Written by Rowland Davies with additional reviews by Lucy Lewis and Liz Wagner
Romsey Abbey’s annual Ethelflaeda Festival draws upon the Abbey’s rich history as a Benedictine nunnery by celebrating female leadership in the church, culture and society. Ethelflaeda was one of the earliest Abbesses in the 10th century. This year’s festival, held from Friday 20 to Sunday 22 October, saw a range of talented female priests, speakers and musicians taking part.
The 2023 Ethelflaeda Festival started with a lecture by the Rt Hon Caroline Nokes, MP for Romsey and Southampton North. A concert by a Military Wives Choir followed on Saturday. The president and preacher at the Festal Eucharist on Sunday was Revd Canon Prof Liz Stuart, former Vice-Chancellor of Winchester University. At the informal Abbey Vine service Canon Sue Wallace presided and played the harp.
Caroline Nokes was elected Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee in 2020 and she speaks passionately about the workstreams she and her colleagues undertake as part of this role.
For many it was an evening to prepare an open mind, to set aside political conscious bias and to listen to what Caroline had to say. Her early education had given her the determination to not only survive but thrive in an often hostile working environment where misogyny is rife. In a working environment where one male colleague stated “There are too many handbags” Caroline remarked on the need to make the distinction between a lot of women and enough. Recruitment is only one part of the means of ensuring diversity in levelling up the sexes within parliament. Retention is also a problem, since the average female MP will only be in post for one term.
Caroline remarked on the themes which enable her and her female colleagues to conduct parliamentary business, including the culture of camaraderie. She also spoke of the gratitude she feels towards parliamentary female role models who offered sage advice.
Furthermore, Caroline praised women for their natural ability to collaborate, putting aside their own agendas to ensure there is a positive outcome for the people they serve. Speaking of her cross-parliamentary work she generously mentioned her colleague Jess Phillips who states “I don’t care who I work with as long as I get the job done”.
The audience were invited to ask questions and this led to a serious, gritty and thought-provoking discussion whereby Caroline expertly answered with ease and authenticity.
The concert on Saturday included a mixture of popular numbers, such as ‘Danny Boy’, and those which, like ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’, have become well-known because they were specially written for the Military Wives Choirs.
Between musical numbers members of the choir explained the importance of the Military Wives choirs and how many of those singing in this concert had belonged to several choirs as they move from military base to base. The accounts given by choir members were heart-rending as they described life as a military wife and spoke of the support and companionship provided by the choirs. Belonging to the choir had helped to improve their singing, their ability to read music and had given them friendship and support in hard times. It was clear that choirs are very special to those who belong and that they bring an element of stability amid the chaotic life which comes with frequent moving.
The audience were very appreciative of all aspects of the concert and the A Cappella rendition of “Bring him home” from Les Misérables was exceptionally well received. A memorable concert giving a great insight into life in the armed forces as well as very enjoyable music.
At the Festal Eucharist on Sunday Prof. Stuart explained that, up to the 11th century, both abbots and abbesses were consecrated and received episcopal authority. From the 13th century on much sacramental power was withdrawn and the church forgot that there was once no discrimination between men and women. Past Christian belief was far more complex than we are now led to believe. It included different types of discipleship and included the belief that the ultimate marriage was between Christ and his church.
We were delighted to welcome our friend, Revd Canon Sue Wallace to Abbey Vine. Prior to becoming chaplain at Truro Cathedral, Sue sang with our Abbey Choir. She also works with the Transcendence Trust, a charity supporting church mission outreach along with creative forms of worship.
The theme of today’s Abbey Vine was the Psalms with 3 of our 4 contemporary worship songs being based on Psalm 23, ‘The Lords my Shepherd’, Psalm 42 ‘As the deer pants for the water’ and Psalm 102/3 ‘Bless the Lord my Soul’. It was an absolute joy for us to have Sue play along with us on her harp.
Sue explained the important role the psalms have played in our Abbey since the time of St Ethelflaeda when all 150 psalms would have been sung daily. She said that we will always find a psalm to suit our mood whether we are feeling angry, anxious, joyful or full of love.
Sue, author of The Rhythmic Psalter, led us in a Rhythmic Psalm workshop with everyone being invited to play a piece of percussion. Our Abbey Vine children had made instruments during the service with Louise.
Abbey Vine is usually a place where a joyful noise is made onto the Lord and we thank Sue for bringing her harp to our Abbey Vine community.