from Freedom From Sanctified Sexism – Women Transforming the Church by Mavis Rose, pp. 76-91.
Allira Publications, 17 Cervantes Street, MacGregor, Queensland 4109, Australia.
Copyright: Mavis Rose 1996.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions
The revival of religious communities in the Church of England preceded the introduction of the deaconess order. Marion Hughes, a clergy daughter, in 1841 was the first woman to be professed, later becoming Mother Superior of the Community of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, Oxford. Her profession as a nun triggered off the rapid formation of further sisterhoods, a few choosing to be enclosed and concentrate on prayer and meditation, but the majority engaged, like the Soeurs de la Charité, in social welfare work, establishing institutions such as schools, women’s shelters, industrial schools or reformatories, and orphanages for needy children. The sisters also ran activities such as soup kitchens and assisted in pastoral outreach to women and juveniles in trouble with the law.
Male monastic communities also formed. While members of their orders could be become priests and preside over eucharistic liturgies, sisters in women’s orders, including the Mother Superior, were dependent on male clergy for their sacerdotal needs and also had, under rules set down by the Church, to agree to a member of the clergy acting as warden. Clergy for many years presented reports of the work of the religious orders of women to synods. In diocesan affairs, the sisterhoods remained on the periphery as far as decision-making and planning were concerned, although they exercised control within their own institutions over all but sacramental functions and insisted on a voice in the planning of diocesan enterprises which depended on the involvement of women religious.
Anglo-Catholics defended celibate sisterhoods against Protestant criticism by harking back to the period of the church patriarchs, where sexual asceticism was exalted. The Anglo-Catholic revival was also influenced by the nineteenth century Romantic movement, which extolled the Middle Ages, especially the religious mysticism of the period. For women, the revival of a past monastic tradition appeared to be not only spiritually satisfying but a practical way to respond to the social needs of their age. Communal religious life offered a home where a woman could concentrate on her religious and social welfare vocation without being distracted by the duties of married life. However, the religious life was no sinecure. The workload tackled by the majority of sisters was excessive, stretching their physical and emotional resources to the limit, in numerous instances damaging their health.
There was a negative element for women in the restoration of conventual life. The mediaeval Church had dampened the power and influence of women’s ministry by forcing them out of the Church’s public sphere into the cloisters, the most private of private spheres. Many of the monastic rules which the new communities adopted had been originally formulated by males, for whom spiritual enrichment entailed a celibacy which would isolate them from the impurity of women’s sexuality. By wearing the habit and veil, women were unconsciously conspiring to deny the beauty, worth and Godliness of the female body and its natural functions. Anglo-Catholicism emphasised the essential “maleness” of priesthood and Divinity , thus depriving women religious to a large extent of the opportunity of providing a model of priestly as well as spiritual leadership in the Anglican Church.
In an article entitled “When Women Ruled the Men” in The Church Standard of 28 May 1948, the Rev. Desmond Morse-Boycott recalled the early period of English Christianity, a time when women religious did have considerable power and influence. He commented that “monasteries and convents were the only centres of learning and culture and therefore handled the affairs of the country and wielded a powerful influence”, adding that “this was particularly so when the superior was, as in the case of Hilda [of Whitby], of royal rank”. Morse-Boycott made clear that Hilda’s gender did not affect her leadership capabilities:
“In these days, when there is a mass agitation amongst women for equality with men in opportunities and pay, it is amusing to recall that, as far as Hilda was concerened[sic] (and this was by no means an isolated instance) she ruled, not only the nuns in the convent but monks in the monastery as well, and ruled very well and firmly too….In her own communities, whose example of course inspired others, she restored the image of the Primitive Church, wherein was neither rich nor poor and where all things were enjoyed in common.”
