David Hope celebrates the past and continuing life of an Anglican convent
‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are mine’ (Isa. 43.1)
It is just sixty three years ago this year that, at the age of fifteen, I made my first acquaintance with St Peter’s Convent. I can remember that occasion all those years ago as clearly as if it was yesterday, such was the impression that weekend made on me. It was around Michaelmas, and as a server at the cathedral I had been persuaded to go on a servers’ retreat to be led by the then chaplain Fr Plumbridge. There on the chapel’s altar, with the evening sun streaming through those multi-coloured windows, was a beautifully embroidered white and gold frontal with the super frontal bearing the words ‘Thou art the King of Glory.’ The theme of the retreat, so ably conducted by Fr Plumbridge, was those verses from the Psalms 46 and 85 respectively: ‘Be still and know that I am God… I will harken what the Lord God will say concerning me.’
But then as I think about it, the Horbury sisters have been a part of my life almost from the very beginning. From the cathedral and their house in Rishworth Street they exercised, among other things, a truly effective pastoral ministry. Sister Millicent prepared my sister for Confirmation and First Communion. Sister Clare had an uncanny knack for turning up on the afternoon of one of my mother’s baking days, always to be given a few newly baked buns for the sisters’ tea, and occasionally being unable to resist sitting down and having a cup of tea and one of her favourite date pasties. ‘But for goodness sake don’t breathe a word to Mother!’ she would say, eating in other people’s houses being strictly forbidden in those days.
I suspect that on this very special occasion, as we celebrate the Patronal Festival of this church of St Peter and St Leonard as well as the 160th anniversary of the establishing of this House of Mercy here in Horbury, each and every one of us will have our particular special remembrances—not least the sisters here present—and so much for which to give thanks to God: for what he has given us and so many others through the life and work of the Horbury sisters and the life, worship and mission of this church. Of course, as with so many of the sisterhoods or similar springing up at the time in the wake of the Tractarian movement, the beginnings here were risky and precarious. After all, the aspirations of one lady with quite a bit of money—Henrietta Farrer—taking pity on young girls who had fallen by the wayside in one way or another, more particularly ‘those who had led unchaste lives’, as she so delicately put it, and seeking to rescue them and restore them would never be a particularly appealing enterprise. Yet determined as she was, and with the positive encouragement of Canon Sharp the vicar here, she eventually arrived in Horbury. It was a small rented cottage in Millfield Road and on Maundy Thursday 1858 the first ‘penitent’ was brought, ironically, by her own father. The rest, as they say, is history.
But then what a history, from such small beginnings and more secular than religious in nature. Slowly but surely this House of Mercy and the demand for its welfare services, as well as those women desiring to serve their Christian calling in the context of a religious community, by the end of the nineteenth century became a religious community with chapel and other convent buildings being built. This meant that the heart and centre of all the work here could be firmly grounded in the life of the Eucharist and the Divine Office—in other words the transformative power of the sacramental life. This is a life not confined to a preciousness of the sanctuary or of church or chapel, but rather in obedience to the Lord’s command, taken out and lived out day by day in the transformation of lives: the poor, the sinful, the unwanted and the unloved and, particularly in this House of Mercy, young girls and unmarried mothers.
They were rescued, as many of them would subsequently come to testify, in total contrast to some of the horror stories about such establishments. Some of them arrived against their own will, but they were cared for, they were loved, they were nurtured by the Divine Mercy lived out in and through the sisters entrusted with their restoration and renewal of life. I recall from time to time, as the altar party was waiting just outside the chapel for the start of the Sunday Eucharist and ‘the girls’ were coming down the corridor, some expletive or other would be heard, together with a firm but gentle rebuke!
Of course there has always been that close connection from the very beginning with this parish church of St Peter and St Leonard particularly with the vicars from Canon Sharp onwards—a link which continues to this day, as evidenced by our joint celebration. The days may be long gone when, on Commemoration Day following the High Mass in the covent chapel, the sisters would process down to this church for Solemn Evensong. Nevertheless the relationship remains as strong as ever and to the great strength and encouragement of both.
At this point it is perhaps worth mentioning the chaplains and other clergy who have served the convent and indeed this parish so well over the years, each with his own distinctive contribution. I have already mentioned Fr Plumbridge, or Plummy as he was known to those who used the convent, and his ministry here had an enormous effect in fostering and encouraging vocations to the sacred ministry. I am myself much indebted to him, as I am to the whole community, in this regard. Never one to suffer fools gladly, he could at times seem to be at odds with the community, not least with the Mother Superior. He once told me of an occasion when the Mother Superior (Mother Dora, I believe) had sent him a message informing him that they were having Solemn first Vespers the next evening for the feast of St Joseph, to which the swift reply came: ‘Mother, you may be having Solemn Vespers, I shall be in Scarborough!’
It would perhaps be very easy to get carried away with nostalgia for the past, not only for St Peter’s Convent and the House of Mercy and for this parish church of St Peter and St Leonard, but for the whole church. After all, I hardly recognise the church today as that in which I was ordained some fifty-two years ago now. The church today is weighed down with a mania for management skills and bureaucracy, for ‘fresh expressions’ and ‘messy church.’ All of this seems to focus on entertainment and distraction, which may be all very well in its own way but does not reflect the church as that ‘wonderful and sacred mystery’ to which our forebears in the Catholic revival bore such ardent witness. Worship that reflects the beauty of holiness is thankfully still maintained here in this church.
We need each one of us urgently to recover something of a renewed asceticism, of that simplicity of life and of following Jesus Christ crucified and risen, that is so typified in the religious life. We need the ever deepening of our life together in Christ through the sacraments, not least this Eucharistic celebration, to be more and more evident in all our lives day by day—lives of faith and hope and love. It is the sheer faithfulness to this way of life for which we give thanks today, a way of life that has existed in this religious community over the past one hundred and sixty years, and in many other similar communities throughout our land. You only have to look to 14 Spring End Road and you will see the original vision and charism which brought this community into being. Though it is now much limited and diminished, nevertheless it perseveres gladly and readily as a House of Mercy and compassion.
This statement is true of quite a number of our churches, whether urban or rural, which for one reason or another seem to be diminishing in number, yet are still faithful, still constant, still loyal. Remember the words of the Prophet Zephaniah: ‘a day for small things no doubt, but who would dare despise it.’ It is all too easy to become so concerned about and engrossed in and weighed down by what may yet lie ahead that we neglect the things of today. Remember always that ‘this is the day the Lord has made: we will rejoice and be glad in it.’ And there is the promise of the risen Lord. In all the ups and downs of our lives, in all the comings and goings, in all the failures and distresses—the bad times as well as the good—he is with us, even to the very end. There is nowhere where he is more present to us than in these holy and sacred mysteries. This Holy Communion, as we partake of ‘the most precious body and blood of thy son our saviour Jesus Christ,’ is the very heart beat of the church, the springboard of all our life and mission. It is the inspiration for our faith; Christ in you, Christ in me, and the hope of glory: such is our thanksgiving for the past, our faith in the present, and our assurance for the future. Jesus Christ—the same yesterday, today and for ever. All praise to his name!
The Right Reverend and Right Honourable The Lord Hope
of Thornes was formerly Archbishop of York.