Ian McCormack concludes his consideration of issues of class and gender in the revival of the Religious Life in the Church of England
One feature of the early women’s communities which arouses much interest among modern historians is the division of most of them – mirroring medieval practice – into choir sisters and lay sisters. Wantage was one community that did not do this, possibly because the first permanent superior (the foundress having followed Manning to Rome in 1850) was Harriet Day, the daughter of a Sussex farmer. This meant that Wantage attracted a higher than normal number of women from the working class. But elsewhere, the early practice was almost unanimous: sisters were divided into choir or lay sisters depending on their social status and financial contributions. Susan Mumm suggests that ‘women who emerged from the small business/skilled-artisan classes and below were considered suitable only for the lay order.’ This did not automatically equate to a life of drudgery and menial service: the All Saints Sisters, for example, was a nursing sisterhood, and so many lay sisters trained as nurses and rose to positions of considerable responsibility with the Community. Others did not, of course – though, as Mumm suggests that some Lay Sisters were illiterate, this is hardly surprising. The Rule of the Park Village Sisterhood, founded in 1845 and eventually subsumed into SMHT, was just as explicit: ‘The Sisters who serve shall by no means be treated differently from the others… but they shall be tenderly and cordially dealt with by the Superior and the other Sisters, since all in this Sisterhood ought to live together, not only without murmur and contempt, but with equal love, as being like Martha and Mary, true Sisters and the well-beloved of the Lord’. ‘The estate of these Sisters is very similar to that which our Humble Redeemer made choice of in this world, who dedicated Himself to the service of others, without ever requiring to be served Himself. It will greatly animate them in all their labours, to reflect that they are working for a Heavenly Master who will take into account their toil and pain, lighten their difficulties, and reward every the least thing which they do through their love for Him.’
Memoirs from those who were serving sisters in these early communities are few and far between, and are either the discontented and even malicious work of those who left or were ejected from the communities, or the rose-tinted recollections of elderly nuns, so it is almost impossible to judge with any degree of accuracy whether the sentiments of these rules were lived out as noble ideals, or were in fact used as instruments of repression.
As an aside, the Rule of the Park Village Sisterhood went through a number of editions, including one that was especially ‘revised’ before being sent to Bishop Blomfield of London, who was instinctively hostile to the Community. Among the high-church sentiments removed was the term ‘lay sisters’, which was replaced with the phrase ‘domestic sisters’ or ‘the sisters who serve’. It is my contention that this was because the use of the term ‘lay sisters’ might have suggested to the good bishop that the other sisters, not being ‘lay’, had a vocation analogous to (though of course different from) that of the clergy. Pusey and other early founders believed that to be precisely the case, but the sisterhoods had to be sold to the bishops and the public on the basis of the good works that they carried out, and not the state of life which their members adopted. In any case, what this emphasises is that in women’s communities the distinction between choir and lay sisters (whatever they were called) was almost entirely down to class, financial status and perhaps education. In this they were distinct from the male communities, where the distinction between lay brothers and others was precisely about whether or not the individual was ordained. For example, successive editions of the Rule of the Community of the Resurrection make this clear. That is not to say that class distinctions and tensions did not have an impact on the male communities in other ways: the centenary history of CR has no fewer than 23 index entries for ‘Community of the Resurrection, class’! ‘Provided a definite expansion of the range of activities acceptable for (middle class) women … They also freed them from the sexual and political demands of the Victorian private/domestic sphere. These extensions and transgressions of the ideology of gendered separate spheres was limited. The work that middle-class women were enabled to do did not transgress the gendered boundaries of labour. It transgressed their class boundaries. Furthermore, the freedom from the sexual and political ties of the Victorian family won in female community was not gained by resisting patriarchal heterosexuality, but by enforcing it.’
You will notice that we have entered the realm of sociology-speak here. I think that Jones is wrong in saying that the sisterhoods did not ‘transgress the gendered boundaries of labour’ – i.e. that they did not open up new areas of work to women; but he is right in drawing attention to the fact that they did (also) ‘transgress’ class boundaries. But the real reason I am quoting that paragraph here is because I want to conclude by suggesting that neither class, nor gender, nor feminism, are the most appropriate apparatus to use if we want really to understand the first sisterhoods, who joined them, and why. We can use history to examine all of these things – as I have tried to do here – but if we attempt to use them as constructs to examine history, then we will miss the point.
And the point is that most – I accept not all – of the earliest sisterhoods were founded to be religious communities first and foremost. The transgressing of class or gender boundaries was a consequence of their existence, but most of the early sisters would have been blissfully unaware of the social constructs that modern historians have attempted to build up around them. The works of mercy which ‘transgressed boundaries’ were an integral part of the life, but these were religious communities committed to philanthropy as part of their commitment to the Gospel, not philanthropic communities that happened to be religious. This was especially true of the communities with which Pusey was involved – Park Village, SMHT and SHUT – and it has been largely ignored by recent historians. This is in itself symptomatic of the fact that too much modern ecclesiastical history is written by people outside of the Church who refuse to engage seriously with the religious beliefs of those they are studying – but that is a different lecture for a different day!
In conclusion, here is a taster of what the revival of the religious life was really about, and out of which all the other stuff – class, gender, feminism – flowed. Two examples will suffice. The Rule of the Park Village Sisterhood – the very first in the Church of England – began with these words: ‘The main object of this Sisterhood is to afford opportunities for persons apart from the world and its distractions to perfect holiness in the fear of God and to grow in the love of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, especially by cherishing and shewing forth love to Him in his poor and afflicted brethren’. Marion Hughes was even more succinct. Writing to Bishop Wilberforce of Oxford about her proposed community in 1849, she said, ‘The object proposed is twofold. First, to advance the sanctification of its members, and secondly to promote the benefit of their neighbours by works of mercy in soul and body’.