a medieval english abbess and a pandemic

It was around 2008/09 that I received an email from Noeline Sanders, inviting a group of Sri Lankans to join a forum on issues relating to the Sri Lankan civil war, and the effect it bears in the diaspora community in London and the UK. The venue advertised was St Ethelburga’s church in Bishopsgate, City of London.  I made the journey to Bishopsgate one evening not knowing then how much it would change my life.

The world is currently in lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, which reminds me of the story of St Ethelburga that I have heard whilst visiting the church. Much like the current coronavirus pandemic, the Plague (c. 664 AD) killed thousands of people in the British Isles, targeting those in the south of the country. 

During this period, St Ethelburga was gifted land in Barking by her brother St Earconwald for the purposes of building a monastery.  (St Earconwald, who later became the Bishop of London, had his own monastery for male monks.) St Ethelburga became the first abbess of Barking Abbey who went on to dedicate her life to the poor and those affected by the dreadful plague.  The Venerable Bede is known to have said St Ethelburga was “upright in life and constantly planning for the needs of her community”.

It is known that the Abbess, at the time of the Plague, encouraged the nuns to step out of the monastery into the community to serve the sick and the dying, knowing the risks involved for themselves. The Plague took the life of the great Saint as well as others in the monastery. The ethos of putting values into action is one of the four key principles of the mission of St Ethelburga even today.

Founded c. 666 AD, the monastery was a place for prominent women in society to take up holy orders in the event they sought freedom from societal norms, such as arranged marriages or in some instances, their families bartering their lives for the release of English prisoners! A dowry for admission to the monastery would usually be paid by a wealthy benefactor.  A royal connection is known to have paid the admission dowry to the Abbey for Elizabeth Chaucer, the daughter of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer. The list of nuns associated with the Abbey confirms a connection between the monastery, and royalty and gentry. A decision by the 10th century Archbishop of Canterbury, St Dunstan made Barking Abbey follow the Rule of St Benedict.  The Abbey was one of the richest in the country in that time and continued its monastic traditions for nearly 900 years. 

The medieval church of St Ethelburga is dedicated to the Abbess of Barking and dates back to 1250, while having survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the Blitz of WWII. The church was extensively damaged by an IRA bomb in 1993 but did not at that time have any insurance cover and closed for several years. It was under the leadership and vision of the then Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, that the church re-opened in 2002 as a Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. 

Once the largest building in Bishopsgate now stands small compared to the Gherkin and other skyscrapers in the financial centre of London. However small in size, the longevity of its legacy and the global reach of its work cannot be matched to the value of all the hedge funds and million-dollar deals that occur in its vicinity.

Everything about the church represents St Ethelburga as a saint; great foresight, leadership and above all, compassion. The church continued with this legacy and ‘achieved notoriety as one of the few churches in which divorced people could remarry, in defiance of the Bishop’s strictures’.

The Plague of c.664 AD lasted nearly 25 years. Let us hope and pray that the current pandemic will be over in a much shorter space of time. 

Getting to know some great like-minded Sri Lankan women of all faiths, sitting round in the Tent a decade ago, while discussing matters that affect our lives under the auspices of a female English medieval Saint has been a privilege.  (The Bedouin tent that sits at the back of the church is a must see if you are visiting the City of London). St Ethelburga’s legacy has made it possible for a plethora of fora such as our’s to meet. It is a place where attributes of other cultures are celebrated and valued.  Enjoying food, dance and music and poetry of other cultures and social mingling of people who would never otherwise have engaged with one another yet live in the same city is a jewel in the crown that St Ethelburga has facilitated.

I am thankful for the space St Ethleburga provides for those on the margins of society; the foreigner, the stranger, the refugee. It facilitates a space for dialogue  that which could destroy people and communities and helps to birth renewed vision and energy, and is a place that connects strangers and builds meaningful friendship across faith, culture and other social divides.

This long association with St Ethelburga pointed me to participate in one of the church’s collaborative project areas in 2019 The Journey of Hope Pilgrimage where I met some amazing people from around Britain. We travelled together and learned from the centres of reconciliation in mainland Britain and Northern Ireland. I am grateful for the original connections made by Noeline who also now serves as a Trustee of St Ethelburga community.

The Listening to each other: Listening to Earth programme responds to the urgent need for climate justice issues and sanctity of the earth and combines nurturing leadership of people of colour. Based in the country’s financial capital, St Ethelburga encourages financial institutions to take responsibility when navigating turbulent times. A guiding principle of the programmes is seeing crisis as opportunity whilst building community across differences and protecting the sacred.  More can be found here.

The work of St Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation is prophetic and relevant more so today than ever.

Published by rugunawardene

Worship, song, dance, food, art, travel, music, culture (did I say culture?!)

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