Project Canterbury

Sisterhood Life and Woman's Work, in the Mission-Field of the Church

By the Right Rev. Allan Becher Webb, D.D.
Bishop of Grahamstown.

London: Skeffington & Son, 1883.

Chapter III. Woman's Work in South Africa.

WOMAN has undoubtedly received from the Virgin-Born a kingdom and a priesthood to administer; she has to take up the mantle of the holy women who ministered to our LORD in the days of His earthly mission; a special side of that Divine Incarnate Life has been committed to her, to manifest, and in gentleness and persuasive tenderness of ministering service to prolong, until He is again revealed. She must claim, in His Name, and make good His title to the realm of home and social order; and while she worships Him Who sitteth upon the Throne "high and lifted up," it is her part to see that His train shall fill the Temple.

As in the beginning of the Church's campaign, so now, even unto the end, she must in a true and real sense be a preacher of the everlasting Gospel [30/31] as a witness to all the nations. And we have to thank GOD that He has revealed to many a parent the glory of being represented by their best and dearest, in the work of fulfilling this final purpose of GOD.

Let me illustrate this, and supplement what has been said already, by some account of the system of help and actual work carried on by women, in that part of South Africa of which I have had personal knowledge.

From the beginning of this Mission, in 1863, women have been helpers from afar, as intercessors, correspondents, secretaries, embroiderers, providers and packers of Mission boxes. Very gradually, in the course of fifteen years, they have been drawn nearer and nearer, they have had more to do and more to suffer, more to pray for, to work for, to love and to live for; until now, within the last five years, they have been taken in to the very centre of the work, and become an integral part of that outpost of the, City of GOD, whose lot is cast 5oo miles inland, among the boundless and thirsty plains of South Africa.

We have now on our Mission staff some thirty engaged in Woman's work, who give their labour [31/32] of love, without money and without price; of inferior as well as of highest social grade; in divers scenes, and in different occupations. [In 1878. Between 50 and 60, in 1883.] Some have cast in their lot with us entirely, and have made our Diocese their home; others only contemplate remaining two or three years, doing a good stroke of work, so to say, for GOD and His Church, where so much is needed. Some are with us as members of our Sisterhood, either in the first or second order; others as Associate-workers, some unattached, and one formally set apart by the Bishop as Deaconess. Some are working at Bloemfontein, our Cathedral centre; others at the Diamond Fields, and a few at a distant town of our Diocese, on the border of Natal. Some are engaged in educational work for European girls, others in hospitals and outdoor nursing, some few in the training of native and half-caste children, and one or two in visiting and general parochial work; others are learning or superintending South African household economy, linen and laundry arrangements.

They have now altogether about 300 European and fifty coloured children under their teaching; two small hospitals are worked by them, and they have been asked to take charge of a third, in con sequence of the respect and confidence which they [32/33] have won for themselves and the Church; and a vast amount of work, which can be done by women only, has not been touched as yet. Opportunities are now offered on every side, for the extension of their labours and their influence in hospital and educational and native Mission-work. At this present moment, there is work ready at hand for at least twenty more workers; not to speak of what has yet to be prepared and developed.

The first idea was that some thoroughly experienced, middle-aged ladies should come out from England, and open schools in the various towns and villages of the Diocese. This plan can be much more easily carried out now, than was possible at first; but the difficulty has always been to find properly qualified persons, able and willing to go in this fashion, two and two, or separately. We were therefore constrained to adopt another method for supplying our great need; pressed upon us primarily, perhaps, by the fact that these children of our Church would otherwise have to go to Roman Catholic Convents, which were being every where set up in South Africa, or be without education altogether.

The idea of a Sisterhood,--of the advantage of [33/34] which I was only very gradually convinced,--was seriously entertained in 1872; when a lady began work, as well as she could, single-handed, residing at Bishop's Lodge. And then we were led, step by step, to the founding of a Community of women, upon those great principles of the common life which, on the whole, have stood the test of 1400 years' experience, and were first written on African soil, by the great African Bishop, S. Augustine.

It was felt that a Community was absolutely needed, to give stability and fixity to work under taken so far away; and while there would be, it was hoped, a large number of other earnest workers, not so distinctly pledged to "leave houses, and brethren, and sisters, and children, and friends, for the Kingdom of Heaven's sake," it was seen that a Sisterhood should be to the general body what the Staff College is to the Army--a training-school, a centre, and head-quarters, as well as a home.

