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Stuttering start to women’s ministry

Michael Wheeler on the early days of the female diaconate

The Beginning of Women’s Ministry: The revival of the deaconess in the nineteenth-century Church of England (Church of England Record Society)
Henrietta Blackmore, editor

Boydell Press £45 (978-1-8438-3308-6) Church Times Bookshop £40.50

A GROUP of women dressed in dark habits and white wimples look rather shyly into the camera, or slightly to the side of it, around 1897. They are deaconesses and probationers from the North London Deaconess Institution (NLDI). They wear only simple crosses — no crucifixes or beads — and the rules under which they live and work among the sick, the poor, and the uneducated are designed to distance them from the Anglican sisterhoods that aroused such anti-papist feeling in earlier decades.

Whereas the sisterhoods are now a staple part of Anglican history, little has been written about the diaconate. Henrietta Blackmore has laboured effectively among the archives of the Community of St Andrew and a variety of diocesan and local record offices, and offers edited versions of a range of docu-ments associated with the begin-nings of the movement, in which Bishops (later Archbishops) Tait and Davidson played leading supportive parts. These documents include lists of rules attached to work and worship, and parochial work; and they cover the relationship — not always an easy one — between a deaconess and the Church.

Extensive extracts are also offered from the diary of Elizabeth Ferard, the first deaconess to be “set apart” in the early 1860s, and the first head of the NLDI. In these, she records her lengthy stay at Kaiserwerth on the Rhine, which served as something of a model for the first English establishments. The diary is disappointing, perhaps because Elizabeth was herself disappointed and frustrated at not having German.

After this trudge of a read, the vibrant writing of Isabella Gilmore, the widowed sister of William Morris, in her reminiscences of setting up an institution in Rochester diocese, is a welcome relief. Unlike Elizabeth, who shied away from any unpleasantness in the hospital ward at Kaiserwerth, Isabella came to her position of leadership from a distinguished nursing background at Guy’s, and could cope with being present at amputations and layings out.

In her useful editorial introduction, Blackmore patiently out-lines the stuttering beginnings of the female diaconate. It was so characteristically Anglican in its vagueness of definition that, even as late as 1919, no clear definition had emerged.

The Church of England Record Society’s series is clearly priced for library purchase, and this book, which is indexed, will probably be used mainly as a work of reference.

Professor Wheeler is a Lay Canon and Member of Chapter of Winchester Cathedral.

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