Called to Restore – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

The Restoration of the Religious Life in the Anglican Communion:
The Profession of Marian Rebecca Hughes

“I was enrolled one of Christ’s Virgins, espoused to him and made his handmaid and may he of his infinite mercy grant that I may ever strive to please him and to keep from the world though still in it.”[i]

A twenty-four year old Englishwoman named Marian Rebecca Hughes wrote these words in her diary in the year 1841. On Trinity Sunday of that year, she stepped boldly but quietly into uncharted territory for a nineteenth-century Anglican: she vowed to remain unmarried in devotion to Christ and in service to the church. From John Henry Newman and Edward Bouverie Pusey, pioneering priests and theologians of what we now call the Oxford Movement, she had learned that such consecrated women had played a vital role in the early church. From her growing knowledge of the Roman Catholic Sisters of Mercy in Ireland and of the social work of Lutheran deaconesses, she drew inspiration to live a life of service. Her vows were received by Pusey in a private home, but this private ceremony also included a humble, public act. Marian went immediately to the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford, where she knelt at the altar rail beside Lucy, Dr. Pusey’s daughter. Lucy, aged 12, was that day receiving her first communion. Both Newman and the young Ms. Pusey were fully aware of Marian’s consecration; they were, in a sense, co-conspirators. Upon receiving communion and completing the final prayers of consecration, Marian had become the first person to take up the vocation of vowed religious life in the Church of England since the dissolution of the monasteries at the Reformation. It is difficult from our historical distance to fully appreciate how counter-cultural this decision was. While she was amply resourced by highly sympathetic male clergy, Marian was a young Victorian woman in an age that still had no cultural reference points for the life she aspired to live. For the next nine years, she gathered information about Roman Catholic women’s religious life in France and cared for her aging parents. It was not until 1850 that she would take up life in a community of Anglican sisters, the newly founded Society of the Holy and Undivided Trinity.  By the time Mother Marian died in 1912, in the ninety-fifth year of her age and the seventy-first year of her religious profession, she had witnessed the firm foundation of Anglican religious life for women and men – including the founding of our Society in 1866. 

In and through our remembrance of this relatively unknown woman, we honor a single courageous decision that inaugurated “a lifetime of developing response,” as our Rule describes the journey of vowed commitment.[ii]And we celebrate a critical and creative period in the life of our Church – without which, none of us would be sitting in this monastery Chapel. But I think we are doing at least one thing more: we are drawing attention to all those through whom the life of Christ’s mystical Body on earth is restored– continually, in each new generation. Just as we are called to celebrate God’s work of creation, and the work of salvation accomplished in and through Christ, we are called to celebrate the slow and often undramatic work by which God is restoring all things. When the likeness of Christ is fully restored in all God’s daughters and sons and Christ is all in all, we are told that an eternal city will be our home. But this heavenly city with its trees and its flowing river will bear more than a passing resemblance to our first home in a garden. 

“When we restore,” writes author Gabe Lyons, “we create something new that has a striking resemblance to the past. Rather than being stuck in the present, restorers run back to the other end of the timeline and focus on what once was – and what should be again. Then they create.”[iii]Restorers in today’s Church are taking up the call to fashion a creative, nuanced, inviting, and faithful alternative to the loudly critical or the quietly passive stance of much contemporary Christianity. In this way, they are the spiritual heirs of restorers in the English Church of the nineteenth century, who quietly sought their own faithful alternatives to the triumphalism, complacency, and insularity of the Victorian era. Some of these efforts at restoration were antiquarian – they sought an idealized monastic past that no longer existed and did not speak to their contemporaries. But others sought what our Rule describes as “a creative recovery of the past as a source of inspiration and guidance in our faithfulness to God’s future, the coming reign of God.”[iv]And they have born much fruit. 

Whether in our own personal lives, our family history, the lifespan of a community, church tradition, or nation, we cannot live in any time other than the present moment. But in this moment, as Christ’s assembled body, all times and generations are present to our prayers. With this faithful companionship, and the Spirit’s guidance, all that is worth saving is our raw material as we co-create and co-restore with Christ. 

[i]Diary of Marian Rebecca Hughes. 

[ii]The Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Ch. 39: Life Profession 

[iii]Gabe Lyons, The Next Christians

[iv]The Rule of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Ch. 3: Our Founders & The Graces of Tradition 

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  1. Rick Lawler on February 19, 2022 at 09:58

    This helps Brother Keith. I feel like we in the Episcopal Church are far out on a limb in this experiment. In some ways far from the trunk of our Anglican Communion. I have many friends who feel the Church is racing ahead and leaving them behind. Many others who see the experiment as just a beginning. I feel both these things in me. I find some hope and direction in your homily. “Restorers in today’s Church are taking up the call to fashion a creative, nuanced, inviting, and faithful alternative. . .”

  2. Donald on June 26, 2020 at 08:03

    I receive the daily messages from the Society, and greatly appreciate the faith and guidance in them all, but this letter profoundly resonates. I read it over and over and feel it’s meaning. I’ve also sent it along to a dear friend who was very impacted by its meaning and its call. Christ is past, present and future in us is greatly comforting.

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