In England, the decline in the power of women’s religious communities was partly related to the frequent foreign invasions and attacks on monasteries which took place during the eighth to eleventh centuries. Following the Norman Conquest, reforms which had been implemented in the continental church were more strictly enforced in Britain. Eleventh century reforms contained a strong anti-female element. Double monasteries were now seen as ”morally suspect” and stricter cloistering rules for women were introduced. Although in the initial stages of the reform movement, abbesses retained considerable power, it became usual for destroyed or abandoned women’s monasteries to be restored and re-established for males only. Enforcement of cloistering made it more difficult for women’s orders to be economically viable. Educationally the women fell behind for male religious could and did go to universities, while women religious were excluded.
In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the period when religious orders were out of favour in the English church, the idea of a “Protestant nunnery” was frequently raised, possibly related to the ongoing problem of spinsterhood, the excess of middle-class women over men. Bishop of Salisbury, Gilbert Burnet, was in favour of “something like Monasteries without Vows” where young women would be able to acquire “a due measure of Knowledge and a serious Sense of Religion”.
When the Church of England sanctioned the revival of monastic orders, one could argue that the nineteenth-century women religious were in many ways emulating their English sisters of earlier centuries by filling an important vacuum in social welfare and church school education. Religious life served both as an escape from the Victorian concept of marriage and as a satisfying career for single women without loss of virtue and sanctity . Women’s orders outstripped men’s in the revival period in contrast with the situation in the pre-Reformation period, again an indication of how closely the monastic revival was linked to religious feminism in England. Both the women’s orders and the deaconesses were involved in varying degrees in the women’s suffrage movement, the lines between secular and religious women’s movements being less clearly marked in first wave feminism.
In spite of Evangelical forebodings about the revival of women’s orders, in practice the religious communities intruded very little into general church affairs. The sisters were so preoccupied with running the enterprises which they had inaugurated or the diocesan social institutions assigned to their care that they participated less in parochial life than deaconesses. Lambeth Reports over the twentieth century had few items on women’s religious orders compared with the coverage devoted to deaconesses. Women religious were not regarded as aspirants for priesthood. The regulations drawn up by the Church to control religious communities had curbed the powers of Mothers Superior outside the convent just as the various decrees of the Catholic Church had limited the power of women religious in earlier centuries.
Considering the influx of English Anglo-Catholic clergy into Australia in the late nineteenth century, it was not surprising that religious orders should follow into the Australian colonies. The three largest Anglican religious orders for women in Australia, all of which commenced their activities at the end of the nineteenth century, were the Community of the Holy Name, the Society of the Sacred Advent and the Community of the Sisters of the Church, none of which attained the size of the Roman Catholic orders. All three Anglican orders were founded by women associated with English communities but only the first two came to regard themselves as “Australian ”. The Sisters of the Church continued to be an overseas branch of their Mother House in London.
There were several very small orders in Australia. The Community of St. Clare, a Franciscan order for women founded in 1950 in England, established an Australian branch, an enclosed order, at Stroud in New South Wales in 1975, which developed into a double monastery, Mother Angela maintaining control. Another Franciscan sisterhood, the Order of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, founded in London in 1916, established a small outpost in Bunbury in Western Australia in 1928 where the sisters ran a high school hostel for girls. The sisters’ main work was at the Margaret River Settlement and at Busselton. The Sisters of the Holy Cross were a tiny group working in the mining town of Broken Hill. In 1939 they moved to Port Elliott in South Australia. In 1991, a small male monastic order, St. Mark’s Benedictine Community, was established at Camperdown in the western region of Victoria. By inviting two English women religious from St. Mary’s Abbey in Kent to join the community, the St. Mark’s Community experimented with functioning as a dual-gender monastery.
The Sisters of the Church or Kilburn Sisters were established in 1870 by Emily Ayckbown, the elder daughter of Rev. Frederick Ayckbown, Rector of Holy Trinity Church, Chester. Their aims were “to combat social evils and to raise the status and increase the opportunities of women”. Quite clearly the Sisters of the Church had feminist goals from their inception. The sisters first came to Australia in 1892, with a clear aim to set up schools and social welfare institutions in the major capitals. It was a period of deep recession in Australia.
