THE House of Bethany is a large Victorian house in a quiet, tree-lined road in Southsea, Portsmouth. Only the large colour poster of the risen Christ on the gatepost distinguishes it from its neighbours and marks it out as a religious house — the home, since 1986, of the Sisters of Bethany.
Its surrounding garden is filled with a variety of flowers and trees, including a fig tree, and there are encouraging stake-signs in the borders reading “Love”, “Peace”, “Patience”.
The front door is opened by a welcoming Sister, and tea and home-made cakes are waiting in the cosy sitting-room. The seven Sisters are cheerfully chatting with associates and visitors, some of whom leave when tea is finished, while the rest join the Sisters for vespers in the small chapel overlooking the garden.
The family house in Bethany, where Jesus visited his close friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus to relax, share a meal, and teach informally, comes to mind. Perhaps this example inspired Etheldreda Anna Bennett to found the first Church of England community to offer retreats to women, in Clerkenwell, London, in 1866, and call it “The Society of the Sisters of Bethany”. The Society’s 150th anniversary is being celebrated with a special service today — the feast day of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus — at Portsmouth Cathedral, when the Archbishop of Canterbury will preach, and celebrate the eucharist.
THE present Mother Superior, Mother Rita-Elizabeth, says that Mother Etheldreda’s intention was to provide opportunities for prayer and quiet for those whose vocation lay more in the world.
“At the present time,” she points out, “retreats are common enough, but, when she founded our Society, they were comparatively rare. Our Rule deals almost exclusively with the cultivation of the inner life, the interior life, and only by implication refers to the offering of work. This was in keeping with her whole trend of thought — not because the duty of labour was ignored, but rather [because] to her it was the natural outcome of communion with God. Thus a great integrity of purpose dominated all her actions.”
ETHELDREDA was born in 1824, four years after Florence Nightingale, with whom she shared a similar background, being born into a wealthy and educated family and “coming out” in the London Season; she, too, was drawn to the new Catholic Revival form of worship.
The Roman Catholic Church was only re-established in 1850, and Roman Catholics were still generally regarded with suspicion, but, like her great-great-great-grandfather William Wake — Archbishop of Canterbury from 1716 to 1737 — Etheldreda was passionate about church unity.
At that time, only Roman Catholics had religious houses and ran retreats, and Etheldreda wanted to make both possible for Church of England women. Dr Edward Pusey, a family friend, who had taken over the leadership of the Oxford Movement when John Henry Newman seceded to the Roman Catholic Church, actively supported the project. His daughter Lucy, who had been Etheldreda’s great friend, had died at the age of 15, and Dr Pusey treated Etheldreda like a god-daughter.
Although it was not considered “ladylike” to assume authority, Etheldreda prepared for the founding of her new community in a businesslike way. She spent time observing how other religious houses combined spiritual life with practical service, and was particularly impressed with the Sisters of the Visitation of Mary (an enclosed RC order for women, which had been founded in France in 1610 by St Francis de Sales and St Jane de Chantal). She made notes on their Rule, which had been devised by de Sales, and which in turn was based on the Rule of St Augustine of Hippo. It emphasised that everything must be done with love: “Il faut tout faire par amour.”
From the beginning, both parts of her plan were incredibly successful. Ninety-one women attended the first retreat in Lent 1868, and women came regularly to talk to the Sisters about their spiritual and emotional problems. Many — both women and men — who wanted to help the work and attend services alongside their normal life became Associates, of whom there are now more than 100.
WITHOUT neglecting their prayerful duties, the Sisters were able to find practical ways of helping the wider community. In 1873, they opened a school of embroidery, making vestments. Their work was overseen by the designer Sir Ninian Comper. This gave employment to local girls, and the income was used for the orphanage that the Sisters were running in Bournemouth, alongside the convent they had built there in 1872.
Mother Etheldreda was also known for her missionary spirit. In 1890, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr E. W. Benson, invited her to send Sisters to Kurdistan, the HQ of his mission to Assyrian Christians, to help in instructing women and girls in the faith. Four Sisters and a chaplain responded to the call, but life in the war-torn country was hard; although all five achieved a great deal, the conditions had a lasting impact on their health, and one died before they withdrew.
MOTHER Rita-Elizabeth observes that becoming a nun is, for most who do, a long process of being nudged gradually rather than a “light-bulb” moment, which is rare. She has a degree in botany, and originally became an associate while working in a pathology lab. Sister Mary Joy, the Assistant Superior, was training in the Church Army. Sister Ann Patricia’s background is in calligraphy and nursing; it took ten years before she really knew what she wanted to do.
Sister Joanna Elizabeth abandoned a degree in theology after a year at university to go as a postulant to a religious house that she thought would be right for her. After 20 months, she knew that it was not, and wrote to the Sisters of Bethany for advice. They suggested that she visit them; she felt immediately at home, and it is now 14 years since she made her vows.
The Sisters wear a blue habit and scapular, girdle, broad white collar and cap, black veil, and gold ring. Each has her own room, or cell. They eat together in silence, sometimes with a reading before or during the meal; there is now greater flexibility about diets for health reasons.
In their “spare” time, the Sisters can do activities that they enjoy, and that are helpful. Sister Joanna is an official Parish Sister attached to the Church of the Ascension near by. Besides attending the church on Sunday, and helping with the Sunday school, she also goes into schools to give a helping hand. “The children ask all sorts of questions about being a nun,” she says.
HOSPITALITY is an important aspect of the Sisters’ life. Besides hosting quiet days, retreats, and courses, they invite people to stay and share the convent life. This can be a great comfort to those recovering from an illness, or facing problems. Terry Henderson — an associate, and now a novice oblate — described how a friend who was very ill spent several months at the House while undergoing treatment. “They gave her so much love, and helped her face what might happen,” he said.
The novice-oblate programme emerged as the Sisters searched for ways for men and women to fulfil themselves without actually entering the convent. Novice oblates lead, as far as possible, the life of a religious, but in their own homes. There are now nine of them — six women, and three men. Eileen Keough became a professed oblate a month ago, taking life vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity. These are renewed every year.
“It’s a new type of monasticism for the Anglican Church,” she says. “I am an organist, and I continue to lead an ordinary life, in ordinary clothes; and I don’t live very near. But I pray in my own house, and attend courses here.”
SEARCHING for new ways of reaching out, the Sisters began an online ministry on Twitter and Facebook. Apart from prayer requests, this has opened up communication with more than 8000 people — of all faiths, and none — who are not necessarily churchgoers, but find it comforting and helpful to chat to nuns.
Sister Elizabeth Pio, who was dubbed “the tweeting nun”, has written a book, Bible to Go, which gives guidance in a down-to-earth and humorous way on dealing with particular situations. I particularly liked the chapter on pre-judging people.
I wondered whether the ordination of women (and, now, the possibility of high office in the Church) might cause communities such as the Society of the Sisters of Bethany to dwindle. Penny Christison and the Revd Beryl Rundle, both novice oblates, hope not.
“The Sisters are so kind and understanding, and here all the time for you. Here, I feel very close to God,” Mrs Christison said.
Ms Rundle responds: “They complement what the Church does. The whole of Portsmouth is blessed in having such a place of spiritual strength, where you can really find God.”