ANGLICAN sisterhoods, in the opinion of one of their Victorian advocates, formed an essential element in the fight against the barbarism to be encountered in large cities: by advancing the cause of Christian civilisation against “worldliness and infidelity and superstition”.
The champion of these communities for women was not some Tractarian stalwart, but a much more unlikely supporter: Archibald Campbell Tait, a future Archbishop of Canterbury, but at that time Bishop of London and an opponent of many Anglo-Catholic practices.
His praise of sisterhoods occurred in the course of his Charge to the diocese of London in 1866. But it was coupled with some recommended guidelines for the regulation of such communities. In the first place, he said, a convent should have a bishop as its official visitor in order to ensure its loyalty to the teachings of the Church of England. Second, parental permission must be obtained before a woman joined a sisterhood — reflecting Tait’s high regard for the position of the family in the social fabric.
His advocacy of sisterhoods is reported in one of the 14 articles collected in this book by Rene Kollar, a Benedictine monk and professor of history at a seminary in Pennsylvania, USA. The articles grew out of a series of lectures that he gave at the seminary. Kollar’s aim is to catalogue the hostility to such sisterhoods (both Roman Catholic and Anglican) in Victorian England, and at the same time to quote numerous witnesses in their defence. He is scrupulously fair in his assessment of the evidence; the result is an extended glimpse into a fascinating ecclesiastical byway.
The sisterhoods were much criticised throughout the Victorian period in books, pamphlets, speeches, and newspaper articles. Kollar quotes one critic as suggesting that no symbol of Roman Catholicism agitated the ultra-Protestant mind more than convents — in spite of their valuable ministrations to the unfortunates of society.
Sisterhoods, in fact, offered a new path for unmarried women in the fields of education, nursing, and the care of orphans. It replaced their ties to fathers and husbands with loyalty to their sisterhoods and to the Church at large.
Much space in the book is devoted to a particular practice associated in the popular mind with convents: that of auricular confession to a priest. Some critics of the practice (including Tait) viewed confession as an unnecessary prying into the secret thoughts of those seeking absolution; they considered the probing and questioning on the part of the priest as a dangerous practice that could threaten the integrity of the family. Confession, in the view of such critics, helped to weaken and fragment the family by replacing the father or husband with a confessor who might ask the penitent over-sensitive questions.
In one of his essays, Kollar discusses The Priest in Absolution, a manual for confessors which achieved much notoriety in 1877 through a debate in the House of Lords introduced by the Earl of Redesdale.
One section of the manual which was considered particularly shocking concerned the questions a confessor might ask about the “due benevolence” owed by a wife to her husband. According to the manual, Redesdale said, if wives refused to perform their “conjugal duty”, they were both damned themselves and might also “cause the damnation of their husbands by driving them to thousands of iniquities”. He argued that questions of this type were not only insensitive but might also lead to inappropriate actions on the part of the confessor.
The book contains many intriguing details concerning individual communities and their members. There is, however, a certain amount of the repetition inevitable from a collection of essays on similar subjects; and the book would have benefited from some editorial pruning (not to mention an index). Thus Priscilla Lydia Sellon, the notable Anglican nun who headed a community in Devonport and did much to restore the religious life in the Church of England, is the subject of two separate articles in the second of which details of her life are repeated unnecessarily.
But, apart from that proviso, Kollar’s book can be commended as an admirable guide to the extent to how far, in spite of the valuable work carried out in most convents, anti-Catholic prejudice could take their critics.
Dr Bernard Palmer is a former editor of the Church Times.