The Sisters of the Church founded schools in Hobart, Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney, Perth, Kalgoorlie and Canberra, the Kalgoorlie school being short-lived. The Sisters also engaged in outreach to sick and orphaned children, establishing a Convalescent Home for Children at Glenelg in Adelaide and the Parkerville Orphanage near Perth. The nucleus of children at the Parkerville orphanage was a group of English orphans which the Sisters brought with them from England. Sister May was appointed the first Provincial Mother Superior for Australia and moved to Sydney in October 1893, where, as observied in the previous chapter, her arrival created a stir among Sydney churchmen. Sister May was advised by the Anglo-Catholic clergy in Sydney that the bishop would “approve in time”. Her supporters underestimated the strength of Evangelical antagonism to Anglo-Catholicism in Sydney diocese and Sydney churchmen’s dislike of having Anglican women operating within the diocese who were not locked safely into marriage or under direct male control.
As already noted in Chapter Four, the Community of the Holy Name evolved from the Melbourne Diocesan Deaconess Institution under the leadership of Emma Silcock. Before coming to Australia, Emma Silcock had been a novice, Sister Esther, in the Anglican sisterhood of St. Mary the Virgin at Wantage in England. Although accepting the challenge offered by Melbourne Diocese to run its Mission to Streets and Lanes, Emma Silcock did not feel comfortable as a deaconess, being professed as a nun by Archdeacon Stretch of Ballarat in 1904. Because of prejudice against women religious, especially among Melbourne’s low church faction, it was not until 1912, when the Community was indispensible to the diocese, that the Community of the Holy Name was granted a Charter to operate as a religious order. Several women in the community opted to remain deaconesses rather than take religious vows. Thus the Community of the Holy Name, by careful strategy, established the form of ministry which it preferred rather than the deaconess institution preferred by the diocesan authorities.
The Mission centre was situated in Little Lonsdale Street, close to St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was an area where prostitution flourished. The sisters perceived as their most urgent tasks to rescue “fallen” women and provide a home for orphaned, illegitimate and neglected children. In the “fallen women” category were petty criminals, runaway daughters, abandoned wives, mistresses and derelicts. The Community also opened a “ragged school” for underprivileged children, but this did not survive. The Community of the Holy Name was never to venture as successfully into educational work in Australia as the Sisters of the Church and the Society of the Sacred Advent.
In 1889, the Mission Council purchased a house on eight acres in Cheltenham where the sisters ran a women’s refuge/reform institution, named the House of Mercy. To make the project more self-sufficient, a laundry service was organised using the labour of the inmates. According to Strahan in her study of the Community, the laundry was the “physical and moral centre of the reformatory programme” interspersed with meals, prayer, needlework and some relaxation. Punishment for offenders could be harsh, such as cutting off a young woman’s hair to depersonalise and humiliate her. The downplay of sexuality in religious celibacy tended to make physical attractiveness appear particularly unholy. Despite their feminist roots, sexual inhibitions shaped by the Church’s “hang-ups” about the basic carnality of female flesh and prevailing moralistic attitudes in society generally prevented the sisters from providing a non-judgmental environment for adult women, most of whom were the victims of abuse and poverty.
The sisters worked more comfortably among children than with “fallen” women, establishing a home for “Children, Waifs and Strays” in the bayside suburb of Brighton, with a section for “babies” next door. The bequest of a large house with land in Kew also enabled the Community to open a hospital “to benefit those who cannot afford to go to Private Hospitals, and who do not wish to be the recipients of charity in the Public Hospitals”.
In 1921, the Community moved interstate for the first time, accepting an offer from Newcastle Diocese to run a children’s home, later accepting requests for children’s homes at Goulburn, Young, Morpeth and Mayfield, all in New South Wales. The Community also ran a Retreat House at Belair in the Adelaide Hills. In 1951 the Sisters made their first venture into overseas missions, setting up a girls’ school in Papua New Guinea at Dogura, which fared better than their Australian educational experiments. One of the sisters, Sister Faith, saw the school as “a feminist enterprise” in that its aim was to improve the self-esteem of Papuan women.
