A portion of the history of Celtic Christianity some of us do not often reflect on:
On Saturday I spoke to a nun, Sister Pam, who is visiting South Africa from the Anglican church in York, England. She is from the order of the Holy Paraclete (OHP) and was based in Johannesburg before they had to move back to England. She told me of her high regard for Archbishop-emeritus Desmond Tutu, who often visited their house in Johannesburg.
I asked her about St Hilda of Whitby, and what it was that made her a saint, and her response was that Hilda was at one stage the head of a so-called double monastery which was a monastery for both men and women, making her a very unique abbess in the history of the church. She was called MOTHER even by bishops and kings and was very highly regarded and her counsel was sought by many. The monastery that she led became a great centre of learning and literacy.
This monastery was so famous that it was chosen as the place to have the Synod of Whitby in 644 AD. When the church then decided to side with Rome rather than with the Celts, she could no longer be the head of a male monastery as women leadership of males were not permitted (sic).
Her feast day, according to Sister Pam, is 17 September, although some have moved it to 18 November.
In thinking about how to transform and renew the Church, it might be useful to rediscover some of the lost history of the church and perhaps through that discover the enormous role that women leaders like Hilda of Whitby have played in the church.
A story told by the new Dean of Cape Town, Michael Weeder, at his installation today might be appropriate here:
A woman died and when she arrived in heaven, she asked St Peter whether she could see Mary, the mother of Jesus. St Peter told her where to go, and when she met her, she asked her: “Mary, why did you always look so sad on the pictures that I saw of you?” Well, said Mary, Joseph and I thought we were expecting a girl!
Though thou wast of royal birth and lineage, O Hilda, thou didst spurn earthly riches and the allurements of the flesh.
And cleaving with all thy heart unto Christ, thou didst take up the struggle of the monastic life.
Wherefore, God endowed thee with such wisdom and prudence that all the people hastened unto thee for counsel and succour.
O venerable one, entreat Him unceasingly, that He grant us great mercy.