Prinknash Abbey – houses 2 generation of Anglican Converts

06 AUGUST 2021, THE TABLET

Ordinariate nuns find new home at Prinknash Abbey

by Sebastian Milbank THE TABLET

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The nuns of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary are moving into one of the properties on the Prinknash estate, owned by the Benedictine monks of Prinknash Abbey.

The sisters, an autonomous community of nuns who are part of the Personal Ordinariate of our Lady of Walsingham, were formerly part of the Anglican Community of St Mary the Virgin.

After leaving the Church of England the nuns were left homeless and without any means of support as they sought to live out a new vocation as Catholic nuns. 

Prinknash Abbey, in the vale of Gloucester, was a Benedictine foundation going back to the time of William the Conqueror. After the suppression of the monasteries under Henry VIII the site passed through the hands of various aristocratic owners until Thomas Dyer-Edwardes, a Catholic convert, willed the estate to the monks of Caldey Island. Like the sisters of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary, they were Anglican Benedictines who chose to become Catholics, and in 1928 arrived at Prinknash and began the work of converting the aristocratic estate back into a monastery. More than 400 years after the Reformation Prinknash was again a Benedictine Abbey

As part of the move buildings on the estate are being refurbished and will include new guest and retreat facilities for both groups and individuals, with an emphasis on welcoming the young, with the work expected to be completed in two years. 

Dom Cuthbert Brogan OSB, Abbot administrator of Prinknash, told The Tablet: “When the sisters were received into full communion with the Catholic Church in 2013, the English province of our congregation, the Subiaco-Cassinese Benedictine Congregation, was preparing to celebrate the centenary of the conversion of the community of monks now at Prinknash.

“So history seems to have given the two communities a link – 1913 and 2013. In fact , I sent two young Farnborough monks to the Oxford Oratory to support the sisters in that step on their journey. 

“The new convert sisters looked to us monks for a context and for advice in establishing their monastic life in the Catholic Church. Our province invited Mother Winsome to our provincial meetings as a guest and observer, and monks from our communities of Farnborough, Chilworth, Prinknash and Pluscarden have visited the sisters to support them. Our Abbot president on his last visit to us from Rome, also went out of his way to visit them.

“When the sisters became Catholics they had nothing. I was profoundly moved that these women had left all for Christ, twice. Once when they pursued their vocations as a Anglican sisters, and a second time when they left all to become Catholics. It is one thing to leave your country and your father’s house like Abraham when you are in the full flush of youth, but it is quite another to do that when you have 50 years of religious life behind you and all the material security that this usually guarantees. At one point these good nuns had nothing to eat, and were physically hungry. Local parishioners in Kingstanding – not a rich area – have been magnificent in their generosity.

“Soon various circumstances will render the sisters homeless. No bishop has been able to find a suitable property for them, no religious community has been able to offer them a house. As superior of the Prinknash community I laid this situation before the monks. The monks’ community was homeless and penniless after its conversion, until a benefactor with faith and vision came along and offered them Prinknash park. This faith and vision was again evident in the immediate generosity of the Prinknash monks in welcoming this community of nuns to their estate. 

“At a time when communities are at a low ebb and many are in the autumn of their history, it is wonderful to be part of something in its springtime. Soon there will be a monastery of nuns singing the praises of God day and night as their Benedictine brothers do already at Prinknash. It will be a wonderful complementarity.”

In the abbey’s press release the Abbot added: “Prinknash is a much-loved and historic centre of prayer and monastic hospitality. We ask Almighty God’s blessing on this new venture. Our hope is that the presence of these two distinct monastic communities on this outstandingly beautiful and historic estate will enrich this oasis of peace for the many who visit, and be a powerful witness of monastic generosity and prayer.

Male and female religious communities living side by side has a long history in Catholic monasticism and is curiously an especially distinct feature of religious communities in the British Isles, where the idea has deep roots.

The form that such “double” foundations took varied, but generally they shared common leader, typically an Abbess rather than an Abbot, and came together for worship while otherwise living separately within their own monastery, or part of the monastery.

Columban and Anglo-Saxon monasticism produced a large number of such communities, perhaps reflecting the strong aristocratic ties to monasticism, with female nobles commonly choosing to establish such “double” foundations. Although suppressed by the second Council of Nicaea, they were revived during the Middle Ages by a number of religious leaders including Gilbert of Sempringham in England, founder of the Gilbertine Order, and Bridget of Sweden, founder of the Bridgettines.

The nuns of the Order of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the monks of Prinknash Abbey will continue as separate but neighbouring communities, each with their own separate leader. The nuns will be worshiping in their own chapel, but it is possible that the two communities will worship together on some of the greater feasts, perhaps reviving a great British monastic tradition. 

Mgr Keith Newton, the Ordinary of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, said he was extremely grateful for the generosity of the Prinknash community in offering the sisters a permanent home to live out their monastic vocation. 