In ceremonial, ecclesiastics took precedence over the sisters. Strahan observed from a study of photographs of special events that “the clergy, embroidered and brocaded, preside in the forefront, while the sisters hover in the background like a shy array of penguins…. Even the proud Mother Superior is tucked to the side of the central action”. She commented that, although the Mother Superior exercised “a man-like command”, she was still “subservient to the all-male hierarchy of the Church of England, so that despite her manly toughness, a high degree of womanliness was expected of her”. Within the convent, sisters were expected to curtsey to the Mother Superior whenever they passed her. Thus the Anglican feminists who had founded religious orders, by emphasising the female authority figure, had adopted a monastic structure which imposed subservience on the majority of women within the community rather than the equality idealised in feminism . In other words, women religious had to accept matriarchy within the convent walls and patriarchy in their interaction with the Church. The structures of oppression in Church and monastic orders were basically similar and more strictly adhered to in the latter.
The Society of the Sacred Advent, which worked almost entirely in Queensland, was founded by a member of the Community of St. John the Baptist in Clewer, England. Sister Caroline Amy, a woman in her sixties, was invited to Brisbane by Canon Montague J. Stone-Wigg, sub-Dean of St. John’s Cathedral (later to become Bishop of New Guinea). Canon Stone-Wigg envisaged the building up of a religious women’s community which would carry out welfare work and establish much needed church schools.
There was some concern about the reception a women’s religious community would receive, even in a diocese where the clergy were predominantly Anglo-Catholic in their churchmanship and leading their parishes in that tradition. The following letter, signed “Churchworker”, appeared in The Church Chronicle of August 1892:
“I would ask all those to whom the idea [of an English sisterhood] is in any way strange and who may be inclined to be a little doubtful, not to be prejudiced, but to wait and judge by results. Community life needs no plea now at home, it has amply justified its own existence there, and in many other parts of the world, and will undoubtedly do so here, if the home authorities are induced to realise our need and help us.”
In September 1894, the Society of the Sacred Advent opened St. John’s School for primary age children in a building adjoining the Cathedral. In 1895, Eton High School was established at Nundah under the principalship of a Miss Emma Crawford. Emma Crawford was in 1897 professed, and in 1901, after a minor power struggle within the Society, succeeded Mother Caroline as Superior of the Order. Over 70 years of age, Mother Caroline returned in disappointment to her English community at Clewer, leaving six professed sisters and three novices to carry on her work in Brisbane.
In 1901, the Society of the Sacred Advent purchased a large house and grounds at Nundah, which was used for an orphanage. The orphanage was named “Tufnell Home” after the first Bishop of the Diocese, whose widow donated part of the purchase price of £1,200. In its initial stage, Tufnell Home included girls referred to the Sisters by the State and privately boarded orphans. Later that year the State girls were transferred to the Industrial School, Clayfield, which later the Sisters transformed into St. Michael’s Primary School. The Sisters also ran a home for “fallen” women, mainly unmarried mothers, at Toowong. The sisterhood was, after the First World War, to take over the running of St. Martin’s War Memorial Hospital on a site adjoining St. John’s Cathedral.
As had been the case with the Community of the Holy Name, the Society of the Sacred Advent used the inmates of the Industrial School in Clayfield to run a commercial laundry. The rationale for this was that alongside teaching “goes the training of the children in all matters which will make them well fitted for domestic service and ultimately for the work of homes of their own”. Thus the Sisters, in spite of their retreat from married life, still reinforced the domestic sphere as the appropriate place for women. Again, there were no inhibitions about using young women for such heavy work.
The Society of the Sacred Advent energetically pursued its goals of education and social welfare work through the first half of the twentieth century. In 1909, St. Catherine’s School for Girls was opened in Stanthorpe, later transferring to Warwick. The site in Nundah on which Eton House stood was bought by Brisbane Diocese for a theological college and the Mother House and school moved temporarily to Hamilton and, in July 1910, permanently to Albion, where Eton House became St. Margaret’s Church of England High School for Girls.
