Homily for Clifton College

25 February 2007

“More and more patent every day is the great need of such a Sisterhood as this in the present state of the Church and the world.”

Words from Mother Emily, founder of my Community, the Community of the Sisters of the Church, CSC for short.  The day after I sent a copy of the reading to Kim via email the front page of the Guardian went like this: (hold up news paper)

  • “Children growing up in the United Kingdom suffer greater deprivation, worse relationships with their parents and are exposed to more risks from alcohol, drugs and unsafe sex than those in any other wealthy country in the world, according to a study from the United Nations.
  • 16.2% of British children live below the poverty line
  • 35.8% have been bullied in the past two months
  • 30.8% of young people have been drunk two or more times” – and no, this is not something to be proud of
  • “More and more patent every day is the great need of such a Sisterhood as this in the present state of the Church and the world.”

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Life-Giving Spirit.  Amen.

The Community of the Sisters of the Church, CSC, who are we?  Where are we?  What do we do?  We are an international Anglican Religious Community with Sisters in England, Canada, Australia and the Solomon Islands.  We follow the same Rule of Life and have one leader, our Mother Superior.  Each country has what we call a Provincial, a sister who is responsible for the wellbeing of the Sisters of that Province and we make decisions democratically, when we all get together, or now that the age of technology has arrived sometimes decisions may have to be made via the email!  Canada and Australia I don’t suppose is any different than you imagine, you see enough TV to know what life is like over there.  But I wonder how many of you even know where the Solomon Islands are?  Life is very different there, for one thing they have a waiting list of women to come and join the Community; we certainly don’t here!  Last year they had to raise money to buy a truck, their first ever vehicle, and that is the first vehicle for CSC not the Solomon Islands, here in England we have I think 10 or 11 cars.  This year they are hoping to build a shower block for the Novitiate, those who are in training – how many of us here can have a bath or shower whenever we want to, and we don’t live in an extremely hot climate!

The work of CSC varies from country to country, house to house.  Here in Bristol we work with those who are in need, some of those mentioned in the newspaper article I began with, the homeless, those on drugs, those who are struggling financially, those who just need a listening ear.  Others in England work in the Retreat ministry, in Counselling, in Parish Work.

OK, but what has all this got to do with Lent?  Some more words from Mother Emily,

“By holiness of life, by prayers and self-sacrifice”

Taken out of context I know, but words that sum up not only Lent, but something of the Religious Life too (I hope).  Lent started out, many, many years ago, as a time of preparation for those who were to be Baptised and Confirmed: a time of prayer and reflection for those who had been separated from the Church to prepare to return to the fold: it was later felt useful for all Christians to have a period in the year to reflect on their relationship with God and His Creation.

“Examine me O God and know my heart:  test me and know my thoughts.” from Psalm 139.

And so here we are in 2007 at the beginning of Lent.  Does that mean we are to put on the traditional equivalent of sack-cloth and ashes and be in desperate need of a bar of chocolate for the next goodness knows how many weeks?  Of course it might be if you have decided to give up chocolate for Lent – I on the other have not!  As for putting on sack-cloth and ashes and looking glum, be of good cheer, for I bring you good news, I hope!

From the Gospel according to St Matthew, “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

In other words, continue to keep up your appearance, God knows what we are doing and it is for God that we are making any changes in Lent, or it should be.

So what do we do about Lent in a Religious Community?  Well that will vary from Community to Community, and in CSC it will vary not only from country to country but from house to house!  For example, I know that one of the ways that the Sisters at our House in Ham Common are keeping Lent is by having a silent day on Wednesday each week, but here in Bristol that would be impossible, so our way of keeping Lent is by having 15 minutes of silent prayer before our Evening Office each day.  We would also be expected to keep some sort of Lenten discipline ourselves, something to mark Lent in our own lives, one of the ways is by reading something specific for Lent.

I remember hearing something many years ago, “Lent is not about giving up, but about giving out.”  I guess what I am trying to say is that if you are going to do something for Lent, make it a realistic change, not something that a few days down the line you will give up on, that it doesn’t have to be about giving up chocolate but maybe about giving up some time, and do it for the right reasons, to strengthen your relationship with God.

Which brings me back to CSC.  Why in 2007 when there are so many opportunities for women, do some choose to give up what seems like independence to become a Nun?  A good question which we don’t have time to go into now, but I would love to explore this with you all on another occasion!

But food for thought:  “More and more patent every day is the great need of such a Sisterhood as this in the present state of the Church and the world.”

CSC began 1870 by a woman of strength, who saw there was a need in a world that was full of desperate people.  137 years later, you only have to read the newspapers to see that things have not changed enough.  Amen.