The Church’s Powerful Women

What does that phrase convey to you? Whom do you think of as the Church’s powerful women? My guess is that the majority of Catholics would be hard put to name any living woman as such. A little scratching of the head might produce a few names from the past: Mother Teresa of Calcutta, say, or Teresa of Avila. The idea of women exercising power in the Church is alien to most, and the names we remember tend to come from a comparatively small group of people who did comparatively similar things, e.g. found an order/congregation/institute of charity or write. The more historically-minded could provide a list of Late Antique empresses and medieval queens who exerted a lot of influence in the Church, not all of it good, but that mythical beast, the (wo)man in the pew, would probably end up with very few names. Among them would almost certainly be that of today’s saint, Hild or Hilda of Whitby, but I wonder whether it would be the Hilda of history or the Hilda of modern myth who would be celebrated?

A close reading of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History tells us several interesting facts about Hilda and suggests many more. She may once have been married. ‘Everyone called her mother,’ says Bede, a phrase he uses of no other nun. She was certainly of mature age (33) when she abandoned her plan to go to Chelles, the leading monastery for women of the day, and answered Aidan’s call to establish a monastery in Northumbria. The monasteries she founded all followed the Celtic pattern and were double houses for both men and women. Bede emphasizes her gifts as an administrator — and her sensitivity to poetry. She plucked Caedmon from the cow-byre to be a singer of psalms and sacred songs. Her role at the Synod of Whitby has been much discussed, and I think it may explain why Hilda has been mythologized in recent times.

What happened at Whitby must have been quite earth-shattering for many of the participants. Indeed, the monks of Lindisfarne refused to accept the decision to embrace the Roman date for Easter and withdrew first to Iona, then later, to Ireland. For those who did accept the decision, Hilda among them, it meant the loss of much that was dear and familiar. Little by little, or in some cases overnight, the old Celtic practices gave way to the ‘new’ Roman ones. Even the shape of the monks’ tonsure changed. Perhaps only those who have lived monastic life themselves can really appreciate what these changes meant to the individuals concerned. There was continuity but also change, and it is often the little things that cost most.

Hilda undoubtedly played a key role in getting the decision accepted. Such was her reputation for wisdom and prudence that many would have looked to her for guidance. Crucially, what many overlook is that in accepting the Roman date of Easter Hilda was placing the desire for unity in Church practice above any other consideration. As a Celtic Christian, she already acknowledged the primacy of the pope, but here she was, stating that a theoretical acknowledgement had to be translated into actual practice.

People sometimes speak of Hilda as though she were a role model for female bishops. She is undoubtedly a role model for Christian leadership, but I think myself it is more helpful to see her in the monastic context, where leadership is exercised without hierarchical status. Power, in Church terms, is such an odd thing. I think we sometimes mistake the importance of the different elements in building up the Church. Administration is a gift, a charism, not to be undervalued; but it is a gift meant to lead to holiness, and holiness without compassion is an impossibility. Hilda did not set herself up over and against the existing hierarchy of the Church but used her many gifts of heart and mind to bring others to the Christ she knew and loved so well. It is no accident that, holy herself, her monastery became a nursery of saints. May she pray for us all.

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St Hilda of Whitby Reconsidered

Medievalists may have turned to this post expecting a close analysis of Bede’s text and hoping for some amazing new insights into the person of St Hilda (as it happens, yes, I do think she was formerly married, did try to join a monastery in Gaul, etc, etc, but I have no new material to offer); others may be hoping for some polemical contrasts between ‘the Celtic Church’ and ‘the Roman Church’ (sorry, no, I don’t think Hilda was an Anglican avant la lettre, that is seriously to misunderstand how the Church was perceived by her contemporaries); some may even be looking for some feisty feminism, which would make Hilda not merely abbess of Whitby but the most important person of her time (St Wilfrid would have disputed that, along with several kings). No, as I was thinking about St Hilda this morning I was struck once again by her loneliness, the loneliness of someone whose position set her apart from others to do what no one else could.

We have a tendency to see historical figures in a vaccuum. They appear for a brief moment, like the sparrow flitting through the mead hall, and we see only what we deem to be of importance, the little bit of their lives that history has deigned to record as significant. So with Hilda. We know that she was abbess of a great double-monastery, renowned for its learning and cultural eminence, but we probably think more of Caedmon, plucked from the cowshed to be a sweet singer of songs, than we do of the daily round of administration that headship of so large an undertaking must have involved. Hilda worrying about cheeses for the table, new footwear for the brethren at Easter, or disputes between community members that she alone could resolve: these we do not think about so much. Bede allows us to glimpse Hilda listening intently to the arguments about how the date of Easter should be calculated and finally laying aside her own opinion in favour of that advanced by Wilfrid. Do you think everyone in her community agreed all at once? Do you think there were no mutterings, no covert acts of minor rebellion, futile acts of petty vengeance? If you do, you have both a more sanguine view of human nature and slightly less experience of the cloister than I do!

I think Hilda’s loneliness probably increased rather than diminished after the Synod of Whitby. Once the painful decision had been taken, it had to be worked out in the detail of liturgical observance; and the detail of liturgical observance absorbs a huge amount of the time and energy of any community. Add to that the changes in routine, the old monks and nuns finding the changes difficult to remember and getting muddled, the younger ones wanting to press on faster than the rest, and you have a piquant situation.

What sustained Hilda? I don’t know, but I think it must have been love of truth, which ultimately is Truth himself. For his sake she was prepared to abandon everything, the comfortable traditions of her past, the security of the familiar. She was indeed a nun who lived up to her vocation; an abbess worthy of the name. May she pray for us all.

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