Modern Nuns Songs of Praise


Modern Nuns

Josie d'Arby meets nuns at a convent in Pembrokeshire and hears how they dedicate themselves to life in a closed community.


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This week, I'm in Pembrokeshire,

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taking up a special invitation into a world few get to see.

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I'm going behind the scenes to witness life in a convent -

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Holy Cross Abbey - where,

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as part of their surprisingly busy lives here,

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the nuns tend the local land and run a bit of a food factory.

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It's the first time TV cameras have been allowed here to see those

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who've made a decision to devote their life to God in this way.

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I don't think we choose it, I think we're actually invited.

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It's called a vocation and we don't do the calling.

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And I'll hear how one sister responded to the call.

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I thought, "No, no, no, no, I can't be a nun. No! Absolutely not."

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We've songs old and new coming up,

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but we begin with a traditional favourite,

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which, given where we are,

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reflects the theme of Christian devotion and commitment.

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I've been given an exclusive welcome

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to Holy Cross Abbey in Pembrokeshire,

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an enclosed community of nuns who follow the Cistercian tradition,

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which began in medieval France.

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And to see the variety of work going on here,

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I'm being given a guided tour of the estate

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by the leader of the community, Mother Christine.

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-Well, these are our chickens.

-A-huh.

-And we sell their eggs.

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-And you have bees, too, don't you?

-We do. We do.

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-And a lot of vegetables grow here, I imagine, as well.

-Yes, yes.

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We've got potatoes, leeks, a variety of greens.

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I must show you our elderflower.

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-You've an abundance of it.

-Yes. We use it to make our bubbly.

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-Ooo, maybe we can try some of that later.

-Yes, yes.

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It's very environmental. It's very modern in some ways.

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We have an estate, we have gardens.

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Are people surprised to find out how hands-on you all are?

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I think, certainly when I first entered,

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I had friends who were very surprised.

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They thought I'd be kneeling in front of an altar every day

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and doing nothing else.

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What's day-to-day life like here?

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Well, we're a monastic community

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and there is a monastic rhythm to the day.

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We get up for the first prayers of the day at 3:30

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and then we have times of prayer all through the day.

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Am I right in thinking that you don't normally let cameras inside?

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We haven't done before. We're an enclosed community.

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-But you've made an exception for Songs Of Praise.

-Yes, we have.

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-Thank you.

-Yes.

-Why do you choose to live in a closed community?

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I don't think we choose it, I think we're actually invited.

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It's called a vocation and we don't do the calling.

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When you hear some of the terrible things going on in the world,

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what can you do about it here?

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I think our life is one of intercession.

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-Our Father...

-ALL: Who art in heaven.

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Intercession is a prayer for other people.

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Whether they're ill or whether someone had died

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or where there's a violent situation somewhere.

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ALL: And forgive us our trespasses.

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And when we use the word "us", we're not just talking about

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our small community, we're talking about us, the world.

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You take onboard what other people are suffering.

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We just believe that prayer is a very powerful force.

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People often ask, "Oh, it must be so boring,

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"it must be the same every day". No day is the same.

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They're always different.

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And, um...you don't know what's going to happen the next day,

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especially when you're growing things and you've got animals.

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So, in the summer at least, you're self-sufficient here?

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Yes, but in many ways, being in the monastery makes you realise

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that you're not self-sufficient at all.

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There's a great reliance, um...on the Lord.

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While Holy Cross is an enclosed community,

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the nuns here do come into contact with others.

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There are two male members of staff employed for the heavy-duty farming.

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And the sisters often take a trip into the local community.

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Of course, we go out, we do our own shopping.

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-Can I collect my prescription, please?

-Yes. What's the name?

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And we have to go out for various things, so we're known locally.

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Thanks very much. Thank you. You're welcome.

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-Thank you. Bye-bye.

-OK. Bye-bye. Bye.

-Bye.

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They know where we come from and they know who we are.

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We work in teams with most of what we do.

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Yes, there is a sort of ease with each other.

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-Lovely to meet you.

-And you, too. Sister Jean?

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And although we are an enclosed community,

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there is a welcome and an openness for people who come.

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BIRDSONG

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Although they live in a modern building,

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the nuns at Holy Cross Abbey practise age-old traditions.

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One of which is singing plainchant in Latin.

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We don't have the skills that a lot of people have,

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so we have to do what we can with what we've got.

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We're all mixed abilities.

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You'd be surprised the number of women that come

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who've been told to shut up or not to sing.

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But somehow, we have to encourage them to sing. We need their support.

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And I've never had anyone that can't sing in the end.

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They come up and they come down.

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If we come down gently, like we do on the Alleluias...

