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‘A Peril to the Bench of Bishops’: Sisterhoods and Episcopal Authority in the Church of England, 1845–1908

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 February 2008

Department of Religious Studies, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA; e-mail:


This paper reflects on the uncomfortable relationship between gender, religion, authority and influence in the Victorian Church of England, using the example of the ecclesiastical response to the rise of Anglican religious communities for women in the second half of the nineteenth century. Anglican sisterhoods occupied equivocal and disputed space within the Victorian Church of England, proclaiming their loyalty to the Church but unfettered by any ecclesiastical legislation or tradition that would have compelled them to obey the bishops. In a society that assumed that obedience to lawful authority was a natural attribute of godly women, their ambiguous and improvised relationship with the church hierarchy created enormous tension as well as considerable hostility.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2008

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1 The 1964 edition, co-written with A. W. Campbell, was fuller and more accurate. Both were published by the SPCK.

2 The sociological study was Michael Hill's The religious order: a study of virtuoso religion and its legitimation in the nineteenth-century Church of England, London 1973; Vicinus was published by the Virago Press. The women's history approach has spurred renewed interest in the cognate deaconess movement. Henrietta Blackmore's DPhil. dissertation (Oxford 2005) is a good example of a historical approach to English Anglican deaconesses, and fine work is also being produced by Muriel McEwan in her doctoral research into Scottish Presbyterian deaconesses (Open University).

3 [Anon], Sisterhoods considered, London 1850, 5.

4 Sarah Stickney Ellis, The women of England, London 1839, 38–9.

5 See, for example, John Shelton Reed, Glorious battle: the cultural politics of Victorian Anglo-Catholicism, Nashville 1996, 186–9, and Hilliard, David, ‘UnEnglish and unmanly: Anglo-Catholicism and homosexuality’, Victorian Studies xxv (1982), 181210Google Scholar.

6 Florence Nightingale, Suggestions for thought for seekers after religious truth among the artizans of England, London 1860, ii. 102.

7 The first twelve permanent communities to be formed were the Society of the Holy Cross (1845); the Community of Saint Mary the Virgin, Society of the Most Holy Trinity, Nursing Institute of Saint John's House (1848); Sisters of Charity: St Barnabas' Sisterhood (1850); Society of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, Community of St Thomas the Martyr, Community of St John the Baptist, Society of All Saints Sisters of the Poor, Sisterhood of Saint Michael and All Angels (1851); Community of All Hallows (1854).

8 A number of single-community histories are also available, although most are out of print; these are listed in the bibliographies to Allchin, Silent rebellion, and Mumm, Stolen daughters.

9 Reginald Wilberforce and Arthur Ashwell, Life of the Right Reverend Samuel Wilberforce, London 1880–2, ii. 324.

10 In my view, Tait's sympathy for sisterhoods has been over-rated. He was willing to sanction them only when they promised absolute obedience to his own authority; few managed to stay permanently within the narrow confines of his approval. For a more positive view see Rene Kollar, ‘A death in the family: Campbell Tait, Bishop Archibald, the rights of parents, and Anglican sisterhoods in the diocese of London’, Journal of Religious History xxvii (2003), 198215Google Scholar. Wilberforce, the most sympathetic of the bishops, was convinced that restraint was necessary for the movement's survival: ‘Sisterhoods are at present an experiment amongst us; a failure at this moment might deprive us of them permanently’: Samuel Wilberforce to E. B. Pusey, 7 Feb. 1853, Life of Wilberforce, ii. 168.

11 A. Oxenden, debate on ‘Religious sisterhoods’, Chronicle of Convocation (1862), 912.

12 York Journal of Convocation, ‘Report of the Convocation of York on sisterhoods’ (1885), appendix 3, xiv–xxv.

13 Arthur C. Benson, The life of Edward White Benson, sometime archbishop of Canterbury, London 1899, ii. 307.

14 See, for example, the work of Michael Hill, John Shelton Reed, Susan Mumm and Arthur Allchin.

15 Quotation adapted from Sarah Wintle's introduction to Grant Allen, The woman who did, Oxford 1995, 14. Emphasis mine.

16 Christopher Wordsworth, On sisterhoods and vows, London 1879, 19.

17 Walter L. Arnstein, Protestant versus Catholic in mid-Victorian England: Mr Newdegate and the nuns, London 1982, 121.

18 A. Oxenden, debate in the Lower House of Convocation, Chronicle of Convocation, London 1862, 912.

19 Mother Foundress's diary, entry for 11 Aug. 1883, Community of the Sisters of the Church archives, St Michael's Convent, Ham Common, Richmond. The St John's sisterhood referred to is now known as the Nursing Sisterhood of St John the Divine.

20 Christopher Wordsworth (Lincoln 1869–85) found the idea of ‘youthful sisters, so free and attractive … under vows of perpetual celibacy’ so disturbing that he advocated complete enclosure for any woman who took vows before the age of forty: On sisterhoods, 16.

