Hope and Grace:
The story of how Anglican Sisters became Catholic Sisters
This was a paper delivered by Mother Winsome SBVM at the second annual Religious Life Conference organised by the Claretian Missionaries, held in Hayes, Middlesex in May 2013
The Consecrated Life demands the complete gift of self to God. It requires surrender of every earthly possession. In order to live wholly in God’s incomparable embrace, the Consecrated Life requires us to remove everything that is a barrier between us and Him. But it is one thing to know this; it is quite another to live it out.
I am going to tell our story, how Anglican Sisters become Catholic Sisters. I want to share something of how the individual dimension impacts upon the corporate, and of how the community dimension impacts upon the individual, when a whole Community embarks upon this type of spiritual journey. I will describe some of the tensions that surface when Anglicans and Catholics emerge from the same community but for a time the two groups have to continue living together in the same building. Finally, I shall seek to draw out how, in accordance with the title of this two day Conference, our experience announces the God we believe in.
Our Catholic community of twelve sisters is known as the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was officially erected as a Public Association of the Faithful within the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham when we were received into the full communion of the Catholic Church on 1st January 2013.
Eleven of us were from the same community. The twelfth sister, a former member of a different Anglican community, had been received via the Ordinariate two years previously with the former Anglican Bishops appointed by Pope Benedict to lead the Ordinariate.
The morning after our reception, we made our communion as Catholics for the first and last time in the Convent which until then had been our spiritual home. After Mass the twelve of us, with our essential personal possessions, boarded a coach and set off rather like Abraham, in faith, not knowing what the future would hold. One of the sisters describes our departure as follows:
“It was never going to be easy. We had to leave our Anglican Sisters, though we had wanted to stay and care for them. It was a cold January morning. The coach stood on the tarmac outside our Convent door, packed with our necessities… suitcases, some duvets, and so on. Our dear brothers from the Oxford Oratory had gone the extra mile, being with us for early morning Mass, and breakfast, then carrying our suitcases down from the cells which we had to leave forever. They stood around the coach, smiling, to wave us off. We climbed on board, and the huge vehicle swung out of our Convent. We wove our way through the market of the town we had known all our lives as the Sisters of Wantage, knowing it was good bye. We would always love those Sisters who had chosen to remain Anglican and whom we were unlikely to see again. God’s call is to leave all… as individuals we had already done that in order to enter the Community of St Mary the Virgin. Now we were doing that again. We were going to the Benedictine Abbey of Ryde, across the Solent. I glanced around the coach. There were Sisters of all ages, twelve of us. We had agreed that once on the road we would say the rosary together in silence. So the silence settled. As the driver wove his way through the early traffic, the coach rocked gently from side to side. We were in the arms of God. We had no money, no home. But we were being gently carried forward upon our path, and the rocking motion expressed His consolation, His love.”
We left with no financial settlement from our previous community, no endowment, just a firm conviction that becoming Catholic was our response to Our Lord’s continuing call to: “follow me”. So how had we come to this discernment?
Our former community, the Community of St Mary the Virgin (CSMV) one of the oldest Anglican communities in the world, was founded in Wantage in 1848. CSMV was born in the Oxford Movement – a movement of High Church Anglicans who sought to reinstate Catholic traditions in Anglican liturgy and theology. We wore traditional Habit, sung Gregorian plainchant, reserved the Blessed Sacrament, took vows for life of poverty, chastity and obedience and basically sought to replicate the practices of a traditional Catholic monastic community – except for the fact that we were Anglicans.
Most sisters had grown up in Anglican families and so when discerning a call to consecrated life naturally sought to live that out in the context of their upbringing, the Church of England. A former Archbishop of Canterbury described Religious Life as ‘the best kept secret within the Church of England’. Our experience was that over the passage of time Religious Life in the Church of England, this ‘best kept secret’ had been pushed to the margins. Vocations were not prepared for a life which is meant to be counter cultural; a life of self-sacrifice. Religious Life was being watered down to the lowest common denominator. In our own community it seemed to us that some of the treasures of monastic life had not been safeguarded.
