The Sisters of Social Concern last week attacked the poll tax proposals. Rita Wall meets this group of campaigning nuns.
"UNITED we stand, divided we fall" is surely the unofficial anthem of the Sisters of Social Concern, a group of nuns from Anglican and Catholic orders who hit the headlines last week with their opposition to the poll tax.
United in their common front against social injustices, the sisters' shared belief in a just world has broken any boundaries between them. Founded in 1987 after an inspiring lecture from a Sri Lankan theologian Tissa Baauriya who was visiting Britain, the Sisters of Social Conern began with just four nuns who could not have foreseen the incredible interest their group has generated.
"We were enthusiastic to start something which would unite sisters across religious divides and at the same time deal with current social injustices", recalls Sr Deirdre Duffy, one of the original four, and a Sister of St Joseph of Peace.
Now the numbers have grown to 60 members and there is increasing interest nationally. The Anglican nuns include the Community of St John the Baptist, the Community of St Andrew, while the Catholic sisters range from the religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary to the St Louis Sisters.
As women, the nuns feel together they can explore the whole nature of the feminine qualities in the church. "Women have always had power in the church" Sr Deirdre smiles, "but now is the time to take it".
"As nuns, we recognise that we are in a position of power because we all have been educated, and we have access to information on what is going on in our society. We decided that we desperately needed a forum to come together."
What's it like being in an ecumenical group of women? Do the theological differences between the orders cause any working problems, I wonder? Sr Deirdre explains that "because we share the same vision we can cut through a lot of traditional opposing views that may have caused problems before."
The Sisters do have a liturgical celebration at some stage during their meetings when they pray and reflect on the social issues which they have discussed. "We are a gospelbased group" comments Sr Deirdre, and this foundation is also a basic unifying element within the group.
The nuns are now thinking along the lines of including lay women in the group. They are keenly aware that women have been meeting outside the church on peace and social justice issues, and "as both lay and religious women we have a lot to offer each other. I suppose we are political!"
A modern theology for Britain would most certainly be political in nature, and it is something which the sisters would be keen on developing. "We have already looked closely at problems of homelessness, emigration, the poll tax and housing difficulties, and now we are at a phase where we want to solidify a theology of action."
The sisters are keen to be seen and heard, and are hoping to develop their media links. "We have a wide range of expertise in the group and we feel that we can speak out very clearly on issues."
Many of the sisters are already taking up the challenges of today's issues working closely with those with AIDS, the homeless and the unemployed in the cities of our country.
The Sisters do feel strongly about the discrimination against women in the church, but they see this bias as a part of a whole senario of oppression in the world. This broad spectrum of issues needs to be addressed, they feel and for the group it is social questions that have priority.
"We are, however, concerned that nuns take a visible role in the church" comments Sr Deidre. Their group is made up of nuns from different ministeries including teaching, nursing, social work, and pastoral care. "We would encourage nuns to take a greater part in the decision-making process in their ministeries".
What about the falling numbers of vocations? Does this ever frighten the sisters? There's no fear there, for this group affirm they look to the future with a sense of challenge. The nuns are adamant that the nature of vocation may have changed with the present needs of society, but this does not mean it will disappear from society_ These sisters are redefining part of their vocation as a more vocal campaigning group in society.