We saw that it would tend to raise the general standard and tone of work, and provide, as the highest possible power for good, a "body-guard" and Court for the Great KING, set apart to acknowledge the Lordship of CHRIST by the offering of a pure worship, and pledged to set in motion on behalf of the Mission the forces of the spiritual [34/35] Kingdom, through constant intercession. Practically too, it has been the experience of all, what ever their views about the very difficult question of "vows," that, on some errands of mercy, and under certain special circumstances, women cannot be employed who are supposed to be open to an offer of marriage. There must at least be an under standing on the subject, for a time. In spite of possible risks involved by calling in such help, it was believed that if the Bishop would lead, he could also probably control.

But how was such a Community to be established? The readiest way seemed to be to apply to some English Sisterhood: but even the largest English Sisterhood could not then spare a band of Sisters, to live seven thousand miles away from the mother-house; and--though the experiment has been made in other Dioceses, not unsuccessfully,--I, for my part, could never venture to undertake the responsibility of having only a branch and affiliated house, governed and guided practically by an extra- diocesan and even extra-provincial authority.

It was plain that our Sisterhood must stand upon its own foundation, with a constitution based upon the ancient principles of the same great Rule, but suited to the peculiar needs of the country; getting [35/36] its first existence from the Mother-Church, but living its own life, ruled by its own Diocesan, and organically one with the corporate life of the Church around.

To this end, an English Community did offer of its very best; and, in its fulness of faith and large ness of charity, chose out one of its dearest, most experienced, and loving-hearted Sisters, and sent her out to do what she could. On S. Mark's Day, 1874, our first Sister arrived to begin her work; accompanied by a small band of Associates, weak in themselves, but trusting that they might be made strong in CHRIST.

We have adopted the precaution of a very long probation,. at first three years, and now two, for all who offer to join the Sisterhood, under the peculiar circumstances of our position, so far away, where none could be taken to the innermost heart of the work who had not well weighed the, words: "Hearken, O daughter, and consider; forget also thine own people,"--save in thy prayers, "and thy father's house,"--save in happy, loving thankfulness: "so shall the King have pleasure in thy beauty." We have, however, already grown into a Society: three confirmed Sisters, with nine others of the first and second order still under probation, and three [36/37] more seeking admission; besides several Associates living with the Sisters, under an easy rule. [Numbers considerably increased now, in 1883.]

The Constitution, formally sanctioned and promulgated by the Bishop in Chapter, has been framed with a view to secure orthodoxy and continuity: ensuring loyalty to the doctrine and discipline of the Anglican Church, control by the Bishop,--acting constitutionally with his presbyters, and, a healthy development of spiritual, intellectual, and bodily service.

A well-known Collect speaks of the "liberty of children, and the restrainedness of servants;" and the key-note which has been chosen for the life and work of the Sisters of the Diocese is that verse from the Book of the Revelation: "His servants shall serve Him." If there is another motto which is most frequently suggested for meditation, it is the two lines from Tennyson's description of the salutary society around the hero-king:

"And a about a healthful people stept,
As in the presence of a gracious King."

It is ever set before them, that the spirit of theft law of life is to be found, first of all, in their devotion to the Person of Him to Whom they belong, as His own possession; and then, in such works of charity [37/38] and mercy as He may permit them to do, for Him and His Church. Their chief joy is to be found in making up,--by their true, though feeble, love,--in some small measure, for the little love HE gets in the world, Who loves it so much!

The continuance of truth and love is secured by the personal and constant care of the Bishop himself, or his representative. No Rules or Constitution can dispense with personal influence; though we have made the most careful provision possible, for the permanence of tone and principles in the institution. The Bishop in Chapter is to appoint the Warden, in case of a vacancy; while the appointment must have the assent of the Sisters in chapter. The Sisters, in their Chapter, elect the Superior; but the election is not valid, until it is approved by the Warden, and confirmed by the Bishop in his Cathedral Chapter: that is to say, the Bishop, with his standing council of presbyters, appoints a grave priest to take charge, on his behalf, of the spiritual concerns of the society:- the Sisters, with his per mission, choosing one of their number to carry out the Rule.

