The feast of St Etheldreda and All Holy English Nuns is usually marked by some very good historical writing and some very bad jokes. Both have a limited audience. Today I would like to explore some wider questions that this minor monastic feast poses. In calling it minor, I may seem to be tacitly endorsing the idea that Anglo-Saxon nuns are not very important and their liturgical commemoration a matter of mere convention, but that is not what I think. The feast is only minor in the sense that few are aware of it, and even fewer embrace it as anything other than a historial curiosity. In my opinion, Anglo-Saxon nuns are an inspiration to those of us who follow in their footsteps as nuns and to the Church as a whole. If anything, they should be better known, for they challenge us in ways we need to be challenged, turning upside down much of our twenty-first century complacency about our having solved many of the problems of the past.
Of course, few nuns today can claim the kind of royal connections that so dazzled Anglo-Saxon hagiographers, and even if they could, their existence would cut no ice in our supposedly egalitarian society. The insistence on chastity and on penitential usages, such as washing in cold water (e.g. Etheldreda) or wearing a hair shirt (e.g. Edith), is equally out of step with contemporary mores. The idea of joint communities of men and women, where an abbess is in overall charge, tends to attract more approval, at least among those who fancy themselves rather advanced in ecclesiastical matters, but neither Catholics nor Orthodox have shown much enthusiasm for them during the last several centuries. As to engagement in missionary activity or political affairs (e.g. Leoba), that has become a vexed question. Nuns (moniales) are missionary by virtue of their prayer, we are told, but are expected to keep their noses out of politics — as, indeed, were all women and most men without the requisite property qualifications until comparatively recently. The juridical separation of nuns into two classes, moniales and sorores, contemplative and active, has not helped matters, nor has the development of a strict separation into three distinct classes within the Church, clerical, lay and religious.
We have everything neatly arranged nowadays, but we must ask whether we are proclaiming the gospel with real effectiveness or merely perpetuating our cosy institutions. Are we a Church on the move towards the fulfilment of the Kingdom or stuck in the mud? To put it another way, do we look back to the Anglo-Saxons as to a Golden Age when everything was simpler and the Church won hearts and minds in a way she never has since, in Europe at any rate, or do we dismiss the past as irrelevant to the present, or do we hold to a kind of middle way, that sees in the Anglo-Saxons much that we could usefully recover without sacrificing anything of the insights we have gained in the last thousand years?
Anglo-Saxon England was missionary territory, and as in all missionary territory, there was room for a lot of initiative and the involvement of various groups and individuals in the Christianization of the country. Anglo-Saxon nuns played their part by being learned, influential and exercising a moral leadership that paralleled but in no way contradicted the spiritual authority of the clergy. I wonder whether we can see here a model for the laity today. It is, after all, the laity who hold positions of political power, who get things done, whose activities contribute to the wealth of the country and who, most importantly, determine the values by which society lives. There is just one thing lacking. We fail to see modern Britain as the missionary territory it is, and that perhaps is where the nuns can help.
Recently, El Pais published an article about the forthcoming Synod of the Amazon. Many Catholics have become excited over some comments of Pope Francis which suggest that he is open to the idea of ordaining married men, viri probati, to the priesthood to provide for the pastoral care of the region. (We do, in fact, already have married clergy in the Catholic Church, but that is by the way.) What was interesting about the article, however, published as it was in a journal not known for its admiration of the Catholic Church, was its reminder that the pastoral care of the Amazon region has largely been, and still is, the work of nuns and sisters — and it has been quietly successful, just as in the Anglo-Saxon Church. In other words, alongside the hierarchical structures of the Church has been another, looser, in many ways more responsive, kind of structure which has met the needs of the time and place with ability and grace.
Here surely is a challenge for all of us, be we priests, lay people or religious. Just as Anglo-Saxon nuns were loyal to the Church to which they belonged, so must we be, but, like them, we must have the courage to question and to offer our own insights when we can. The Anglo-Saxons’ missionary endeavours sprang from a fervent life of prayer and virtuous living. We cannot opt out of either on the grounds of ‘necessity’ or a misplaced sense of ‘cultural adaptation’, for we cannot draw others to holiness without first seeking to become holy ourselves. Nor can we neglect what we often overlook in their lives: the painstaking study to become genuinely learned, at home with the scriptures, at home with the Lord. May St Etheldreda and all Holy English Nuns pray for us today and always.