Advisory Council and the diocesan bishop if another bishop has received the vow. The bishop of the diocese in which a vowed person lives shall also have authority to grant release from the vow, at which point the Advisory Council should again be notified.
If a vowed person moves to another diocese, the bishop should commend the person to the bishop of the diocese to which the person is moving.
An annual meeting with the bishop (either personally or through a delegate) is advised. He should also ensure that a vowed person has an adequate network of spiritual support and the means to maintain a lifestyle suitable to his/her vocation.
A candidate may take an additional vow(s) in addition to consecrated celibacy to indicate a lifestyle (for example, simplicity, hospitality, commitment to the poor) or a particular devotion (for example, to the Blessed Sacrament, intercession etc). Although candidates will be expected to live within the spirit of the evangelical counsels, it is not appropriate to take vows of poverty and obedience as the candidate retains control of personal finances and has no Religious superior.
It will help if aspirants and single consecrated people can be put in touch with others who have taken a similar vow either within the Church of England or with a member of the Order of Consecrated Virgins (OCV) within the Roman Catholic Church.
In due course, we trust that there will be an increasing number who will form a network to support one another. Key ingredients in this support will be encouragement in the distinctiveness and variety of the call on each person’s life and the recognition that this will continue to grow and change over time.
Personal encouragement and formal recognition by a bishop can be an important factor in developing individual vocations. At this point in time bishops have a particular opportunity to promote this step as both an ancient and contemporary expression of the consecrated life offering enrichment to the Church today.
ENQUIRY FOR BISHOPS RECEIVING PERSONAL VOWS
OF SINGLE CONSECRATED PERSONS
Personal Details: Name, address, telephone number, email, date of birth etc.
Personal circumstances: Education, occupation, financial circumstances, housing, pension, family, daily pattern of life etc. Single, widowed or divorced?
Faith journey: Write about your faith journey and other significant events and influences in your life. How does your faith relate to the whole of your life (e.g. family friendships, work)?
Spiritual Life: Spiritual director? Confessor? Link with a Religious community? Theological study and spiritual reading. Have you always been single?
Formation: Are you in contact with a single consecrated person? If not, would you be willing to be put in touch with one?
Pattern of Prayer: When do you attend the eucharist, Offices, spend time in personal prayer, retreat?
Parish involvement: How do you participate and contribute to the life of the parish? How would you see consecrated celibacy as contributing to your life in the church?
Work & Ministry: Have you been involved in a recognised ministry within the Church? If so, please provide details.
Health: Health history? Disabilities? Have you received psychiatric care or counselling? Are you willing to undergo a medical examination/psychological assessment?
Consecration: How did you learn about the single consecrated life. Write about why you wish to be consecrated. If you are consecrated, how do you see that as affecting your future?
References: Please provide the names of two referees (e.g. parish priest, spiritual director).
‘Their ranks were recruited from both sexes, even at an early period; we note their presence even in the second century under various names, such as ascetae, eunuchs, continentes, encratitae etc’. L. Duchesne in Christian Worship, SPCK, London, 1912 p.419f.
‘What makes the virgin the ‘spouse’ or ‘bride of Christ’ is not the fact of her vow of virginity, but rather her relationship with Christ, which includes and demands virginity. To speak of a woman as ‘virgin’ is to speak of this profound relationship rather than to speak of a physical state.’ Teresa Clements DMJ in Order of the Consecration of Virgins, Milltown Studies, 1989.