We had reached the point where the community needed to be reformed at a deep spiritual level. For instance, by the time I was elected Mother in 2006, the position was that although we had in Chapter meetings repeatedly agreed to retain our monastic roots and continue as a traditional monastic community, some sisters were striking out on their own, following a path where they would not live by the Rule, wear the Habit or even live with others in community houses. It was evident that these sisters were in danger of losing their monastic vocation replacing it with a notion of a loose association of well-meaning women doing good works. But that is not monastic consecrated life. A spiritual battle had begun for the heart and soul of our community.
Step by step spiritual ground was reclaimed during our last five or so years at Wantage. All sisters were recalled to the basic tenets of our consecrated life: to live out the evangelical counsels in the context of monastic life. Some chose instead to leave the Community and be secularised rather than live the common life.
Within the Anglican Communion there is no Vicar of Christ and no Magisterium. In the Church of England decisions which have profound theological implications can be taken by an elected synod, some of whom may not have had any theological or other appropriate training. Some aspects derived from the wider Church of England over which we had no control, impacted upon our community. Some sisters who sought a return to the authentic understanding of consecrated religious life looked to the Catholic Church.
In 2009, when Pope Benedict issued an invitation for groups of Anglicans to come into full communion with the Catholic Church, sisters came to speak to me as Mother, privately and in strictest confidence, about their individual sense of call to take this route into full communion; to become Catholics as part of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham (‘the Ordinariate’) whilst also remaining members of the Community. I allowed each sister time to explore her growing and deepening sense of calling. One of the sisters shares her sense of calling in the following words written in 2011:
A sister’s personal story
“In 2008 I was asked by Mother Winsome to go to our house in Harringay. Several important things happened for me at Harringay. I was a Hospital Chaplain as a volunteer and went twice a week to a North London Hospital in a deprived area. I was the only Church of England volunteer, the others being all Catholics. They welcomed me as one of themselves. In the work itself, it was the Catholic patients who called me to their bedside, and who knew what a sister was ‘for’.
During this time the parish made two pilgrimages to Walsingham and I went along. A priest there said to me: ‘Let’s face it, you’re not just a middle of the road Anglican are you …’ – it was a statement rather than a question and I had to agree. With this I began to reclaim the Faith in which I had been brought up. I was formed in Catholic faith and practice by the Community in the 1950s and 60s as a child in a CSMV school. I was taught the Rosary by a CSMV Sister when I was in my teens.
When Pope Benedict issued his invitation via Anglicanorum Coetibus I still didn’t think it had anything to do with me. The crucial factor was Cardinal John Henry Newman! In the months leading up to his beatification, I read his biography so as to understand more about him and the issues he had had to face. I was astounded by the account of his conversion, in particular his need to be in an Apostolic church which was in continuity with the church fathers whom he loved so much. I thought, ‘But that’s just what I think!’ This was a defining moment for me. I understand his absolute need to be in a church that is in communion with the Undivided Church of the first centuries.
The final aspect is prayer, when I specifically asked where I should be. I heard, ‘In the Petrine Church’ – not a phrase I would normally have used.
This conviction has quietly grown and strengthened that I have to be in the See of St Peter (through the Ordinariate). I do have long term catholic roots in that my father was raised a Catholic. I lived alongside the Dominicans in South Africa before I entered CSMV and have known Catholic congregations for most of my life.”
The same sister explains why she could not simply remain as a High Church Anglican: “I have an absolute need to be in the See of St Peter. I care very much about Christian Unity. I grew up at the time of the Second Vatican Council when, it seemed, full and visible unity between Anglicans and Catholics was just around the corner. I was confirmed by one of the delegates to the first Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC I).As I understand it, ARCIC I contained substantial agreement on some fundamental issues and the hope expressed by Archbishop Michael Ramsey was that union would follow but since the heady days of ARCIC I, the Anglican Communion has taken decisions which distance it ever further from full and visible unity; in fact it is becoming more and more clearly a Reformation Church.”
