Marion Rebecca Hughes by Phillip Tovey
Marion Rebecca Hughes (1817-1912) was the first person to make a religious profession in the Church of England after the dissolution of the monasteries. Her action was a small seed that developed into the religious life as we now know it in the Anglican Communion. It is hard today not to realise how revolutionary the act was and radical for the Victorian church. There were no convents, there were no religious rules, there was little acceptance of the idea of religious sisterhoods and it was unclear how to take a step in the religious life in this very early period; even the more Tractarian minded had little real contact with brothers and sisters in either the Roman Catholic Church or any of the Orthodox churches, and no experience of religious life.
Marion Hughes was the daughter of the Vicar of Shennington. Her brother was also ordained and was to take up the position of her father on his death. She had been reading the works of Newman and following the developments of the Tracts, which were coming out of Oxford. She had also heard of the Sisters of Charity and the desire of many to have a Protestant version of sisters who might nurse the sick and look after the poor; like some Lutheran deaconesses. She had been in contact with one of the teachers of Hebrew, Dr Seager, at Oxford University who was a colleague of Dr Pusey, the Hebrew Professor.
It is clear from her diary that she felt called to a consecrated life and to remain unmarried.
This came to a head on Trinity Sunday (5th June) 1841 when she became the first professed religious in the Church of England. It is said that when she died there were twice as many religious women in the Church of England than at the dissolution.
The exact events of 5 June are quite difficult to discern as her original diaries no longer exist and there are two forms of her diaries which were rewritten later in life; she was probably editing the early books before she threw them away.
The first form says that she went to the house of Dr Seager where there seems to be have been some confusion over how she was to be consecrated. They decided to take the service from the Roman pontifical. This would have been the service for the Consecration of a Virgin which in 1841 was only used in certain monastic orders as a rite after life profession. It also requires a bishop to perform the rite and at that point there was not one present. It is the rite that some in SCL have used for their consecration rite. It would appear that the service was used up to the ministry of the sacrament at which point they went to St Mary the Virgin in Oxford where Newman was vicar. Marion knelt next to Pusey's daughter, who was receiving her first communion, and they received communion together, Newman in full knowledge of what had previously happened. They then seem to have returned to the house of Dr Seager for the final parts of the service.
This did not immediately lead to Marion Hughes beginning a convent. She did a certain amount of travelling around including a trip to France with Dr Seager and his wife, where she investigated the life of religious sisters in the church and gathered much information that would be useful to people later. She had to return home and look after her parents who were increasingly infirm. It was not until 1850 that she moved to Oxford and began a more conventual religious life. So the period between 1841 and 1850 was much more like the present OCV in the Roman Catholic Church.
She wore no distinct dress; indeed dressing up as a sister as in the picture above would have been very controversial at that point.
It is not clear what type of religious vows she may have made at that time. There was great opposition to religious vows at this point. Bishop Wilberforce although sympathetic to aspects of the Oxford movement including the religious life was totally opposed to taking life vows and did not permit them to publicly happen while he was Bishop of Oxford. Although Marion Hughes talks about her ‘vows’ the actual service of the Consecration of a Virgin does not require any public profession (although in her case it was done privately). What she does say is ‘I was enrolled one of Christ’s Virgins, espoused to him and made his handmaid and may he of his infinite mercy grant that I may ever strive to please him and to keep from the world though still in it’.
Later Marion Hughes was to found the Society of the Holy and Undivided Trinity in Oxford. This was a much more conventual life than her first nine years in religion. This society did important work in educating poor children and in nursing people in various cholera outbreaks in Oxford. It combined with other societies and ended up being Ascot Priory.
The first nine years of her life from a post-Vatican 2 perspective might be seen as her being a Consecrated Virgin in the World, the type of life we have seen in sister Liz and others in OCV. Thus in some ways her early consecrated life is quite similar to that which is lived in SCL.
In her diary she includes a simple prayer which some of us might also want to say.
‘I beseech Thee,
blessed Jesus, everlasting God, Son of holy Mary,
look upon me with Thine mercy
and let not my vow be a snare to me,
but make it the means of drawing me to Thee.’ Amen.