The Founder having once given to the Society its Rule and Constitution, nothing can be added to it, altered in it, or omitted from it, without the [38/39] consent of the "Visitor," i.e. the Bishop. He is the ultimate and superior authority, in everything, and at all times. So the words of S. Augustine to the Sisters are made a reality: "You should obey your superiors,"--the Warden and the Mother, "but how much more the Prelate, who has the supreme rule over all!"

In this manner, too, the loyalty of the Community to the Church of the Province, in full communion with the Church of England, is secured; as well as the subjection of the Sisters to the properly constituted authorities of the Diocese, and their position as handmaids of the Church in the Diocese, with a Charter of their own, fully defined.

Certain obvious tendencies are also carefully guarded against, such as

I. Undisciplined devotion,--a fruitful source of error, in all ages,--by due authorisation of bonks.

2. Arbitrary government by a woman. It is made to be distinctly understood that the Warden stands in the relation of the father of the family; the "Superior" being only the executive of the Rule to which she is herself subject. I am very thankful to find the "military" system, which is the Jesuit ideal, protested, against by an able writer on the subject in the Monthly Packet.

[40] 3. Narrowness of sympathy and intellect is amply corrected, by the indirect action of so many different interests and works, requiring various gifts and powers; as also by direct instructions. The Bishop himself has a Bible-Class or Lecture, on Saturdays,--such as he has given before, in an English Theo logical College,--which seems to be quite understood and appreciated. We are not much in danger of forgetting, in this day, that women have minds and intellects; which, however, are not worth much without cultivation of the heart.

I do not wish to give the impression that we have grown to our present happy and settled estate with out many birth-throes, and travail pangs, and difficulties. Nor have all who joined at first, found that they could get on well in the life and work. This could not be expected. It is only surprising that, with so many, their hearts are wholly with us, even when they have been called back to England.

Hitherto, I have spoken chiefly of the Sisterhood; but, as I have implied, a great part of the work is, and always has been, carried on by those who either have not a call, or are not yet conscious of it, to "leave all," but who gladly devote some years, per haps their whole lives, to the work. These come [40/41] to the "Home;" some from England, and some, now added to us, from our own neighbourhood.

If a lady asks me what good she can do, and how she can do it, I should reply You can do good, first, by living there: by the mere fact of being out there, where units and individuals tell much more; and especially, as part of a Corporation and Society. Show what sort of a being, through the grace of GOD, a loyal English Churchwoman is, who is trying hard to serve her Master. Live there: this first; and next,--Pray there. Pray that our Jerusalem there may be "a praise in the earth." Let two or three agree to pray for the works of the Mission. And then, in the third place,--a most important place, but still the third,--work there, as you will be directed; in the way for which you are most fitted, by your health, your education, your strength, your gifts, natural and acquired. There is no lack of all sorts of work.

And if there is a fourth injunction, it would be this: be prepared to give and take. If you go out to live and work with others,--for which the acceptance of a simple rule of life will be needful, and great attention to the law of courtesy, however valuable your work,--remember, the Church of GOD is a family, and each house set apart for His work [41/42] is by no means a mere boarding-house, where, if you do the work, no more is expected of you; or an hotel, where, if you pay your fees, you can claim residence in an ungracious way. Ladies must not leave their manners behind them, with their useless finery. However, there is other than the "common" life, available for any who will do good in a parish, as a Deaconess, or as an independent, though not self-willed, Church-worker.

We now come to the work itself.

I. The most important work of the Diocese, under the charge of ladies, is that of Education. The missionary power of this work cannot be over estimated; through none may you so surely have a hand in building up the walls of Zion and the fair palaces of the City of GOD. We have high-class, secondary, and elementary English schools. High testimony has been given to these, by visitors like Mr. Froude and Mr. Anthony Trollope.

2. Our Hospital work enables us to show the universality of our Master's Love, and the largeness of His purpose, both in respect of the whole nature of man; and all the conditions of men; as well as the Church's thoughtfulness for her children. We have had letters of thanks from Her Majesty's [42/43] Government, and from Her Administrator, at Kimberley; from Presbyterians, from the Dutch Church, from Roman Catholics, and from the principal Jewish congregation, at Kimberley. [A most gracious letter of thanks was sent, by command of Her Majesty, for services rendered at the Military Hospitals in Zululand and in the Transvaal. The new Order of the "Red cross" has since been awarded to several of our Sisters and Associates, for their good work in Zululand, the Transvaal, and Basutoland.] Men will surely ask, "What mean ye by this service?" And they will have for answer, the sound thereof being heard without speech or language: "The Love of CHRIST constraineth"--"I believe in the resurrection of the body."

