First, let me praise the Baltimore Sun for realizing that there was a news story linked to the rites in which the veteran nurse and health-care administrator Irene Forbes Perkins became Sister Teresa Irene of the Heart of God. We live in an age in which the number of women choosing the religious life is in sharp decline and the average age of nuns is getting higher and higher. But that isn't what this particular story is about. That isn't the news hook, in this case.
The news hook for this story by reporter Liz F. Kay is that Sister Teresa Irene is an Anglican nun, as opposed to being a Roman Catholic nun. The number of monks and nuns in the Anglican Communion is quite small, for a wide variety of reasons -- both modern and historical. Here's the basic background you need to know:
The Anglican Church began in the 16th century when England's King Henry VIII dissolved monastic communities because he wanted to tax church lands, said Bishop Robert W. Ihloff, leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. But the orders re-emerged in Anglicanism in the mid-1800s, the Rev. Gregory Fruehwirth, the vice president of the Conference of Anglican Religious Orders in the Americas, said in a telephone interview from Wisconsin.
Some Roman Catholic religious orders have counterparts in the Anglican communion, which includes the Episcopal Church in the United States. Like their Catholic equivalents, the approximately 2,400 members of Anglican religious orders worldwide vow to live celibate, obedient lives and don't have private possessions, Fruehwirth said. There are about 300 members in 23 different Episcopal orders in North America today. In Maryland, 16 members of the All Saints Sisters of the Poor live in Catonsville.
So this is an interesting story. However, I am sad to say, the Sun missed an even more interesting news hook that is merely hinted at in one section of the story.
The other day, I posted a quick note about a Roman Catholic woman who made the decision to take vows as a "consecrated virgin," rather than becoming a nun. This led to some interesting discussions in the comments pages about the difference between the calling to one way of life, rather than the other. The word "calling" is crucial, here.
The same is true in the story of the 55-year-old Sister Teresa Irene. Here is the section of the story that caught my attention:
She didn't want to be ordained an Episcopal priest -- Perkins said her calling was different. She wanted to join a contemplative Episcopal community -- one that maintains a deep life of prayer, rather than emphasizing direct social service -- but there weren't any in the United States. So, Perkins spent four years with the Sisters of the Love of God in Oxford, England, who draw on the Carmelite tradition, she said.
Perkins came back to the United States after the attacks on the World Trade Center. "I just had a sense that I needed to be here," she said. "I needed to be in this country, with, so to speak, my own people." But returning to America meant she would have to form her own contemplative community.
I have, through the years, gotten to know a few Anglican nuns and former Anglican nuns. As a rule, they tend to fall on the conservative or traditionalist side of the Anglican fence (the same is not true among the rare Anglican monks in the North American context).
It would have been interesting to know more about why Sister Teresa Irene felt called to this ministry, rather than seeking to become a female priest or priestess, as some prefer to call ordained women. A few years ago there were 3,000 female Episcopal priests in the United States alone and I am sure, given recent trends in seminaries, that the number is now much higher.
How does a tiny Carmelite order fit into that picture? How would this women describe her unique calling, in contrast to the priesthood, especially since she resides in the very liberal Episcopal Diocese of Maryland? Has this bishop every led a rite in which a women took vows of this kind?
This story left me feeling like the reporter peaked inside a door and then walked away.