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Hat-tip to Anglican Taonga for the above link to the article from the U.K. Roman Catholic ‘TABLET’.

It is intriguing that, after the rise of the OXFORD MOVEMENT in the U.K., when the Church of England began to restore elements of the enclosed ‘Religious Life’ in convents of women and monasteries and friaries of men that were formed to encourage celibate women and men to enter upon the life of a religious community; that later, some Anglican Religious (in this case the Sisters of the B.V.M. at Wantage) should move out from under the jurisdiction of their Anglican formation and seek reception into the Roman Catholic Church.

One of the earlier groups to convert was a Community of monks in Wales (on Caldey Island) where, under the leadership of their Abbot, Aelred, the Anglican Benedictine monks sought refuge in the Roman Catholic Church – settling, eventually, into the historic house and grounds of Prinknash Abbey in Gloucestershire. Their story continues in this extract from the article:

“Dom Cuthbert Brogan OSB, Abbot administrator of Prinknash, told The Tablet: “When the sisters were received into full communion with the Catholic Church in 2013, the English province of our congregation, the Subiaco-Cassinese Benedictine Congregation, was preparing to celebrate the centenary of the conversion of the community of monks now at Prinknash”.

It seems then, quite fitting that a Community of Anglican Benedictine nuns, housed formerly in the Anglican Convent of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Wantage; when they felt unable to agree with the Church of England’s decision to ordain women, should seek the protection of Rome – as offered by Pope Benedict XVI in his formation of what became known as the R.C. Ordinariate, with its own unique Anglican/RC relationship, which accepted former Anglicans who protested against the Ordination of women in the Anglican Churches around the world.

(The Ordinariate in the U.K. is now centred upon the R.C. Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, located in the former ‘Slipper Chapel’ where mediaeval pilgrims used to take off their shoes before walking to the original Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham – which now belongs to the Church of England, and is the scene of pilgrim visits from parishes around the Anglican world!)

This is not the first time in English Church history that here has been a monastery of both men and women. The English Saint Hilda was the first woman in England to rule over a joint conventual Community of both men and women, at the Abbey of Whitby; where she was one of the influential figures at the Synod of Whitby which established the tradition of Roman Rule over the former Celtic Monastic Orders in Britain.

As an Anglican, one finds it somewhat ironic that a modern mixed Community of converts from Anglicanism to the Roman Catholic Church – partly composed of those who object to the priesthood of women as the reason for their conversion – should follow in the footsteps of a woman leader, like Saint Hilda, who was a mitred abbess ruling over a monastery of both women and men!

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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5 Responses to Prinknash Abbey – houses 2 generation of Anglican Converts

  1. Rev William Greenhalgh says:

    No irony at all. St Hild was not a priest or a bishop. She did not offer the Mass or pronounce absolution of sins. She was a holy nun. I do not understand your point.

    • kiwianglo says:

      Hilda was a ‘Mitred Abbess’ who had full charge of her double monastery. Mary, Mother of God, brought Christ into being in her womb – a priestly action. Christ was not just representatively male, but representatively human – covering ALL humanity.

  2. Rev William Greenhalgh says:

    Sorry, I still don’t understand your point. St Hild was not a priest and her rule of the community did
    not entail administering the sacraments. The BVM was not a priest and Our Lord did not choose even her to be an apostle. The Catholic Church both Roman and Eastern has maintained this doctine unchanged since the time of the apostles. Protestant pastors are of course not priests, so I cannot comment on those ecclesial communities.
    Pax et bonum.
    William+

  3. kiwianglo says:

    This is so obviously YOUR view, William.as a pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic. However, you must allow me, as an Anglican priest, to express my own opinion on my own blog. You are free to start your own blog and to dispense your opinions thereon. We Anglicans, who are not happy with the culture of ‘no women priests’ at the Anglican shrine of Walsingham are none-the-less believers in her calling to bring forth the Christ – a role that a priest generally carries out at the altar.

    “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among qwomen and Blessed is the fruit of your womb, JESUS!”

  4. Rev William Greenhalgh says:

    Ron, the statements I sxpressed are not “MY” view nor are they “pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic”. You probably know that Vatican II concluded in 1968. They are the actual teaching of the Roman Catholic Church as enunciated by Pope St John Paul not long before he died in 2005, and His Holiness affirmed that the Church could not change this doctrine. The Churches of the East believe the same. One day there will be reunion.
    I do not understand your claim that priests “bring forth the Christ”. “tiktein” means “to give birth” and this is the unique work of the Theotokos. Priests do not “give birth” to the Lord, they offer the sacrifice of Calvary. A very different work. Our Lord did not make mistakes.
    You expressed a criticism of the Anglican nuns for becoming Roman Catholics, but it does not seem that you understand Catholic teaching. I appreciate that – even many Catholics today have a weak grasp of the Faith, so many things will seem difficult to Protestants. Part of the work of the Ordinariate is to help bridge this gap in understanding. Please continue to encourage dialogue between Catholics and Protestant Christians.

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