Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Flowers, Pictures, and Crosses: Criticisms of Priscilla Lydia Sellon's Care of Young Girls

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Flowers, Pictures, and Crosses: Criticisms of Priscilla Lydia Sellon's Care of Young Girls

Article excerpt

Priscilla Lydia Sellon founded one of the first Anglican sisterhoods in 1848 at Devonport, near Plymouth. She soon opened an orphanage for girls, but this enterprise came under attack by some Anglicans, who believed that Sellon's sisterhood encouraged Roman Catholic devotions that could harm the faith of the impressionable orphans. As proof of her questionable loyalty to the Anglican Church, her enemies drew attention to the placement of flowers, a cross, and a picture of the Virgin Mary on the communion table. Sellon's orphanage survived this attack owing to the backing of the bishop of Exeter, Henry Phillpotts, and the support of the religious and secular press, which praised her work among the orphans. This article argues that different religious practices and devotions can produce strong emotions which can divide a church, but it also shows the important role that the Anglican Church has played in addressing social problems.

Nineteenth-century England experienced a sudden and dramatic growth in the establishment of Anglican sisterhoods, and with this development also came a sustained campaign against these nuns and their convents. Books, pamphlets, speeches, and articles in the newspapers attacked and criticized the sisterhoods. Some opponents maintained that the sisterhoods might become carbon copies of their Roman Catholic counterparts, and thus harm the religious fabric of the Church of England. Others, however, believed that all convents, Roman Catholic and Anglican, would destroy certain prized English virtues such as individual freedom, the authority of parents, and the sanctity of the family in an attempt to create good and compliant nuns. Roman Catholic convents could certainly never appreciate the English character of these sacred institutions, but many Britons could not understand how the established church could tolerate sisterhoods within its ranks. Still other critics of the conventual life for women laughed at the apparent uselessness of contemplative or cloistered sisterhoods, and expressed a bit more toleration for those who engaged in some sort of so-called active work such as education, nursing, or work among the poor and outcast of Victorian society, including orphans. But a danger still existed. Anglican sisterhoods that ministered to young girls, some feared, might unintentionally turn the eyes of these impressionable and vulnerable females in the direction of Roman Catholicism. Priscilla Lydia Sellon's efforts in Devonport, near Plymouth-especially her work with orphan girls-came under scrutiny by some Evangelicals who wanted to protect the Anglican integrity of those young women. They tried to identify this sisterhood with the disreputable religious practices of Roman Catholicism in an attempt to alert the public of the threat posed by Sellon, but her orphanage survived the attack.

During the early 1850s, a number of zealots, mostly Anglican clergymen, attacked Sellon (1821-1876) and her sisterhood in the Diocese of Exeter. Church of England sisterhoods began to flourish within the Tractarian tradition, and they necessarily looked to the Roman Catholic nuns for constitutions, rules, customs, and even dress. At times, consequently, these Anglican communities of nuns adopted some liturgical practices associated with Roman Catholicism which had been banned by the reformers of the sixteenth century. The first convent in the Anglican Church was the Sisterhood of the Holy Cross, founded in 1845 at Park Village West, London, and it was followed by the Community of St. Mary the Virgin in Berkshire during 1848.1In the same year, Lydia Sellon established the Society of the Most Holy Trinity at Devonport. These early pioneering sisterhoods possessed certain common traits. The founders or first superiors had strong and independent personalities, and critics accused them of despotic behavior toward the other sisters. Since convents were novelties in the Anglican Church, the ecclesiastical officials had not yet developed any means to supervise or to incorporate these women within the comprehensiveness of Anglicanism. …

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