The Oratory of the Good Shepherd: history, origins and special relevance today

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“The charism of the Oratory is the renewal of prayer in the life of the Church, and members are often engaged in spiritual direction and the leading of retreats,” says The Ven. Keith Dean-Jones OGS

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Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, claims that the renewal of the Church depends on a renewal of the life of prayer. He recognises that religious communities, both traditional monastic communities (e.g. the Society of St Francis and the Society of the Sacred Advent) and emerging expressions of the religious life (e.g. Community of the Way), ought to be encouraged so that the Holy Spirit can breathe new life into the wider community of the people of God.  I agree with him, and I believe that religious communities remind us that the ministry of Jesus is composed of three fundamental elements – his words, his actions and his prayer. I also acknowledge that we are challenged to follow Jesus’ example, and just as Jesus withdrew from the crowds so that he could be with God in ‘the silence of eternity interpreted by love’, we are enabled to engage with the demands of ministry when we pursue a balanced life. Ministry is like a three-legged stool, and to affirm each element is essential for the proclamation of the Gospel.

The Oratory of the Good Shepherd is a dispersed Anglican religious community that operates in Australia, Europe, North America and Southern Africa. It was founded by a group of priest dons in the University of Cambridge in 1913 and, at present, it consists of 41 professed members (‘Oratorians’) and 75 companions (similar to Franciscan ‘tertiaries’ and Benedictine ‘oblates’). 13 professed members belong to the Australian Province. Unlike Franciscan friars and Society of the Sacred Advent sisters, Oratorians do not live together. Professed members are celibate men (clergy and laity) whose lives are governed by the observance of the Rule and guided by the seven ‘Notes’ – fellowship, liberty, stewardship, the labour of the mind, the love that makes for peace, discipline and joy. The purpose of the Oratory is the adoration of God in the service of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the ‘Notes’ and the ‘Rule’ are designed to achieve the aim.

Oratorians belong to local groups known as ‘colleges’, and the Australian Province is formed by the Brisbane College, the Sydney Mission College and the Melbourne College. Colleges meet regularly for chapter. Chapters include a ‘chapter of faults’ (a report of failure to observe the Rule), personal reports and financial reports. Conversation tends to be supportive and non-critical.

“This image was taken at Little Gidding, Huntingdonshire, England, at the Centenary General Chapter in 2013. The celebrant (in white vestments and in the centre) is the former Superior, The Rev’d Professor Peter Hibbert OGS” (Image courtesy of The Oratory of the Good Shepherd)

Every day Oratorians are required to attend the Holy Eucharist, read Morning and Evening Prayer, intercede for all professed members by name, pray for departed members by name and spend an hour in silent prayer. The hour of silent prayer is generally recognised as the distinctive feature of the Rule. They are expected to have a private rule of reading and to be regular in making confession of sin in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Oratorians are encouraged to be interested in the affairs of Church and state, but not to be engaged in the ‘party-politics’ of religion. It is not a strenuous Rule, but it is designed to encourage prayer, intellectual integrity and active ministry in the world.

The charism of the Oratory is the renewal of prayer in the life of the Church, and members are often engaged in spiritual direction and the leading of retreats. Every year members meet for a Provincial Chapter, and once every three years they meet for a General Chapter. Members do not share a common purse, but they are required to make report of expenditure to members of their college.

The Oratory is strongly Anglican in tone, and the patron saint is Nicholas Ferrar, a scholar, businessman and deacon (1592-1637). Ferrar lived at a time of religious turmoil in post-Reformation England, and with his mother, brother and brother-in-law and their families, he formed a community of 30 people at Little Gidding, a remote rural district in Huntingdonshire. The daily pattern of prayer was drawn from the services of the Book of Common Prayer and expanded with daily recitation of the entire psalter, monthly reading of the four Gospels, the practice of greater silence and nocturnal prayer.

The founders of the Oratory chose Ferrar because of his affirmation of both ancient Catholic Christianity and the insights of the Protestant Reformation. Ferrar formed a community that was unique; compassionate in responding to humanity, comprehensive in faith and with the hope of being a fresh expression of monasticism adapted to the aspirations of the age.

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