When it became clear to me that there was a critical mass of sisters across the board, who were experiencing the same call to become Catholics, I sought the permission of each to share this with the whole Community. What was important to understand is that sisters were experiencing this call as part of a Community -a family -sisters were not simply responding as individuals. There was inherent within this sense of call to full communion, the call to remain together. This is the reason that a number of us, me included, were being drawn into the Catholic Church by this particular route. The Ordinariate opened the possibility for groups of Anglicans to remain together, and the structures were specifically created to welcome Religious, in groups. As a group, we believed that this was the way we were being called to live out our vocation to the Religious Life.
It would be possible to retain much of our Anglican heritage and traditions within the Ordinariate and the Sisters’ Anglican patrimony was welcomed in this provision. In fact some of what CSMV traditionally did best, our Divine Office and our English Plainchant, is precisely what was being welcomed by Pope Benedict as -in his words -‘a treasure to be shared’ with the whole of the Catholic Church.
A second personal story
Another sister wrote at the time about her conviction of this Ordinariate route as follows:
“I am basically a cradle Anglican but in my late teens as soon as I was able to make any choices I was drawn towards the Catholic expression of my Anglican faith. There are two points here. Firstly, the Holy Spirit has spoken to my heart at several moments in my life about union with the Catholic Church. Secondly, yet it was also the Holy Spirit who placed in me a strong sense of call to this particular community. These two aspects of my vocation have governed my choices at moments when it was possible to become a Catholic and I have not done so. But the Ordinariate basically opened a possibility I never imagined could be there for me as a Religious.
This community has always meant everything to me… my call at the age of 20 was hugely strong: I was absolutely clear that I was meant to be here. I have always felt that if at any point God was asking me to transfer or to be in the Catholic Church it would have to be as strong and clear as this. The call to join the Catholic Church at this point IS as strong and clear. At the same time that I am being led by the Spirit to do this, I am also convinced that I should remain a member of this community. To be able to be in full communion with the Catholic Church within my community is making sense to me of both aspects of my call, and of my whole life.”
The discernment process
I informed the Community that there were a number of sisters feeling called to be received into the Catholic Church. The Community as a whole discerned a movement of the Holy Spirit and decided that it wanted each sister to respond to her calling, but for all sisters, Catholics and Anglicans, to stay together as a Christian family sharing a common heritage and, in effect, living together as one Community, helping to set all ‘our sights on the ultimate goal of all ecumenical activity: the restoration of full ecclesial communion’ (cf. Pope Benedict, Oscott College, 19 September 2010).
The decision by the whole community that we wanted to stay together, respecting our different ecclesiastical allegiances but continuing in fraternal love and charity to live together and care for our frail and more vulnerable members, was taken very quickly in a single morning. But the process to implement our decision was necessarily twofold: a spiritual process of discernment as to whether a sister was being called into full communion as a Catholic and a practical process of investigating how this might be lived out.
At this point the Community involved the ecclesiastical authorities of both the Church of England and the Catholic Church to explore how this might be made possible. This involved a combination of canon and civil law, and necessitated the intervention of specialist ecclesiastical lawyers. There then followed a long, laborious and painful process of negotiations.
Once the whole Community was aware that significant numbers of sisters were experiencing a call to become Catholics together, as Mother, I encouraged every sister in the Community to seek God’s will for herself, so that each Sister would know in what direction her conscience was leading her. To help sisters understand exactly what Pope Benedict was proposing, I called the whole Community to a meeting with representatives from the Catholic Church, who would be able to answer any of their questions.
The Community met with Bishop Alan Hopes, (appointed by the Bishops’ Conference with special responsibility for the Ordinariate), Monsignor Keith Newton (the Ordinary of the Ordinariate), Monsignor Andrew Burnham (a member of the Ordinariate Council – these latter two being former Anglican Bishops) and Father Kristian Paver, a Canon lawyer and Chancellor of the Ordinariate. They answered sisters’ questions and promised those who felt called to become Catholics, their full support.
There then began a period of spiritual exploration. Almost every week, Father Daniel Seward, Provost of the Oxford Oratory (sometimes with additional Oratorians) and Monsignor Andrew Burnham came to the Convent for sessions to explore the Catholic faith. As they pointed out at the start, given our existing Anglo Catholic Religious Life, this was not so much instruction on Catholicism, although it included some catechises, but rather an opportunity for shared discernment as to whether or not God was calling the sister to take this step with others. Every sister in the community had the opportunity to participate in these explorations.