In 1917, the Bishop of North Queensland urgently requested the Society of the Sacred Advent to come to his diocese’s aid by running schools for girls. The Diocese would provide buildings. In appealing to the Society of the Sacred Advent, Bishop Feetham of North Queensland indicated that Anglican children were attending Roman Catholic schools because there were no Church of England schools to cater for them:
Parents are continually asking me – especially those in the western districts – why we have no such schools, and regretting that the Roman Convent Schools are the only ones available…. The difficulty of securing, and the expense of maintaining, a competent staff of teachers has proved too great for more than one educational venture. It has long been plain that we cannot hope to secure continuity of management and the need for economy in working without the help of a religious community prepared to carry on educational work.
In other words, the Bishop needed the “cheap labour” of the Anglican nuns to provide schooling at a price competitive with the Roman Catholic education system.
The Society of the Sacred Advent responded generously, establishing St. Anne’s School in Townsville, followed by St. Mary’s School at Herberton in 1918 and St. Gabriel’s, Charters Towers in 1928. In 1921 the sisters took charge of All Saints Hostel, Charleville, at the request of the Bush Brotherhood of St. Paul. In 1928, they also opened a second school for girls in Brisbane, St. Aidan’s, Corinda. From 1932 to 1943, the sisters were also in charge of St. Faith’s School, Yeppoon in Rockhampton Diocese.
As in the case of the Community of the Holy Name, the number of professed sisters was never sufficient to meet the commitments of the Society with the result that there was heavy reliance on secular staff and help from lay associates of the Order. Archbishop Wand of Brisbane in his Presidential Address to the Provincial Synod of Queensland in 1938 spoke of the urgent need for more sisters:
There must be many young women who would find an opportunity not merely for a useful life but for a life of great blessedness in one of our conventual orders. If you think of the vast range of educational and social work undertaken by the Sisters throughout the State, and then realise how small are their numbers, you may well marvel that their organisation is able to sustain itself at all.
In 1942, the Bishop of North Queensland also appealed to women to give their lives to the Society, indicating that the sisters were suffering the strain of overwork. He admitted that during the twenty five years that the Society of the Sacred Advent had operated in North Queensland, only three women had taken vows. He pointed out that there were 1527 Roman Catholic nuns in Queensland.
The strong tradition in the Roman Catholic Church for women to enter religious life was clearly related to the fact that monastic life had never been discredited or dismantled. To the average Australian Anglican, women’s religious orders smacked much too strongly of Roman Catholicism, especially at a time when Protestants and Roman Catholics were politically polarised, making it difficult for Anglican nuns to gain acceptance. In a country where women were seen as partners for men and child bearers, female celibacy ran counter to the cultural norm.
Sister Rosemary of the Community of the Sisters of the Church commented on the difficulties of recruitment at a meeting celebrating the centenary of the Oxford Movement in Sydney in July 1933. Sister Rosemary admitted that “there is still a good deal of ignorance and prejudice about the Religious Life, even among Anglo-Catholics”, adding that “many people who are quite friendly to the Sisters and interested in their work, would be horrified if their daughters or relations expressed a desire for such a life”. Sister Rosemary, with a touch of irony, listed the attributes of women’s religious communities which the Anglican Church in general valued:
Schools, orphanages, Rescue Homes, hospitals, Mission work, can all be carried on more cheaply by Sisters…also, there is the Community behind the work to help with money and workers….We live in a materialistic age, when people like to see results, to get the most for their money.
Sister Rosemary came to the conclusion that, in a young country like Australia, “there is not the ancient tradition of faith and devotion”, that people did not see any value in “Contemplative Orders, whose chief work is prayer”, but who could accept that “the Active Orders” were of use to the Church.
In her study of the Community of the Holy Name, Strahan came across strong parental opposition to daughters wishing to enter the order. Through interviews, she found that “anguish was often the mother’s response, while the fathers were prone to anger”. One Sister’s father did not speak to her for five years after she joined the community. A mother admitted that, “if she could have foreseen the outcome, her daughter would have been brought up a Methodist, where there was no celibacy”. According to a sister of the Society of the Sacred Advent, “my mother was extremely upset when I joined the order while my father practically disowned me”.
