Being a Franciscan Tertiary

I have now requested release from vows, as the Order has moved away from what I joined it for being. I suppose this is in accordance with the Vow of Obedience (part 3: Obedience To Conscience) as well as to the Vow of Simplicity (which to me includes relevance or appropriateness).

What is a tertiary?

Occasionally rumours appeared that I was some kind of monk... it's not true, I'm afraid! I am however a Franciscan Tertiary, that is, a member of a Franciscan Third Order, which means that I lived under a form of the Franciscan Rule, but whereas members of the first and second orders live according to a three-fold rule of complete poverty, celibacy, and obedience, I live according to a three-fold rule of simplicity, chastity and obedience (all of which are basic baptismal requirements for any Christian, anyway; this is just a re-affirmation of the same vows).

So, I never was any kind of monk, although I was a plain-clothes Franciscan, and was part of the Society of St. Francis, a religious order in the Anglican Communion.

What the three-fold Rule means

The three-fold rule
Poverty / Simplicity

For the First and Second Orders, this means living without personal or corporate property; their buildings, clothes etc are held in trust for them.

For the Third Order, this means an attitude inclined away from accumulation of wealth, and a concern for how you use what you own.

For me, I try to keep my house simple, and for a short while lived somewhere much simpler, which was wonderful. I'm using a car somewhat too much, but preparing to cycle more soon.

For me, simplicity is coming to mean discerning what is rubbish and cutting it out of my life, and this includes at least one requirement (annual reports) placed on members of my Order!

Chastity / Celibacy

For the First and Second Orders, this means living in celibate community (or for a few, the hermits and solitaries, living alone).

For the Third Order, this can either be within marriage (requiring faithfulness to your partner) or being celibate (but leaving open the possibility of marriage).

For me, the actual meaning of this part of the Rule is not to use anyone, but to treat them as a person.


For all the Orders, this is to the Order, to the Church, and ultimately to God, as discerned by your personal conscience in prayer. It is part of the Rule that nothing in the Rule may override your conscience.

An underlying point of this is that you're not always right.

In the Third Order, each member writes their own Rule according to their circumstances, and sends it to Chapter for approval. Mine is here.

Isn't living by Rule contrary to the Gospel taught by Jesus?

One danger of living according to a Rule is that of a rigid legalism. The proper way to regard the Rule is as not being salvific (i.e. there is no intrinsic merit in it) but as a helpful guide and as a backstop against backsliding.

However, I think the bigger danger is that of ``togetherness'' and ``being part of something.'' (In an interesting contrast from this, both Jesus, and St Francis, seem to have made themselves outsiders.)


Since 1989 I have been a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis, hence the letters TSSF after my name. However, I am now in the process of withdrawing from membership of the Order, although not changing the nature of my religious views.

What's TSSF really like?

In TSSF, bureaucracy and hierarchy are now prominent, with insistence on filling in report forms (and no doubt much other paperwork at other levels, that is nothing to do with the Franciscan life either)... the Order is talking about reorganizing to work more at the local level, but I doubt this will go far enough.

Here are some things which stand out to me in TSSF these days:

Compulsory meetings
Being a tertiary in good standing requires attendance at area and regional meetings. These tend to be rather tacky -- perhaps they suit older people looking for something a bit twee or touchy-feely; at the last one I went to, I hid quietly behind a pillar at the back and had little to do with it. I'm not sure whether S. Francis himself would have done likewise; he might have gone up to the front and pointed out how little the meeting had to do with any of the values of the movement he founded, but, given his emphasis on obedience and respect for the liturgy, I could well believe he too would have hidden behind a pillar too. Everybody tends to be horribly EF (in MBTI terms) at these, and if you want respect for your personal space, or, to put it another way, are more cat-like than dog-like, you'll probably have to go right outside the building while people are milling around, and slip in quietly to the back once everyone else has sat down (although even then somebody will try to (in their terms) make you welcome, no matter how much you avoid being made welcome). Perhaps letting them do it is a form of ministry to them, but it's also encouraging dependent / addictive behaviour, and I'm inclined to have nothing to do with it (and neither, I suspect, would St Francis have done).
Compulsory annual reports
Part of being a Franciscan in TSSF is the annual chore of thumbing through your diary and chequebook to find when you last made a retreat and when you last paid your contribution. `They' seem to think this is something to do with keeping up your franciscan vocation. For a long time, I didn't deliberately leave, but did not return my report form (or at least, not with the kind of content sought), and wondered whether they chuck me out for this (yes, it does seem to matter to `them', although probably not to that extent).
My small group
This was the bit that actually matters to me -- the bit that kept me exploring my vocation. The group I was long in seems to have been formed from those who didn't fit into the chummy fellowship of some older members and tweeness of others.
Bumf from central
I've tended to leave this unopened until a rainy afternoon at home (a long time, that is) and so missed the announcement of plans to restructure the order to put more emphasis on the local.
Political correctness
The newsletters have a growing number of articles about ``Sexual diversity'' by which they clearly mean homosexuality. Either they're still referring to it euphemistically, or they're quietly also support paedophilia but not mentioning it (I think ``sexual diversity'' is used as a term to include that in the Netherlands, I wouldn't be surprised if it spreads).

I'm interested in forming a new Order (or split-off from TSSF) to work at a more local level, without bureaucracy and without political correctness -- mail me if you're interested.

[John's Christianity page]
John C. G. Sturdy

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