All Christians are consecrated to God through baptism. However, God calls some to a more definite living out of their baptismal vows through a life marked by prayer and service. This life is usually lived with others also motivated in the same way.
A traditional way in which this more intensely consecrated life has been lived is through taking religious vows. In the Benedictine tradition these vows are stability, conversion of life and obedience. For the mendicant and other orders which came later these vows are usually expressed as poverty, chastity and obedience.
People with these vows usually live together in community, sharing their life with other similarly vowed religious. Each community (or congregation or Order) has a particular characteristic - its charism - the thing which God has called it to do and equipped it for. Some are mainly contemplative. Their members work mostly within the monastery or convent and have ministries such as running a guest house or making and selling handcrafts. Others are more active, and more likely to be working in the wider world around them.
All these communities are sustained by regular times of prayer together, forming part of the rhythm of day, and giving shape to the work and other ministries.
In every age there have been new forms of community life which have kept some traditional elements of the life, but have also added new features in response to different needs in the world around them. These days the movement known as "New Monasticism" is one of these new forms. Each community is different but they include commitment to prayer, social justice, evangelism, and to living with each other in community. These communities usually include single people and married couples and perhaps families.
Another form of consecrated life is that of living as a consecrated single person. This is essentially a "hidden life" - without any distinct dress or title.
The Anglican Church in Australia has an Advisory Council formed of leaders of the "traditional" forms of community as well as representatives of the wider church. This Council, although mainly concerned with the "traditional" forms of religious community life, also has an interest in single consecrated life and is currently considering providing some form of networking of "new" forms of community life and the possibility of official acknowledgement for such communities.
"Today many people like to keep their options open, to be flexible, and to be able to reinvent themselves. They don’t like to be restricted. There can be a fear of being trapped by commitment. Taking religious vows means that certain options are being closed off. The vows set your life in a particular direction to be followed until death. Members of Religious Communities believe that God calls us to take such vows because there are some worthwhile things that only come to full fruition through the commitment and dedication of a lifetime. Vows anchor us in the way of discipleship that we have chosen. They are a support in difficult times – and there will be difficult times. They are a solemn promise to which we are constantly called back, a reminder to live our life in Christ to the full." (arlife.org.uk)
Rule of Life
Each religious community, or single consecrated person, has a Rule of Life. A Rule is a way of keeping the focus on God, rather than a set of Rules to be obeyed in detail. A Rule sets out details of daily life, including times of prayer and other community activities. A Rule helps transmit the wisdom of the past through to the current generation.
The Rule of St Benedict is probably the most famous. "[W]e intend to establish a school of the Lord’s service. In drawing up its regulations, we hope to lay down nothing that is harsh or burdensome. The good of all concerned, however, may prompt us to a little strictness in order to amend faults and to safeguard love.” — Prologue to Rule of St Benedict, tr Abbot Stuart Burns, Mucknell Abbey (arlife.org.uk)
A Rule of Life can also be helpful to those considering joining a community. Some general advice: keep it simple and do-able. Don't make it so hard as to be impossible. It can include some elements such as times for prayer and reading the Bible. "It can cover many aspects of your life such as prayer, fasting, going to church, reading, care of the environment, how you use your money, how you use your spare time, going on retreat and taking rest." (arlife.org.uk)