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Diary: Sister Rosemary

30 January 2015

by Sister Rosemary


We're still standing

THIS year, our community celebrates its sesquicentenary. No, we are not using that word on our publicity, but I came across it and rather like it; so I thought that I would get it in. One hundred and fifty years ago this June, our first Sisters made their vows, in the then new Parish Church of St Peter, Vauxhall.

Anglican religious communities began in 1845, when Marian Hughes made vows before Fr Pusey. That means that we were not among the very first wave of communities, but the last survivor of Mother Marian's Society of the Holy and Undivided Trinity spent her last years with us in our convent in Malvern; so we feel that we have a direct personal link with that beginning.

The feminist in me is a little embarrassed that we began with a Father Founder rather than a Mother Foundress. He was the incumbent of St Peter's, memorably named Fr George Herbert, and he was well known in his day for the colourful Anglo-Catholic worship in his church, his pastoral care of his poor parishioners, and his impassioned mission preaching. He gathered a group of ladies to help in his work, and to devote themselves to prayer in the monastic tradition, and they became the founding members of our community.

In those first years after 1865, it was by no means certain that the community would continue. Sisters came and went, and numbers remained very small; the community might easily have disappeared without trace before long, as many did. As I look at the new-style religious communities that are starting now, I see a similar pattern, and wonder how many of them will survive for 150 years - or even if they would want to; perhaps they see their vocation as responding to the particular needs of the moment, and then coming to an end.

Adaptable calling

WE EVENTUALLY acquired our Mother Foundress, Mother Frances Mary, who deserves this title, even though she was not one of the original Sisters, because, under her leadership, the little community stabilised, then grew and prospered, and moved beyond work in one parish to a much wider ministry, based on the new mother house in Malvern.

We were also renamed the Community of the Mission Sisters of the Holy Name of Jesus. We are usually known as the Community of the Holy Name (CHN) for short, but the full title emphasises what we see as our constant calling. As a community, we have never had a specialist ministry such as teaching, or nursing, but have responded in whatever way seems appropriate at the time to our commitment to "do all in our power to draw to Jesus those for whom he died".

We are now a small group of ageing Sisters, and cannot do the widespread and energetic work we used to undertake; but our calling remains the same, and we simply have to work out how it can be fulfilled in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. 

Busier than ever

WHEN I was applying to be considered for ordination, I made the point that, although at 52 I might seem to be a rather elderly ordinand, Sisters do not retire; I would expect to continue my priestly ministry as long as I was physically and mentally capable. They were sufficiently persuaded that I might not be a bad bargain to allow me to proceed to ordination.

Priests of the Church of Eng-land, however, do retire, and, last autumn, I received the standard letter from the Bishop, informing me that I could not continue to hold his licence after I reached the age of 70. I could, however, hold his permission to officiate. Accordingly, on my 70th birthday, this change of status took place, and the parish responded with a wonderful party and generous presents.

A few weeks later, I received a pastoral phone call from the Bishop's Officer for Retired Clergy, who was anxious to find out whether retirement had caused me any problems - practical or psychological. Was I planning to move house, for example? Not, I assured him, unless 26 other people were going to move as well. How had my life changed since retirement? Not at all; in parish and community, I am still doing what I was doing before, and still not getting paid for it.

I can understand that, for some clergy, retirement makes a huge difference. I have met more than one who was looking forward to being relieved of the relentless demands, proliferation of meetings, and burden of administration which go with running a parish, but has found it a terrible shock not to be the one who decides how things shall be done.

But, more than ever, recently, I have been aware of how much we depend on retired clergy. In this last year, in our small deanery, with several parishes in vacancy, we could not have continued to provide services without their help. Are we retired clerics bored with nothing to do? Chance would be a fine thing. 

The Revd Sister Rosemary CHN is a nun at the Convent of the Holy Name in Derby.

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