Some sisters who initially tested their sense of call, decided not to go forward. But gradually, of the twenty two sisters actually living at the Convent at Wantage, eleven of us believed that we were being called into the full communion of the Catholic Church. This discernment was reached after constant prayer and in discussion with spiritual advisers. It was as if two forms of consciousness, Catholic and Anglican, separated out from within the same organism. But the challenge was that we all had to continue to live together in the same building.
We had taken extreme care to ensure that outside of these sessions we did not speak about our growing sense of discernment in order to obviate accusations of undue influence of other sisters.
We continued meeting together well beyond the conclusion of the formal catechesis course because the weekly exploration sessions became the only opportunity for the Catholic minded sisters to discuss our shared spiritual journey and vision for the future with each other and the Catholic Priests. During such times, for instance, we discerned that we were being called to follow the Rule of St Benedict. Although our previous community lived by a Rule based on St Augustine’s, many of our community practices were in fact very Benedictine. As St Augustine was a source for St Benedict, this felt a natural step for us to take.
These times together as Catholic minded sisters became a lifeline for us as the negotiations between the Community and the Anglican authorities dragged on month after month. We were living amongst other sisters who would remain Anglican, some of whom clearly felt betrayed and deeply hurt that we would be leaving the Church of England. A major problem for those remaining Anglican was that we eleven sisters were in the main, but not exclusively, the able bodied members who provided the work and management to keep the Community going.
At this point there were significant legal issues. In a nutshell, the worst case scenario was that from the moment a sister was received into the Catholic Church she would be homeless and penniless. Catholic Code of Canon Law 702 (which instructs religious institutes to observe “equity and evangelical charity” towards members who separate from it) does not apply to Anglicans where, in effect, each community makes its own provisions according to its own constitutions.
I warned the whole Community that each sister wanting to be received as a Catholic had to be prepared to walk down the drive with just what she could carry in a bag in her hand, leaving everything else behind, without any guarantees for the future, just going forward in blind faith in accordance with her conscience. I said that if we had to leave Wantage, any sister whose conscience was calling her to take this step was welcome to come with us – none would be excluded.
Of the eleven sisters, three were in their seventies and three were in their eighties. None of the eleven sisters turned back, including two who were then living on the Convent infirmary wing. When we first came to community as Scripture adjures, we had left behind family, friends and everything for Christ. None of the older sisters imagined that for some of them fifty years later God would call them once again to leave behind their convent home, their sisters in Christ, their security for their old age – everything. But He called, and once again they responded in the spirit of the Blessed Virgin Mary with their “fiat”.
Inevitably, despite the confidential nature of the ongoing negotiations, word of our intentions seeped outside the Community and I started to receive what can only be described as “hate mail” from people who were furious at the prospect of some of the sisters being received into the Catholic Church. All sorts of false accusations were levelled at me personally. As Mother, I came under considerable pressure not to take this step myself and to discourage the other sisters from doing so.
I remained firm in my own conviction and made it clear that I would continue to support EVERY sister to follow what she believed was God’s call to her, whether that was to remain as an Anglican or to be received into the full communion of the Catholic Church. However, those of us intending to take this step, at this point felt completely isolated.
We felt besieged. The law was being used against us. Spiritually, we were on the wrong side of the bridge – we no longer felt Anglican but we were not officially Catholics. We had been asked by the Catholic Church not to take any further steps that might give rise to a legal basis for us being removed from the Convent, so we were forced to live a sort of half -life, whilst negotiations continued between the two Churches. It was difficult to see God’s plan for us but we never lost hope. We truly believed that God was calling to us to take this step at whatever cost. There were harrowing moments particularly when those we had considered good friends turned against us. God’s consolation was to provide us with new Catholic friends – especially Monsignor Burnham and our dear brothers at the Oxford Oratory.
The whole Community had hoped at the outset that an agreement would be reached to keep all the sisters together. In fact, in the midst of the processes the time came for the usual election of a Reverend Mother and the whole community, Anglican and Catholics re-elected me, who they knew to be a Catholic.
