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The Wantage community was one of the first Anglican religious orders; the conversion of its core members heralds the end of Anglo-Catholicism

The sisters will be received into the Ordinariate; their avoidable expulsion from their convent has been a heavy price to pay

By on Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The sisters will follow the Rule of St Benedict (Photo: Fr James Bradley)

The sisters will follow the Rule of St Benedict (Photo: Fr James Bradley)

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.

  • Matthew_Roth

    Fr Longenecker is actually a priest of the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina. 

  • Jeannine

    If Rome knows what is happening with the Ordinariate in England, what are they doing to help it prosper & getting everyone “on board” with it?

    I think you’re correct about the red hat business in this circumstance.

  • gabriel_syme

    Yes good point (though let us not forget that the ordinariate this year has already ordained several young men who were not Anglican priests beforehand).

    I had always anticipated that the ordinariate would not come into its own until such a time as women bishops appeared in the CofE.

    I expected this to be in 2014 or so, but then I underestimated the Anglican ability to vote against women bishops after agreeing to have women bishops (Protestantism, eh?).

    However it is good that a functioning ordinariate structure and community exists already.

  • gabriel_syme

    I admit to being a little surprised that only a few dozen Anglican clergy accepted the Popes generous offer initially (I expect more will follow later).

    But the thing is, with Anglican clergy - indeed, with any type of protestants – the decision is not just about what they believe or do they feel a calling.  No, here the issue is muddied by financial concerns, thoughts of being able to make provision for a family, thoughts of being able to maintain a standard of living etc.

    But the ordinariate has already ordained young men who have not previously been Anglican priests, so I think things are going well.

    I have great admiration for the ex-Anglican clergy who have made the step to found the ordinariate.  This meant giving up status and salaries / pensions and stepping out into the unknown with no financial support.

    What do the Anglicans themselves think of those who stayed behind, knowing that at least a portion of them will have done so purely because of matters of personal finance?

    I don’t buy the “staying to fight” argument.  Anglicanism will never again be orthodox Christianity, no-one should kid themselves for a minute.  They “stayed to fight” at Thermopylae and Camaron and see where that got them.

  • gabriel_syme

    Speaking of “secular interests” –

    Anglican ‘priest’ Rev Sally Hitchiner was (apparently) on TV recently.

    I have since encountered no less than two conversations among non-religious men regarding the Rev Hitchiners legs.

    From these men, I heard nothing about what the Rev Hitchiner had to say for herself, nor what arguments she set out, nor even what topic her appearance was connected to, but I heard all about her legs.

    How are the Anglicans ever going to get a message over?

    Behold the problems of Protestantism!

  • David

    “Anglo-Catholicism” is clearly in its death throes, as is the CofE as a credible ecclesial community.  The last few decades have seen the CofE truly reveal itself as a bizarre kind of ecclesiastical wing of the administration of the State.  As a former Anglican, happily converted to Rome in 1992, I have to say that I am glad that the Reformation is finally over as all our citizens now have a clear choice of either being Catholic or Protestant (& what a choice of worship styles they have!).   I am not convinced that the Ordinariate has a long-term future but I am thankful that the Holy Father brought it into existence.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    A future for the Ordinariate?  Roman Catholics in this country are seen as foreigners.  Although the RC Church did survive in this country much has been re-introduced from abroad – Ireland, France and elsewhere have contributed to this and I am thankful for it.  However the Anglican Church has preserved some of the essentially English aspects of Christianity dating right back to Anglo-Saxon times e.g. Holy Ghost rather than Holy Spirit.  I see the Ordinariate as bringing back a pre-reformation inheritance of immense value – quite how this will develop I do not know but I can see it spreading throughout the RC Church in this country much to our benefit.

  • Dinosour

    People, you have to choose where you stand. You can be Anglican or Catholic, but not both at the same time. Ordinariate have chosen to be Catholics and they know where they stand as well as they ARE in full Communion with the Catholics. Anglo-Catholics are the ones who don’t know who they are and where they stand or are having not enaugh courage to do so. Wake up!

  • David

    With respect, Father, you are being very silly if not hysterical.  The Holy Father himself lives in a palace ….

  • SimonPJ

    Whether it is actually a mess or not, the Ordinariate is perceived as something different or even irrelevant by most English Catholics, who do not understand why the Pope acted as he did, probably because they think Vatican does not really understand the English religious scene. If it did it would not have imposed on us, and apparently against the wish of the English Bishops, the New Translation with all its odd phrases and clumsiness. Perhaps Dr Oddie can enlighten us about that as well.

  • Mikelawlor2

    I believe that it was the refusal of Rome to countenance the setting up of an ecumenical community which was the barrier (see the letter from the Bishop of Oxford in the Church Times) – which makes this article even more scurrilous. The number of Angflo Catholics who have entered the ordinariate is very small and the rest of us are staying very firmly put so actually the end is not nigh!

  • Fr Peter Wilkinson

    They had a scholar sister named Sister Penelope CSMV, who translated Athanasius’  De Incarnatione with a preface by C.S.Lewis.  She translated many mediaeval Latin texts as well.  When she and Lewis were both dying he asked her that if visiting days from heaven were allowed would she look him up in some borstal on the lower slopes of purgatory.  He also dedicated Perelandra to ‘Some Ladies at Wantage’  He called her his ‘elder sister in the faith’.

  • SG11/H12

    and of course there are Church of England priests who used to be Roman Catholics, like me. And not a lapsed Catholic either: I faithfully went to Mass until the moment I left. And I had considered studying for the priesthood. I am not suggesting I am “right” at all, but I am suggesting that it is perfectly possible for sentient beings to come to different conclusions when presented with similar facts. It is also a little sad that Newman is quoted as speaking of Anglican’s “competing” with Roman Catholics. I have no interest in competing with RCs at all. In fact I met a delightful RC lady at a meal recently and would not give my reasons for making my jump out of the RC church precisely because I had no interest in challenging her faith. It might be more helpful if we could see ourselves all as part of the catholic expression of the whole Kingdom on earth, rather than promoting in fighting which so many on these comment pages seem so keen to do, and I read a lot of comments here.

  • Frmarcus

    Dear William,

    It would be perfectly reasonable for The Herald to ask the Bishop of Oxford what has happened.  They won;t want bad publicity and this will put them on the spot – assuming it’s the CofE which issued the marching orders.