The Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Kingstanding, Birmingham, with their Superior, Mother Winsome, have graciously allowed us to post this article about their life and work in advance of its being published on the community’s website:
In 2009, the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus was given in Rome. This document was to have far reaching consequences for us, in particular. At the time the Letter was given, who would have thought that on 1 January 2013, a group of us nuns would walk in through the open door of the Oxford Oratory Church as Anglicans, and emerge as Catholics?
So it was that the Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary embarked upon new lives as Catholics. At our Reception, we were instituted as a Public Association of the Faithful, with each Sister under private vows. The following day we said a final goodbye to our previous community, for what became an eight month stay at St Cecilia’s Abbey, Ryde, Isle of Wight. During this time we received essential Benedictine formation and discovered how much of our identity had actually been Benedictine all along.
Through an extraordinary course of events, a Convent in Kingstanding, Birmingham, became available and we moved here in August 2013. On 1 January 2014 we were erected as an Institute of Consecrated Life within the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, with each Sister reaffirming her life vows using the Benedictine formula. We have since had our first anniversary, and renewed our ‘Suscipe’ at the Mass for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.
So, how do we live now as Catholics and Benedictines?
As Catholics, we have received much grace and encouragement in the understanding of Consecrated Life at the living heart of the Church. Here too, we find the specific doctrine of the Blessed Virgin as the model of Consecrated Life to be deeply at one with our own aspirations . We are continuing to deepen our understanding of Catholic life and teaching, through our reading, through the priests who come to us, and through daily contact with the local parish who attend our Mass.
The Mass was always the heartbeat of our life. It has now found its fullest expression in our lives in the confidence we now have in the Real Presence of the Lord in the Sacrament, and in the unity and clarity of Catholic Eucharistic doctrine.
The Divine Office
We brought with us into the Church a liturgical charism deriving from the English plainchant tradition, specifically the Sarum Office which was in regular use, in Latin, from the Norman Conquest up till the Reformation in this land. This is one aspect that we have sought to bring into the Church as our contribution. However, we are a small Community, and our monastic liturgy must also reflect the changes which came into effect from Vatican II onwards. So we are appropriately flexible. Our Divine Office, in English, is fivefold: Vigils (anticipated the night before), Lauds, Midday Office, Vespers and Compline. We draw from the Breviary, the Sarum Office, and a range of Benedictine sources which have been made available to us, and this work is still evolving. We bring to it our utmost dedication and understanding of the liturgy as our first work, before all else.
Our former Community had a Rule of Life that was based on the Rule of St Augustine. We are now Benedictines. In making this transition, the firmness and concreteness of our previous Rule has stood us in good stead, as well as its many Benedictine elements. We have found ourselves to be perfectly at home in the Rule of our Holy Father St Benedict.
The Rule of St Benedict speaks of ‘enclosure of the monastery and stability within the Community’ . For us, both these elements are in force, just as they have always been, but with a new energy and focus. We live under constitutional enclosure, which means that we do go out when it is necessary, and have a rootedness in this environment as the place where each of us, and the Community together, is following Christ, ‘persevering in His teaching in the monastery until death’ .
Our Benedictine vows include under conversion of life, the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience which were the central pillars of our Professions for so long. We have found that our original vows have been respected and placed within a context that reaches directly back through the desert tradition to the earliest Christian communities. The concept of conversion as an unfolding, continuous response to the Word of God was present in our roots but now has a specific place in our monastic life.
Our original conception of the vow of obedience has not changed at all, but it has been enriched by the specific Benedictine charism of the Superior holding the place of Christ in the monastery.
True to the Benedictine spirit, our monastery is a place of welcome and hospitality, whether it be to those coming for Mass, simply calling in, or coming to spend a few nights with us sharing in our rhythm of prayer.
Each day, we do what Benedictines the world over do: the Work of God; manual labour; hospitality; common life, ‘under an Abbot and a Rule’ – in our case, under the leadership of Reverend Mother Winsome, and the Rule of St Benedict. We rise early, and many Sisters take their time of prayer and Lectio Divina before the first Office of the day, which is Lauds at 7am. After breakfast there is a time of work before Mass, which is usually at 9.30am, but on Sundays is 9am or 10.30am. Then there is a further time of work, before Midday office at 12.30pm, which is followed by dinner, the main meal of the day. After washing up there is a further period of work, when some sisters may take time for prayer or reading. Before Vespers which is at 5pm there is a meeting of the whole Community with Mother. After Vespers there is work, or prayer, until supper, after which Compline follows, and, after a brief interval, Vigils of the next day. At meals, following traditional Benedictine custom, a sister reads aloud whilst we eat, and we take this opportunity to strengthen our Catholic and Benedictine identity through our choice of this reading material.
We are always open to those who wish prayerfully to discern their future with us, by visits and by talking with a Sister.
Hastening to eternal life
St Benedict’s Rule has a sense of urgency, of the need to make haste towards the meeting with our Lord at the end of our lives, and to prepare for this fulfilment of our life on earth by the choices we make. Our Community has, unusually for a new Community, a range of ages. The older nuns have a unique part to play in the Community through their embracing of the challenges of age even as they make their journey.
Links and relationships
As Benedictines, our primary links are with the Benedictine family, who have supported us from the beginning, being present at our reception into the full communion of the Catholic Church. We are also humbled to experience the support of the Personal Ordinariate of our Lady of Walsingham and of our local Catholic parish.
We are also conscious of a spiritual family ‘out there’ on the Internet, who follow our website and our small efforts to communicate the truth and depth of the Faith.
One of the most painful separations that we had to make was the leaving behind of our much loved Anglican Sisters of the Community of St. Mary the Virgin in Wantage. Each of us individually has had a choice to make before God and the paths had to diverge, but the relationship of a shared history and of charity is there. There is contact between us at key moments, and there is prayer.
So we continue steadfastly on, following the Benedictine motto ‘that in all things God may be glorified’, seeking God at the heart of the Church, with gratitude for all that He has done: Ecce Ancilla Domini!