But after considerable discussion between the authorities of the Church of England and the Ordinariate, it became clear that two self-governing communities would be required and the Catholic Community would have to relocate from Wantage; a painful decision for the whole of CSMV.
Needless to say, those of us who became part of the Ordinariate Community had done everything in our power to try to stay at Wantage to be able to care for our elderly or infirm Anglican sisters. We devoted considerable time to ensuring that, without the Ordinariate sisters, the remaining sixteen members of CSMV would be well cared for: spiritually, physically, emotionally as well as financially. It was particularly hurtful therefore to receive hate mail accusing us of having “abandoned” the frail and elderly.
On a practical level, the Ordinariate sisters themselves would need somewhere to live once we were received. There is an idea that there are lots of empty monasteries about but the reality is that most congregations need the proceeds of sale. We were not in a position to buy nor even to rent ourselves, as we literally did not have a penny. We were not put off but sought in faith to try to identify a suitable property that could be a monastic home for us. We kept knocking on doors and just when we thought a door might open wider, it would firmly close. There was a sense in which God used the numerous disappointments to draw us closer together as a new community.
It was now about three years since the first sisters had shared with me their growing awareness of their call to be Catholics. During that period we had grown stronger spiritually but despite our fervent prayers for a resolution we had endured legal disagreements, delays and frustrations in every direction which potentially could continue for more years. At this point, we just wanted to move on with our life as Consecrated Religious and as one of the older sisters in her anguish for a speedier solution cried out, “I want to die a Catholic!”
Our new community would continue our Marian Charism and we agreed that to be received on the feast of Mary the Mother of God on 1st January 2013 could hardly be a better way to start the rapidly approaching New Year. But we were told by the Ordinariate authorities that we could not be received on 1st January without somewhere to go in case (as it turned out in the end) we were not able to remain at Wantage as Catholics. There seemed no human way forward. God’s provision came about in a totally unexpected way.
Our community was known for its liturgical tradition of plainsong sung in English. Father Daniel, who had been meeting with us weekly, arranged for us to meet a Benedictine Community he knew, who also had a strong plainchant tradition but in Latin. So our Precentrix and myself accompanied him to spend the inside of a day with the sisters of St Cecilia’s Abbey, Ryde on the Isle of Wight. As events were to demonstrate, the Holy Spirit had been ahead of us!
The sisters of St Cecilia’s were so welcoming and supportive. We shared with Mother Abbess some of our story and mentioned in passing our desperate hope of being received in the New Year which could not be realised unless we had somewhere to go. She told us that they had been preparing cells for twelve Paraguayan sisters who were coming in the New Year for a year’s formation. However, there was now a delay. “How many of you are there?” she asked. “Twelve” we replied. She turned to her Prioress and both of them gently wondered aloud whether the Holy Spirit had led us to each other at this particular timing. Twelve empty cells, twelve sisters! No more was said that day but the generous, open hearted Abbess consulted her community and they unanimously agreed to open their home to us. At last, we could be received, and on 1st January!
Over the next couple of weeks it was arranged that the day following our reception into the Catholic Church, we would temporarily leave Wantage to stay for six weeks with these Benedictine nuns for the opportunity for formation as a newly formed Catholic Benedictine Community. This information was conveyed to the Anglican authorities at a formal legal meeting. We, our lawyers and the two Catholic priests present all understood it was agreed that after six weeks, we would return to our former convent temporarily as guests, whilst we sought a new permanent home.
However, shortly before Christmas, the Anglican authorities informed me by email that it would be best for the remaining Anglican sisters if we did not return. This came as a considerable shock not only to us but also to Anglican sisters at the Convent who were telling us that they wanted us to return. But at least there was absolute clarity – once Catholic there could be no return.
Of the actual service of reception I shall say little, except that the years of trauma, pain, bitterness and persecution we had endured to reach this point were not forgotten – we had suffered too much for that to be so – but God’s grace bestowed on us that day was more than a mere consolation. It seems to me that each of us was given a very special gift of healing grace, so that we could experience true joy as we were received at last into the full communion of the Catholic Church.