3. The importance of work for and amongst native girls and women cannot be pressed home too strongly upon those who would avoid the expensive disaster of Kafir wars and chronic native restless ness. The women are more wedded to heathen customs than the men; in Zululand, they are keeping 20,000 young warriors waiting for wives, until they have "wetted their spears in blood!" Magistrates and Missionaries are all agreed, that peace and progress in the country must largely depend upon the readiness of England's daughters to take Africa's dark maidens by the hand, bravely, gently, and patiently, and so to lead them out of the shadow [43/44] of death. This work has been well begun, through help from the Ladies' Association of the S.P.G.; but not without our having had to buy our wisdom and experience. It is still comparatively untouched, in the Diocese.

As time will not allow of any detailed account of our experience in this sphere of labour, we can only state some conclusions drawn from that experience, as suggestion to any desiring fellowship in the work for native girls.

II. Learn the language as soon as possible; though you cannot well do this, till you are actually with natives, in the country itself.

2. Be careful as to their feelings; and be careful about courtesy.

3. Do nothing for yourself which they can do for you; but supply the stimulus of your notice and approval. Their most common faults are sloth, sulkiness, and occasional fits of restlessness.

4. Do not give in, as you will be surely tempted to do, to the prevailing notion that natives are only useful tools, adapted for low and menial things, on whom mental and spiritual education would be thrown away.

5. Though it s necessary to cherish self-respect, in any natives with whom you have to do, this does [44/45] not mean that you are to treat them as equals. They are far from being so, at present; and to treat them as such would be to act an untruth, and would have a very bad effect.

6. There must be no question about the most implicit obedience; but avoid fussiness; be quiet and firm. You have to be as a mother to them; in loco parentis.

7. Be strictly just; natives are excellent judges of this quality of justice, though they may not understand good nature.

8. They will trust you entirely; but they will first need to be convinced of your disinterested motives. "When once they are so," as one who has had to do with them writes, "I have found their confidence to be boundless." They seem to feel the need of some one higher and stronger than them selves, to love them and help them, and they are not really wanting in affection and gratitude.

Still, lest we should dwell too much on the bright lights of the picture, let us have an illustration, from one who has known them, of the darker shadows.

Choose a winter morning, dark and very cold. You call the girls at six o'clock, as usual; but they are snugly rolled up in their blankets on their pieces of carpet, arid would prefer staying there [45/46] until the sun is well up,--at ten o'clock, perhaps. Meantime, they are speculating upon the reason why English people think it necessary always to do the same things, whether it is hot or cold! You wait as long as you think good for your patience or for them, when, perhaps, you try a sudden clap of thunder,--the more startling, from an apparently serene sky,--and at a stamp of your foot and a strongly emphasized 'Caga bonako-nako!'--i.e. 'Get up instantly!'--the blue blankets rise from the ground with more or less expedition, but with an extremely displeased air. Sullen looks are cast at you from all sides, as the toilet proceeds, from your ill-used victims.

"When this is finished, and prayers are over, it is too much to expect them to sweep and arrange the house, as usual, on such a cold morning! It is far pleasanter to huddle round the kitchen fire, and wrap up their heads in their shawls. You disperse them again and again; and by breakfast time you may congratulate yourself, as you say grace for, the still ill-used victims, if your efforts have resulted in making them do part of their work in double the time of the whole.

"When the lesson hour comes, though the sun is shining brightly, they sit scowling round the table, [46/47] till you feel that the temperature is really depressing, in more senses than one. However, if you hold on, things will improve in the afternoon, and you will be rewarded for having kept the even tenor of your way, by the increasing respect and prompt obedience of the girls.

"In dealing with them, patience is the first, second, and third thing required. If you under stand and love young children, you are likely to get on with these girls of seventeen or eighteen taking Coleridge's counsel with you for the work:--

'O'er wayward childhood, wouldst thou hold firm rule,
And sun thee in the light of happy faces,
Love, hope, and patience, these must be thy graces.'"

Perhaps in South Africa, where these three must go together, and where patience is so much needed as the enduring expression of Divine Charity, the greatest of these, I should venture to add, is Patience.

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