Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Why Abbess instead of Mother Superior?

A number of us have been having a bit of fun over at Alan Hirsch's blog and in Comment # 17 Alan said:

Hey Pegs, instead of Abbess, perhaps Mother Superior is better. Just a thought! You really are superior!

And while I appreciate Alan’s kind words of encouragement, this seemed to be the right time to share a wee history lesson with those of you who have wondered about the whole “abbess” thing.

First of all, you will see that the role of Abbess is really the same as Mother Superior. However, I loved this part of the Wikipedia article:

Historically, in some Celtic monasteries abbesses presided over joint-houses of monks and nuns, the most famous example being St. Brigid's leadership in the founding of the monastery at Kildare. This custom accompanied Celtic monastic missions to France and Spain, and even to Rome itself. At a later period, in 1115, Robert, the founder of Fontevraud Abbey near Chinon and Saumur, France, committed the government of the whole order, men as well as women, to a female superior.

I was especially pleased to see that Robert of Arbrissel had the good sense to commit the governance of the entire order to a woman. And, having had the good sense to marry a forward-thinking Robert myself, this seemed especially fortuitous….

The article about the Fontevraud Abbey contains some important family history for me:

First this:

The abbey was a double monastery, with both monks and nuns on the same site. The order became an international success. There were several "Fontevrist" abbeys set up in England. Robert of Arbrissel declared that the leader of the order should always be a woman and appointed Petronille de Chemillé as the first abbess. She was succeeded by Isabella d'Anjou, the aunt of Henry II of England.

And then, this:

In the early years the Plantagenets were great benefactors of the abbey and while Isabella d'Anjou was abbess, Henry II's wife Eleanor of Aquitaine became a nun there.
This is all especially significant to me because my father’s family is able to trace our roots back through Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine…as well as through many other European Royal and Noble families—including many of the Saxon Kings, of whom Alfred the Great is one of my favorites.

And so it seemed appropriate to me that, as the fortunate wife of a mutuality-in-equality minded Robert, this Margaret (duly ordained to the Christian Ministry and descendent of Eleanor of Aquitaine) should be an Abbess instead of a Mother Superior.

And there you have it.


mentorman said...

...fascinating! does this may you the Most Rev. Highness Abby Peggy Brown?

AbiSomeone said...

Well...being a "virtual" abbess, I guess that would be a no ;^) ...especially since I am using "abbess" as a functional descriptor and not an ecclesial office title.

And, while I am ordained (no small feat, given my church heritage), I am (ironically?) moving toward establishing a model of ministry that seeks to remove the barriers set between clergy and that all the hasidim of Christ may function fully as Royal priests in the Kingdom of God.