A battered old crucifix hangs on the wall beside my desk. It’s no great artistic treasure: chipped wood, an iron, machine-made corpus, a bit of chain. It’s just like the thousands of other crosses that graced the walls of pious Victorians.
Except this is a cross from a nun’s cell, the focus of prayer for women who gave their lives out of love for Christ and in service to his Church, generation after generation, praying for priests like me.
It was given to me by the man who preached the sermon at my ordination to the priesthood. Father Philip was a mentor to me during my time at seminary in England, and in addition to serving as principal of Pusey House, he was the last warden of Ascot Priory in Berkshire, the convent of one of Anglicanism’s first religious orders. I went with him to keep the Triduum at Ascot during my seminary days, where I enjoyed a few talks with Mother Cecilia of the Resurrection, the last of her order. She had entered religious life in 1935, when my grandmother was a toddler. But at the time Father Philip gave me the cross, Mother Cecilia had recently died, and the convent was being reordered. The cross was from one of the old cells.
“For years,” Father Philip said, “the sisters prayed that God would send the Church faithful priests. They were praying for you.”
That cross challenges and encourages me. It reminds of the great trust I bear and of my responsibility to be faithful in my call. But it also helps me recognize that in my work I am upheld and sustained by the prayers of so many brothers and sisters, many of them far holier than I will ever be. It also points to a deep connection between parish ministry and the religious life, which has been one of Anglicanism’s greatest treasures in the last several generations.
When religious life was reestablished in the Anglican Communion in the 1840s, it was primarily a parish-based ministry. The Society of the Holy Trinity, which eventually made its home at Ascot, had begun as the Devonport Sisters of Mercy, based in a parish at the Plymouth Docks. In the great spirit of Victorian activism, the community founded “a home for delinquent boys, two refuges for training girls for domestic service, an industrial school, six lodging houses for poor families, five ragged schools, a soup kitchen and a home for old sailors.” When Florence Nightingale sailed for the front in Crimea to found modern nursing, nearly half her crew were Devonport Sisters.
Religious communities like these, which carried out extensive work among the poor and distressed, were deeply rooted in the day-to-day life of Anglican parish churches. They taught Sunday school and catechism classes, arranged flowers and ironed altar linens, attended daily prayers and visited the housebound. Many became trusted friends and confidants, ordinary examples of Christ’s call to generous sacrifice and humble service. And, of course, they prayed.
Anti-Catholic bigotry was a deeply rooted feature of middle 19th-century England, and the first generation of Anglican nuns was roundly criticized in some quarters. But the hostility did not prove long lasting. The nuns’ heroic labors won the affection of the public in an age of social activism. Surely, their association with ordinary churchgoers and the rather haphazardly local way in which they were founded were not inconsequential. Anglican religious orders have never been particularly rich or powerful, and until the last generation or two, they have rarely been secluded. The deep rivalries between monastic and parish life that have sometimes marked Roman Catholic and Orthodox history have never really developed among us.
An order of Episcopal nuns operated a diocesan orphanage for many decades in the community in upstate New York where I last served as rector. Though it was technically independent, the ties between it and the parish were close. Older parishioners would speak of nuns marching their charges down the street to attend the Sunday Mass. Old parish registers record weekly services in the orphanage chapel, and for many years the orphans accounted for half the baptisms. One young woman from the parish tried a vocation with the community, and though she returned back “into the world” after a year or so (a block down the street, that was), she remained a deeply committed Christian the rest of her life, living simply and helping with church work of every imaginable kind.
The orphanage didn’t survive the financial crisis of the 1930s, and the nuns returned to their motherhouse in Canada. But many, many decades later, a few of my oldest parishioners still spoke fondly of the sisters who had taught Sunday school and trained them for “altar work.” Seventy years after the nuns had departed, their witness continued to inspire.
In times of dramatically diminished vocations and aging communities, only a handful of Episcopal monks and nuns remained in our parishes. But some orders continue in ministries of spiritual direction and generous hospitality to the clergy and laity. They open their homes to guests and their chapels to fellow worshipers. Many continue in their foundational vocation to ministry among the poor, while others, like the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, have devoted considerable resources to teaching the faith in innovative ways. My own ministry has been richly blessed by the friendship, counsel, and prayers of monks and nuns.
But we do not rely on them as much as we once did; something profound has been lost. I remember vividly a conversation with a former spiritual director, a nun of All Saints Convent in Catonsville, Maryland, when most of her community was received into the Roman Catholic Church in 2009. It didn’t come as a surprise to anyone; the All Saints Sisters had determinedly resisted most of the Episcopal Church’s recent innovations.
“They no longer seem to want what we can offer,” the sister said to me.
Decades before, they had hosted diocesan clergy days and discernment retreats. There was a reliable stream of local Episcopalians in the pews for Sunday vespers. But for some time they had been (mostly) politely ignored. The sisters hoped that in another communion, one with a longer tradition and deeper understanding of monastic life, there would be a warmer welcome for them, an openness to their wisdom about the way of Christ.
I hope that they have found it, but I also think we need them and others like them within the Episcopal Church. Like so many others, I am very hopeful about the emphasis on evangelization and parish renewal that is at the center of our new Presiding Bishop’s agenda. Spurred by the challenging call of Episcopal Resurrection’s Memorial to the Church and the TREC Report, we seem more eager than ever to help congregations focus on our core work of following Jesus together into the community, traveling lightly. Our brothers and sisters in the religious life, whose discipleship is framed by the “evangelical counsels,” surely are among those best equipped to lead us.
General Convention’s decision last summer to prioritize church planting and congregational redevelopment is an important step in the right direction. Perhaps we also need an expanded focus on developing parish-based monastic (and new monastic) communities, and on providing greater support for those doing innovative work. Some exciting new initiatives have cropped up in recent years, including Community of the Franciscan Way in Durham, North Carolina, and the Community of St. Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s institute at Lambeth Palace for young people. Perhaps churchwide vocations conferences (a follow-up to Bishop Curry’s revival meetings?) would be a way forward, or initiatives that gather the wisdom of the historic communities for new settings. Could each diocese aim to plant and support one new parish-based religious community in the next five years?
New programs are helpful in the work of renewal, but transformed people are essential. God has raised up great saints and wise leaders from people in all walks of life. But there is something particularly valuable about the intensity and steadfastness of those who live the religious life, which can draw people to Christ and pull together a community in service to him. If the “Jesus Movement” has squad leaders, monks and nuns must be in their number.
When I look at my cross, I thank God for those nuns whose prayers sustain the work I do. I pray also for those like them who remain in their vitally important vocation today. I pray also that someday, one of my own flock will follow them, or better yet, that there will be a whole community of nuns or monks working alongside me as I tend the flock and take the Gospel into the world.
Fr. Mark Michael is the interim rector of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Herndon, Virginia. His Covenant posts are here.
The featured image by Craig Dubishar was supplied by the author.