Because of this lack of regeneration and a decline in the number of English sisters willing to work in the Australian orders, the women religious had neither the resources nor the staff to meet their commitments. The majority of the social institutions begun by the sisterhoods at the end of the nineteenth century had been handed over to lay staff under direct diocesan control by the second half of the twentieth century. At the present time, the Community of the Holy Name mainly makes available its community houses for retreats and seminars, where the sisters provide food and lodging but seldom lead the sessions. The Community also has a small enclosed order at Taminick near Wangaratta. One member of the order, Sister Margaret Anne, has been ordained and works at the Box Hill Hospital as a Chaplain. There were in 1989, 39 sisters in the order and one novice.
The Sisters of the Church have also retired from the schools they established . Although a few sisters remain in Sydney and Melbourne, their chief retreat house is now at Dondingalong, near Kempsey in New South Wales. They have seventeen professed sisters and one novice. Sister Linda Mary has been ordained a priest in Grafton Diocese.
In 1989, there were nine professed sisters in the Society of the Sacred Advent and four novices. The Society still owns two Brisbane schools, St. Margaret’s and St. Aidan’s, although most of the staff, including the principals, are lay. The present head of the order, Mother Eunice, prefers the sisters to “concentrate on work within the Retreat Centre, and also on other spiritual administrations”.
The shortage of sisters and the increasing professionalism of both social welfare and educational work has resulted in all the orders changing their focus to providing facilities for retreats and remaining on the periphery of dioceses as centres of prayer, with a few sisters working as parish assistants or chaplains. Among bishops, especially those in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, there has been approval of the new direction in the sisters’ work now that the Church can, with the aid of Government grants, run more professional welfare agencies and diocesan schools. The demand for private schools has enabled the Anglican schools to charge fees which meet running costs.
According to Archbishop Peter Hollingworth of Brisbane, he has “always been deeply aware of their [women religious’] prayer and their personal concern” and considered that “the manifest way in which they offer prayer for the Church and its leadership is of enormous support”. Both Archbishops Grindrod and Hollingworth of Brisbane support the independence of women’s religious orders within their own community. There seems to be clergy preference in Brisbane for the sisters to remain on the periphery of Church life. According to Archbishop Grindrod, “the independence of Religious Orders from diocesan life enables them to have the style and to give the support of co-operative friendship in the life of the Church”. There is in this statement a nouance that relationships might not have been so friendly and co-operative if the sisters were more involved in diocesan affairs. Certainly, in Brisbane Diocese, the Society of the Sacred Advent has not been represented on the important diocesan committees.
Archbishop Grindrod admitted that the interaction of Mothers Superior and diocesan leaders on matters affecting both the diocese and the orders could be contentious. This had been so in Archbishop Felix Arnott’s episcopacy (1970-80) in regard to a dispute over St. Martin’s Hospital, a property owned by the diocese but run by the Sisters of the Sacred Advent. Mother Lois was adamantly opposed to the closure of the Hospital.
Archbishop Grindrod expressed the opinion that he considered it important in examining the “women’s movement in the Australian Church to explore the ways in which Mothers Superior exercised their leadership within their orders”, making clear that he was careful only to celebrate the Eucharist for the sisters at their invitation. Archbishop Grindrod may have been warning feminists to be on guard against replacing patriarchy with matriarchy, thus retaining structures of domination.
As with the deaconesses, it was in the pioneering areas, far away from central control, that the sisters exercised the most independence and were particularly valued by the local people. An Anglican churchwoman, “N.S.”, who grew up in Charleville, remembered how “hardworking and sacrificial the sisters were”. As people, she considered them to be “well-educated and ladylike in their behaviour”. She believed that the Sisters of the Sacred Advent had “provided a tremendous service for outback children whose parents could not afford to send them to private boarding schools”. While living in the Hostel at very moderate fees, the children could attend the local state schools. If the parents defaulted on hostel fees, the Sisters would still take care of the children rather than see them miss out on their education.