21 Newell Connop Thirlwall, debate on ‘Christian women’, Chronicle of Convocation (1862), 967.

22 Allan Becher Webb, Sisterhood life and work in the missionfield of the Church, London 1883, 57. Webb's emphasis.

23 Mother Foundress's diary, entry for 7 June 1884, Community of the Sisters of the Church archives. Ayckbowm's emphasis.

24 Ibid. entry for 11 Aug. 1883. The Australian response to their arrival a decade later is described in Campbell, T. W., ‘The Sisters of the Church and the Anglican diocese of Sydney, 1892–1893: a controversy’, Journal of Religious History xxv (2001), 188206CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Malleus ritualistarum, cited in Reed, Glorious battle, 207. In this they were no different from anti-community controversialists. Attacks on Superiors for alleged acts of heartless and unfeminine cruelty were a standard feature of many pamphlets on the subject.

26 An earlier attempt to legislate for convent inspection had failed in 1851.

27 M. Hobart Seymour, Nunneries, London 1852, 6.

28 Anthony Trollope, Clergymen of the Church of England, London 1866, 26.

29 The minutes of the private bishop's meetings held at Lambeth Palace suggest that some bishops may have held such views, although they were too politically astute to express them in public. See, among others, Lambeth Palace Archives, BM 3, fo. 375, 19 June 1895.

30 Benson, Life of Benson, ii. 307.

31 Samuel Wilberforce to Thomas Thellusson Carter, 18 May 1854, Wilberforce papers, Bodleian Library, Oxford, MSC 22 f 172.

32 Strictly speaking, applying Roman canon law, sisters were not nuns, as they were in an Anglican equivalent to simple vows, but they called themselves nuns and were referred to by this name by others.

33 Reed, Glorious battle, 143.

34 Winnington-Ingram [Fulham] papers, Lambeth Palace Library, 3, fo. 111.

35 Benson, Life of Benson, ii. 643.

36 By the early twentieth century the American Episcopal Church had provision for religious communities in its canon, and the English bishops considered following its example: Lambeth Palace Archives, LC 78, fos 185–6, 1911.

37 Ibid. BM 3, fo. 375, 19 June 1895.

38 Charles Chapman Grafton, ‘A journey Godward’, iv, in The works of Bishop Grafton New York 1914, 102.

39 This is cited in Susan Mumm (ed.), All Saints Sisters of the Poor: an Anglican community in the nineteenth century (Church of England Record Society ix, 2001), 170.

40 Eliza Browne Russel (1840–1918). She was an outer sister before entering the choir noviciate in 1861.

41 This was the date when she began to work with the society before entering the noviciate.

42 Emphasis in original.

43 Harriet Sophia Robinson (1837–1904). She entered All Saints in 1865 as a choir novice, and was professed in 1868.

44 This is a reference to the final paragraph of rule 1: ‘Any Probationer or confirmed Sister may quit the Sisterhood whensoever she pleases and as her own conscience before GOD is the guide she ought to follow in this matter no one can have any right to blame her for so leaving’: Society of All Saints Sisters of the Poor archives, All Saints' Convent, Oxford: 1859 version of the Rule.

45 Letters on vows, ibid.

46 Benson, Life of Benson, i, 594.

47 Mary Frances Cusack, ‘Woman's place in the economy of creation’, Fraser's Magazine ix (1874), 202.

48 The bishop of Exeter, Henry Phillpots, rebuked the foundress for calling herself ‘Mother’, telling her that she should only use the term ‘Sister’: A letter to Miss Sellon, London 1852, 8.

49 Report of the inquiry instituted by the Right Reverend the lord bishop of Exeter, Plymouth 1849.

50 Pall Mall Gazette, cited in Arnstein, Mr Newedegate and the nuns, 121. The anonymous author of Tractarian sisters was even more extreme, warning that ‘all Sisterhoods are really integral parts of one large family; all holding the same principles, practicing the same austerities, inflicting the same cruelties, bodily and mental, and all labouring for the same purpose, the destruction of the Church of England’: Tractarian sisters and their teaching, London 1868, 42. Emphasis in original.

51 Benson, Life of Benson, ii. 40–1. On the other hand, Mother Emily Ayckbowm felt sure that one function of the Community of the Sisters of the Church was ‘to spiritualize our Clergy’: Mother Foundress's diary, entry for 1 June 1884, Community of the Sisters of the Church archives.

52 Catherine Prelinger, ‘The female diaconate in the Anglican Church: what kind of a ministry for women?’, in Gail Malmgreen (ed.), Religion in the lives of English women, 1760–1930, London 1986, 161–92 at p. 178.

53 Pan-Anglican Congress, iv, Section C: ‘The Church's ministry’, London 1908, 66, 249.

54 Reed, Glorious battle, 238–64.

55 Pan-Anglican Congress, iv/C, 267.