Sisters act: Explaining Britain’s good news on vocations

While vocations are stubbornly few in Ireland, the tide is turning in Britain, writes Greg Daly

The headlines could hardly be more startling. ‘Sister Act: How nuns are staging a surprise comeback in the UK’, announces the Telegraph, while the Guardian proclaims, ‘Superior Numbers: number of new nuns in Britain trebles in five years’ and the BBC goes for the bald ‘Women becoming nuns hits 25-year high’.

It’s not a story we’re used to hearing, but it tallies with vocations stories we’ve been hearing from across the water in recent years.  

In September 2014, The Irish Catholic reported that with 57 new seminarians, the number of men beginning studies for the priesthood in England and Wales was four times the Irish figure, a figure all the more striking in light of how only about a million Catholics attend Mass in England and Wales each week.

Such healthy vocations figures are a recent phenomenon, though. As with so many other countries in the West, England and Wales saw a vocational collapse in the decades after the Second Vatican Council, and it has only been since 2008, when numbers reached a historical low of 15, that the tide has turned.

It looks now as if the tide too has turned for women entering religious life too. 


After 1984, when 95 women entered religious life in England and Wales, numbers seemed to go into freefall. By 2004, only seven women were entering religious life. The following year, though, numbers rose to the mid-teens, and since 2009 numbers have been climbing: 19 in 2010, the year of Pope Benedict’s visit, 25 in 2011, 34 in 2012, 40 in 2013 including a group of 10 former Anglican nuns, and 45 last year.

In contrast, Irish orders have typically received 10 or so new entrants over each of the last few years, such that beyond a handful of communities there seem few signs of hope, making all the more important initiatives like the Rise of the Roses, which seeks to introduce young women to religious life and to support young women in answering God’s call, whatever it may be.

What, then, are our cousins over the water doing right?

Part of the answer, of course, must lie in how English Catholics have long been a minority. Catholics, even now, can seem somewhat exotic and mysterious in England, which has led to high profile BBC programmes like The Monastery and Young Nuns offering windows onto Catholic life, with these in turn planting seeds that can in time bear vocational fruit.

Perhaps more importantly, England’s Catholics have long had to punch above their weight. Aside from helping today’s young Catholics think their faith less a matter of convention than of conviction, this has given impetus to well-resourced, active and innovative vocations policies, including the national vocations framework, vocations groups, “come and see” discernment weekends, Compass groups, and even the annual Invocation festival all helping young people listen for and answer God’s call.

Events like Invocation can have a somewhat ‘Evangelical’ feel to them, which may simply reflect how, in a crowded ‘religious marketplace’, Catholics can learn from approaches other religious groups have found successful. 

Even allowing for that, though, Invocation’s ability to attract hundreds of young discerners suggests that there is an appetite for such a thing.

Fr Christopher Jamison, director of England’s vocations office, believes “there is a gap in the market for meaning in our culture and one of the ways in which women may find that meaning is through religious life”, and Sr Cathy Jones, religious life vocations promoter, agrees, saying that religious life is “obviously answering a need” for young women in today’s world.

“A key reason for this increase is the growth of a culture of vocation in the Church. Young Catholics are asking themselves ‘What is God’s plan for my life?’ and they are availing themselves of opportunities to meet with experienced guides to consider their future in the context of prayer, discussion and scripture,” she says.

Explaining that “discerners now are not where they were twenty years ago”, she says that the 45 vocations have been “spread across a wide range of ways of living religious life”, being distributed over “30 or so orders”.  

One thing these orders have in common, she says, is “a real sense of their own identity” and a “confidence in their particular charism, a belief that they have something to offer the Church and the world”.

The vows

Twenty-seven of the women who entered religious life last year entered apostolic orders. One of these, 29-year-old former postdoctoral researcher Theodora Hawksley, has been omnipresent in the media of late, explaining why an accomplished young woman with her life ahead of her could be taking steps as a member of the Congregation of Jesus towards vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

“Entering religious life was a decision born of love,” she says: “It was an acknowledgement that my life has slowly and concretely rearranged itself around the love of God, and around that relationship as the one I prize above all else.”

While Theodora can look forward to a life in teaching, healthcare, chaplaincy, advocacy, or evangelisation, others will have a rather less public future: 18 young women have joined contemplative orders, all of which tend to promote themselves in a rather discreet fashion.

“Those orders that get the highest number of entrants,” Sr Cathy says, “aren't about self-promotion and are simply about living their lives well and having a good website.”

Benedictine Sr Mary David Totah, novice mistress at St Cecilia’s Abbey on the Isle of Wight, where six young women are currently in formation, agrees.

“We don't run schools or help in the parish,” she explains, such that the community doesn’t have an obvious public profile, “but the website doesn't disrupt our contemplative way of life at all. 

“We’re able to communicate information about our lives and convey something of its joy, mystery, and beauty without taking us out of what we're meant to be doing.”

“It’s important,” she says, “to make ourselves known through a website and then leave it at that.”

St Cecilia’s is perhaps unusual, she admits, in having had a “steady trickle” of vocations at least over the last decade, and while she says this is “hard to account for”, she thinks young women “are looking for something demanding and undiluted, and this is something they find in stricter communities”.

“I don't think fewer people are being called than in the past, but it is harder to hear the call and respond with so many competing attractions,” she adds.

Cautioning against the “risk of turning monasteries and convents into another product”, however, she stresses that vocations aren’t a matter of “statistics or numbers”, but are “a response to something outside ourselves and a relationship” and adds that “the smallest community remaining faithful to its vows is doing as much for the world and the Church as the bigger ones that attract notice. It’s not about numbers.”