“N.S.” believed that the sisters were beneficial not only to the local Anglican Church but to the town of Charleville itself. The sisters had a unique spiritual quality and they also used their accomplishments to provide the local people with opportunities for learning music, drama and other craft skills. Sister Una Mary “had a wonderful presence and a beautiful voice”. “N.S.” remembered that the Sisters were “very particular that we understood Anglican traditions, such as the different colours for the church seasons and how to receive the sacraments properly at the altar rail during the Eucharist, such as not to crunch on the wafer”.
Mrs. Elsie Whitney of Charleville recalled that she had her first contact with the Anglican sisters in January 1922. She too felt that the Sisters made a very large contribution to the general community as well as to the education of outback children. “They were never too busy to make people welcome and spend time speaking with them. The local laywomen were very willing to hold street stalls and fetes to help the Sisters financially.” In spite of the admiration of the Charleville people for the sisters, few of the local girls would have wished to join the order as professed sisters, although quite willing to remain lay supporters.
All of the orders depended heavily on lay support, categorised as oblates, tertiaries, companions, etc. Some associates were past members of the schools and hostels run by the orders, others were women (and also some men) who wanted to practise disciplined prayer and meditation without full profession of their lives to the order. According to a Canberra Anglican churchwoman, she was so impressed by the Community of the Holy Name sisters working in Goulburn that she decided to become a lay member of their order. She had found it difficult, as a busy housewife with children and later grandchildren, to keep to the rule for oblates but she felt the Community filled a need for a deeper, more devotional religious experience than that available in her parish church.
Lay associates were important to the sisters too, for without their support and encouragement the sisterhoods might have had to close down. The retreat centres of the sisterhoods were invariably available as temporary accommodation for people who needed to get away from the material world for short periods or for young people with problems. According to Bishop Holland of Newcastle when commenting on the Sisters of Clare at Stroud, “the parish clergy as a whole are very grateful to have a place of quiet and retreat, where the nuns can, on request, provide spiritual counselling and support”.
A retired Brisbane rector was of the opinion that “many parish clergy do not have a great deal of interaction with the sisters but their wives often get to know them better through the organisation of Retreat Days for women”. He knew that clergy in the Anglo-Catholic tradition liked to see the survival of the religious orders because they represented one of the symbols of the Oxford Movement”. Clergy wives have admitted turning to the sisters for advice and support in times of stress.
The overly heavy work load assigned to the Sisters could dim the spiritual expectations in their original vision and profession. This criticism was expressed by a sister of the Society of the Sacred Advent, who felt that the stress of overwork led to strains in personal relationships within the community. When this sister attended university in the 1980s in order to obtain a master’s degree, working part-time in the Chaplaincy office, she began to question whether she was fulfilling her vocation by remaining in the order. The slowness of the community to accept new ideas and their strict adherence to outdated rules and imposition of pointless restrictions became so burdensome that she finally requested permission to work in the wider community.
Erin White, an Australian Roman Catholic nun who also left her order, saw “busyness” as a reason why second wave feminism did not easily penetrate the Australian convent walls:
Our busyness was phenomenal. Daily I performed the exercises of a spiritual life too full to be rich….Having to sample everything on the smorgasbord every day, I became spiritually fatigued…. Women have been domesticated by busyness…. University study gave me the opportunity to become aware of my own experience with reference to much wider human experience.
Yet a former Roman Catholic nun, Anne Byrne, now an Anglican laywoman, admitted to being almost as restricted in her ministry outside the convent walls as within them. She commented: “I’m alive and ready to go, but the Church cripples me”.
Numbers in the Australian Anglican religious orders declined steadily in the second half of the twentieth century, communities moving into a stage of what American Benedictine Prioress, Sister Joan Chittister, has termed “minimal survival”. Although among the radical women in first wave feminism in England, the Anglican sisterhoods in Australia have been much less involved in the second wave of Christian feminism, also being slower to discard the habit and introduce new living patterns than their Roman Catholic counterparts, the Sisters of Clare at Stroud being the exception.
