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Angela Tilby: My friend, the actress turned Sister

24 May 2019

Creative Commons

All Saints’, Wraxall

All Saints’, Wraxall

LAST Saturday, I drove to Wraxall, in Somerset, for the burial of ashes of an old friend, Sister Rosemary Dawn, or Dawn Watling as she was when I first knew her: sometime actress, sales assistant, hospital receptionist, theological-college housekeeper, theology undergraduate, licensed woman worker, religious Sister, deaconess, founder member of a new community, deacon, and, then, one of the first women to be ordained to the priesthood in Bristol Cathedral in 1994.

Dawn died at the age of 84, having entrusted me with turning her memoirs into a book, which I had done. “My God”, as the Actress said to the Priest (reflecting two aspects of Dawn’s life) will soon be available.

All Saints’, Wraxall was where she had spent years sharing a house and a vowed life with the Vicar, the Revd Christine Clarke. Dawn and Christine were founder members of a new religious community, the Exodus People. The Revd Dallas Ayling, who was a member for ten years, conducted the service.

Dawn was a big personality, full of fun and opinions, capable of righteous (and sometimes unrighteous) anger. People loved her, and she drove them potty at the same time. Editing her memoirs, as I have just done, has made me aware of how complicated life has been over the past century for women with a sense of vocation: how the Church has, all at the same time, encouraged, patronised, welcomed and deplored, limited and enabled the women who have offered it their lives.

Dawn had a robust sense of the fallibility of the Church, which was in direct inverse proportion to her sense of intimacy with the Almighty. She didn’t exactly have a hotline to God, but she was, as it were, “open to calls” in the form of prophecies and words from the Lord.

As it happened, the Exodus People did not outlast her. Her ashes were buried alongside Christine’s, outside the east wall of All Saints’. Fifteen of us were there, including family, friends, and parishioners.

Dallas invited us to share any memories that we had of Dawn. I had my little piece prepared, but what moved me most was how several of the parishioners spoke about her ministry among them. One remembered her conducting a daughter’s wedding. Another spoke of her gifts of listening, the hours she gave to troubled individuals. Another remembered fondly her all-age sermons, with puppets and funny voices.

Somehow, as the birds sang and distant cars went by, our memories were ingathered and mingled, and her gifts poured out, like a mini-Pentecost.

So much of what is important in a Christian life and ministry is not the grand ambitions and hopes, but the moments of love, listening, and compassion.

This is how we come to rest in peace and hope to rise in glory.

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