It was announced last week that at 10am on January 1, eleven Anglican Sisters, members of the Community of St Mary the Virgin in Wantage, one of the first post-Reformation Anglican religious communities to be established in England in the wake of the Tractarian movement, will be received into the Catholic Church. They will be received into the ordinariate by Mgr Keith Newton, leader of the ordinariate in England and Wales, at St Aloysius, Oxford, the Church of the Oxford Oratory (which, as it happens, is my own parish church).
This will, of course, be a wonderful and joyful occasion. But this is a group conversion for which a heavy price has been paid: there will also, I am sure, have been some distress, distress which so far as I can see (and I have been told nothing, I simply read between the lines) has been inflicted by the lack of good will of the Anglican authorities. The sisters had hoped that those becoming Catholic — who are the core of the community, those most active in its life — could stay on at the convent in order to care for the remainder of the sisters, who are mostly old and frail, and for whose care they have thus far been responsible. Anglican and Catholic sisters would have continued to sing the office together, but there would have been “appropriate Eucharistic provision”: the Catholic sisters would have had their own Mass. That way, says the community’s mother superior (who is leading the group of sisters soon to be received into the Church) they could have continued to look after the older sisters. But, writes the superior, Mother Winsome: “After considerable discussion with the authorities of the Church of England and the ordinariate, it has become clear that this would not be possible.”
This means, I speculate, that the (Anglican) Bishop of Oxford has said no: for, if he had been prepared to cooperate with this proposed solution (the community, after all, owns its own buildings; they don’t belong to the C of E) this eminently sensible, and irreproachably ecumenical, scheme could have gone ahead. If I am wrong, I hope someone will correct me: but I bet I’m not. The fact is that the bishops of the Church of England hate the ordinariate with a passion, and will go to any lengths to do it down (and that, I repeat, is my judgment, and not that of anyone to do with the sisters or the ordinariate).
Who will now look after those left behind? It looks as though solving that problem has not been easy, and it may be that in the future the sisters now leaving will have to return as outsiders to carry out this work. As Mother Winsome explains, the 11 sisters joining the ordinariate “are in the main, but not exclusively, the able-bodied members who provide the work and management to keep the community going, so, since the ordinariate community do have to relocate, considerable time has been spent and will continue to be devoted to ensure that the remaining members of CSMV will be well cared for: spiritually, physically, emotionally as well as financially.”
Next year the 11 sisters will stay for six weeks at a Benedictine convent. After that, they do not know where they will live and they have no endowments to keep them afloat financially. Mother Winsome says: “We’ve got an uncertain future. But we are doing this because we truly believe this is God’s call. The Bible is full of people called to step out in faith not knowing where they were going or how they will be provided for and that truly is the situation we are following.”
This is a moment of some historical significance, for the Community of St Mary the Virgin was one of the earliest religious communities to be founded in the Church of England since the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII. The community was founded, its website tells us, by William John Butler, the vicar of Wantage, and he, together with Mother Harriet, the first Mother, left their mark on the community. From the beginning, there was an emphasis on simplicity of life; one of the earliest sisters had an hour-glass to time her hour of prayer, as she felt that owning a watch was incompatible with a vow of poverty. As a community dedicated under the patronage of Mary, they set themselves to obey her words, “Whatever he says to you, do it”, and the community motto, engraved in Latin on each sister’s cross, is “Ecce ancilla Domini, fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum” – “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to Your word.”
The community has been a faithful concrete manifestation of what John Henry Newman called for in his Tractarian period, in order to bring about the revitalisation of the Church of England.
“The Anglican Church,” as he recalled his demands in the Apologia, “must have a ceremonial, a ritual, and a fulness of doctrine and devotion, which it had not at present, if it were to compete with the Roman Church with any prospect of success. Such additions would not remove it from its proper basis, but would merely strengthen and beautify it: such, for instance, would be confraternities, particular devotions, reverence for the Blessed Virgin, prayers for the dead, beautiful churches, munificent offerings to them and in them, monastic houses, and many other observances and institutions, which I used to say belonged to us as much as to Rome, though Rome had appropriated them and boasted of them, by reason of our having let them slip from us… ‘The age is moving,’ I said, ‘towards something; and most unhappily the one religious communion among us, which has of late years been practically in possession of this something, is the Church of Rome. She alone … has given free scope to the feelings of awe, mystery, tenderness, reverence, devotedness, and other feelings which may be especially called Catholic. The question then is, whether we shall give them up to the Roman Church or claim them for ourselves…’.”
The Community of St Mary the Virgin, one has to say, has over the years been one of the most admirable manifestations of the Anglo-Catholic tradition which sprang from the movement whose greatest and most inspirational leader the Anglican Newman had been; and the fact that the Community is, in its Anglican manifestation, now in its closing years (for it can be said with some certainty that the Anglican community will have come to an end with the death of its last sister, and that any new vocations will be to the Catholic community now crossing the Tiber) mirrors exactly the historical situation of that part of the Anglo-Catholic movement which remains within the Church of England. This will become progressively more enfeebled as the Church of England itself becomes more and more secularised: and it is now, surely, time for those within it still trying to live their lives within the Catholic tradition to come home to the place that has been prepared for them.