Ordeal by numbers
THE first Saturday in September has long been the date when we welcome to the convent people who have a particular connection with us. In my earliest days in the community, there were three categories of these: Companions, Associates, and Friends. The groups differed from one another in the rigorousness of the life they had undertaken.
Companions were often those who would have liked to be Sisters, but had been prevented by circumstances from living in a residential community. They were celibate, and prayed much of the community’s office. Friends took an interest in the community and contributed financially; Associates had a more formal commitment, and followed a rule of life agreed individually for each of them.
In those days, the community was much larger than it is now, and the supporters were also numerous. Associates’ Day, as it was then called, produced a large and overwhelming invasion. The then Novice Guardian had arranged for me to enter on the Monday after this gathering, thinking, correctly, that if I were subjected to it soon after arriving, I would flee in panic.
When I experienced it for the first time, after almost a year of living in the convent, it nearly had the same effect. One of the Sisters had a stall selling herbs that she grew, and on it there were bottles labelled “Powdered Rosemary”. It was just how I felt.
Together in fellowship
FORTY years on, and the structure of our supporters’ groups has been greatly simplified. There are no longer three separate degrees of commitment; now, all who are associated with us are, collectively, the Fellowship of the Holy Name.
This title was the members’ own choice, and works well for them as a body; but what do you call one of them? “A Fellow” does not seem right. (For me, it presents the same difficulty as “What do you call a female member of the Brethren?”) “A member of the Fellowship”, although clumsy, seems the only option, and is actually what we do.
Another change is that, in the past, all associates, etc., were women — except, curiously, “priest-associates”, who, in those days, were, of course, only men. Now, men and women are admitted equally, and these days they are not all Anglicans. Some are even Roman Catholics, who have chosen our community in preference to those of their own Church.
As usual, practical ecumenism on the ground is proceeding much faster than the Churches’ official structures allow.
The worship factor
WHAT attracts people to be related to us in this way? As I have mentioned previously in this column, there is nowadays a great interest in the religious life, although few seem drawn to be committed full-time to a traditional community such as ours. A part-time connection may seem more appealing, and more manageable.
People often come to visit us because they see some event advertised, or they meet us out and about somewhere, or hear one of us preaching or leading a Quiet Day; or they come to stay at the guest cottage for a private retreat. It is often our daily worship that makes an impression.
In addition to the eucharist each day, we come together for five offices as intervals. This may sound rather an overload, but each is fairly short, and, being based on the Bible, sounds familiar to those who go to church.
We regard it as a significant part of our work, and try to conduct it as well as we can. Our Rule says that we are to say or sing it together “as one voice rising up to God” — not an easy task, as anyone with experience of choral singing or speaking will recognise.
Sometimes, it comes off, and then it is beautiful. But, even if we do not do as well as we would like, the fact that we do this, day after day, means that there is a constant stream of prayer into which visitors can step, and be carried along. This is one factor that makes some people feel the desire for a closer connection.
Others are drawn in because they have experienced help and care from a Sister, somewhere, in some personal difficulty. We can never tell what effect an encounter may have, perhaps years later.
BECAUSE of the smaller numbers, Fellowship Day this year was not so overwhelming; but, more important, the people who now come are not, for me, an onslaught of strangers. I recognise most of them, and know some fairly well; and so it is a gathering of friends.
This time, we had a fascinating talk from a scientist-theologian about the care of creation. It is important that we look outwards, and are not preoccupied with our own interests and survival. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,” and our concern must be no narrower than that.
The Revd Sister Rosemary CHN is a nun at the Convent of the Holy Name in Derby.