One Anglican sister admitted that discipline is now more relaxed than in the early period and the Mothers Superior less autocratic:
Years ago, when children were seen but not heard, novices were treated in much the same way. Things have changed, and for the better, and so today we must be prepared to listen to the younger members of the Community as well as the older members, and use the information as food for thought and prayer and so try to determine what the Spirit is directing us to do through the whole body of the Community.
Strahan sees Anglican sisterhoods having their “roots in an early and important phase of feminism”. She discovered pride that the Community of the Holy Name was founded by a woman, pride that the foundress, Mother Esther, achieved the type of community she had envisaged, that “she wasn’t going to be bossed by either the clergy or the archbishop or anybody else” On the subject of women’s ordination, a main aim of second-wave Anglican feminism, she found the attitudes of the Sisters to be more conservative, with only one sister, Margaret Anne, having sought ordination. Yet even some of the opposition views were couched in feminist tones such as “I couldn’t get excited either way. If women want to be priests, let them….women can hold their own without having to pretend they’re men.”
In the Society of the Sacred Advent, the majority of sisters opposed the ordination of women until it was officially sanctioned, although one sister, Philippa Wetherall, who has since left the order, did become a foundation member of the Brisbane Branch of the Movement for the Ordination of Women. So far, no Sacred Advent sisters have been ordained deacon. In the opinion of Mother Eunice, “the presence of an ordained woman within the community would create tensions and divisions”. A sister ordained to priesthood might confuse the leadership role of an unordained Mother Superior for clergy take precedence over women in religious orders in the Anglican hierarchy.
The more recently arrived Anglican Franciscan Order, the Sisters of Clare, have converted their establishment at Stroud, New South Wales, into a “double monastery” for Franciscans. But the Stroud community was from its inception more a contemplative than an active community. Mother Angela, the head of the community, has herself been ordained and there is strong support for the ordination of women in the community. According to Mother Angela, “it’s not really a case of whether women are going to be ordained priests or consecrated bishops – it is whether there’s a pope who is a woman, and when there is no differentiation”. In Mother Angela’s opinion, “the structures will change because women look differently at them than men”.
In conclusion, it would appear that religious orders for women did not root deeply in Australian Anglicanism. They were much more a transferral of a product of English Anglican first wave feminism in association with the Oxford Movement than a spontaneous Australian women’s initiative. The vow of celibacy, while acceptable in a country where spinsterhood was inevitable because of a demographic imbalance of females over males, ran contrary to expectations that women in Australia would provide marriage partners for men. Australian women who entered the religious life often caused considerable parental distress, a key factor in the inability of the orders to attract sufficient Australian novices.
Religious orders could be said to have had both positive and negative connotations for women. While they allowed women to give a full-time commitment to religious life, free from marital responsibilities, the community itself could be oppressive within while subservient to a patriarchal system which was more concerned with obtaining cheap labour for its social welfare and educational programmes than advancing women’s ministry.
Monastic asceticism had always contained within it an element of escape from the perceived carnality of women’s sexuality. For women religious, this meant a subconscious compliance with the male ascetic’s view that women’s sexuality was basically impure. This imposed on the sisters, as in the emphasis on the virginity of Mary, an unnatural rejection of an important part of their womanhood. The habit not only hid the woman’s body from view but also her hair, an important part of her natural beauty. This restriction seldom applied to male orders.
Although the Anglican women’s orders did provide a model of self-determining women within the Anglican Church, the model was too remote from the day to day flow of Church affairs and too mediaeval in its dress and Victorian in its concepts to be widely accepted by the average Australian Anglican churchwoman. The women’s monastic model was reminiscent of a structure devised by an increasingly male dominant church hierarchy to prevent spiritual women from sharing religious power. In terms of feminism, perhaps the religious orders’ most important contribution has been in providing quality schools for Anglican girls. From good secondary schools, Anglican girls were able to gain entry to tertiary institutions. It was this wider experience which aroused many Anglican women’s consciousness to their secondary status in the Church.