On the morning after our reception, as we prepared to leave our home forever, beaming sisters met each other with the words, “I’m a Catholic!” The inevitable joyous reply was, “So am I !” That gentle river of joy satiating our thirst for God has remained over the ensuing months.
I shall let a sister continue in her own words to describe the journey to the Isle of Wight:
“The driver obtained permission for us to stay on board the coach on the ferry crossing the Solent. We were not surprised to learn that the ferry was named ‘Saint Cecilia’. One elderly sister had fallen asleep, exhausted from the events of the last days. I glanced at her in her tiredness and saw the lines of tension round her eyes. “We’re not moving!” said another sister. “Yes we are, look carefully…” across the silky blue water we could just make out the land form of the Isle of Wight against the grey and wintry skies. The motion of the ferry was so slight that we felt nothing of our progress. I thought how close that was in expressing the agonising spiritual journey the Community had been making. All the longing of our hearts could not increase the progress. It had been painfully, very painfully, slow. Yet the lack of swiftness had allowed for depths to be exposed, profound formation and extensive exploration. God is able to use all things for good. The coach sat on the ferry, packed with tired nuns. The water yielded a path beneath, and the island rose out of the distance in to a clear view. “Let my people go!” It was ringing in my ears silently, and we were crossing the sea. Some weeks ago I had said that what we needed was to close the door behind us and sort ourselves out in peace. Little did I know that it was going to be exactly like that. The gentle and loving Abbess of Saint Cecilia’s opened her Abbey, locked the door behind us and gave us the peace we needed. Here we could heal.”
There are simply no words that adequately pay tribute to the wonderful sisters of St Cecilia’s Abbey and their exceptional Abbess. They have been the vehicle God has used to shower us with grace upon grace.
When we arrived the first words we heard from a beaming sister who met our coach in the drive were, “Welcome home!” These remarkable, loving sisters offered twelve strangers a refuge but have truly given us a ‘home’ in every sense of the word. We have lived in effect as one extended Community; worshipping God together as the six weeks’ original stay has turned into months. We have come to appreciate the meaning of God’s grace as we have experienced it in the loving embrace of the Ryde sisters. God has given us a great gift in them.
The Superior General of another community recently wrote these words to me: “Your courage and faith is such a beautiful example and really a gift to the whole Church. My prayers are with you and your sisters who have together with you taken this brave step at great cost to yourselves but even greater gain.” She is right. The gain has been ours. We can never out do God in generosity. We were forced to leave our Convent and the sisters there. We have been given our beloved sisters at Ryde. It is not an exaggeration to say that we have found a shared kinship with them which we never experienced with some of our former Anglican sisters. We have grown to love each other deeply and truly. We share the same spirit and as such have formed an unbreakable bond.
But given that we were already Anglo Catholic what difference has reception into the full communion of the Catholic Church made? One of the sisters explains it this way. “As an Anglican I would say I firmly believed that Jesus is on the altar and in the Tabernacle. Now as a Catholic, I KNOW.”
We know that we are now in communion with the See of Peter, with all the saints that we love. When the conclave was electing Pope Francis I, we were not on the outside looking in; they were electing OUR Pope, OUR Holy Father. We are now truly part of the Church.
This is our story of hope and grace. I shall let one of the sisters finish our story with our arrival at Ryde:
“Saint Cecilia’s Abbey has Papal Enclosure, and our entrance into this enclosure was huge, both for us, and possibly also for our Ryde sisters. Let us pause to appreciate this remarkable situation. A Benedictine community under the leadership of its wise and open Abbess, had agreed to give refuge to a community of twelve, having only met two of them. This was under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, in obedience to the radical Gospel injunction and in the spirit of their motto. The vote to receive us in their sanctuary on the second day of our erection as a new community in the Church, had been unanimous. It spoke to me of other radical gestures with which monastic history all over the world is full. It told me in both soul and mind, that the Gospel demands are alive at the heart of the monastic life in the twenty first century.”
To conclude, in terms of the title of this Conference, “This is the God we believe in, the God we announce”: the One who calls us, goes ahead of us, provides for us in ways that we do not expect and never ceases to love us.