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But it doesn't matter that we're not professionals

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because the heart goes into it. You have to put your heart into it.

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You couldn't do it any other way.

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And because you're singing it for God and to God,

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it is a dialogue, it's a prayer,

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but it's great fun and we really enjoy it.

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These are chants that have been sung for centuries.

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These are centuries old.

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In that way, they're certainly timeless.

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# O Sanctissima

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# O Piissima

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# Dulcis Virgo Maria

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# O Sanctissima

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# O Piissima

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# Dulcis Virgo Maria

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# Mater amta intemerata

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# Ora ora pro nobis

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# Mater amta intemerata

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# Ora ora pro nobis

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# Mater amta intemerata

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# Ora ora pro nobis

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# Amen

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# Amen

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# Amen. #

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BIRDSONG

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Every church tradition starts somewhere.

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And over the last few weeks,

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we've been looking at the origins of some of them.

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And this week, Richard Taylor is in Gloucestershire,

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looking at the founding of the Baptist church in the UK.

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The Baptist movement nowadays

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numbers more than 40 million people spread all around the world.

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But for me, if you want to understand the origins,

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the energy and the sheer charisma of the Baptists,

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there's no better place to come than Tewkesbury.

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Historians trace modern Baptists to the early 17th century

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and the English separatists.

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Separatists was the name given to anyone who objected to

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and separated from the Church of England.

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They were regarded as a threat to society,

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to be imprisoned and even executed.

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And so, in 1609, a little group of separatists from Lincolnshire,

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led by a man called John Smyth,

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fled Britain to the religious freedom of Amsterdam.

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There, the group developed certain distinctive beliefs and practises

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which we would now call Baptist,

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before re-importing their ideas to Britain.

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Now, this is Tewkesbury Abbey,

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a vast and imposing symbol of the establishment.

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Locals on a Sunday would have been expected to come here to worship.

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The great and the good at the front,

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servants and workers firmly at the back.

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And here, hidden away down this little backstreet

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in the shadow of the abbey, is the Old Baptist Chapel.

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One of the earliest Baptist meetinghouses in the world.

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This little chapel is just stunning.

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It's so simple. Just plain walls and clear glass

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and a pulpit for the preaching.

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The people who came here were artisans and servants.

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No wonder they preferred this to worshipping across the road at the abbey,

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behind the lords and ladies that they waited on during the week.

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Here, they were with people who loved them,

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who treated them as an equal, who were their friends.

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John Smyth formulated what would become a central belief and ritual

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of the Baptist movement.

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This is the Old Chapel's original baptismal pool.

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An amazing survival!

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On a baptism day, it would have been filled to the brim with water

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from the local well, and freezing cold.

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Then the person to be baptised would be dressed in a light robe.

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And the minister would lead them down the steps

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and into the pool, where, saying the words of baptism,

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they would be fully submerged,

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before being brought back up and into the light.

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It's a physical, public, exposing ritual,

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like being buried and brought back to life.

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And when they opened their eyes, they would see around them

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their new family, the people who surrounded them here.

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To learn more about early Baptists, I'm talking to Simon Lawton,

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curator of the chapel.

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Baptists were people that thought

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the Reformation hadn't gone far enough.

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They wanted a return to a simpler,

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scripture-based version of religion.

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The Baptist ceremony in a private meeting house,

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which is what this would've been, gave them a chance

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to actually debate and understand

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the scripture and understand the Bible.

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Some Baptist ceremonies, you hear cases of them smoking, being very relaxed

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and, of course, a lot of Baptists would then troop along to the abbey

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and start to behave in a similar way there, which was a no-go.

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We're really fortunate in that our Baptists kept

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a minute book that goes from 1655 right up until 1808.

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And what we've had done is had it digitised so people can actually

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understand the mind-set of people from the 17th and 18th century.

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What sort of things are they saying?

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Ooo, they're always throwing people out

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for swearing, fornication, drunkenness.

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Our Baptists, they very much saw themselves

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as a little island of the godly in the sea of the ungodly.

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It was from tiny seeds like this

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that the worldwide Baptist movement was born.

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But what I find so remarkable is how little has changed.

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The same rituals, the same independence of spirit

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and the same love for one another.

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At Holy Cross Abbey, the nuns produce

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a range of food and drink onsite,

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including their own brew of elderflower bubbly.

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Cheers to that!

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But the main production line here is for wafer-thin Communion bread.

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It's a much-needed source of income

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which helps keep the convent in business.

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-Yes!

-Yay! Success!

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After being cut into shape,

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the wafers are sold to over 400 churches around the UK.

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And, in charge of the operation is Sister Jo,

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who's been a nun for 12 years.

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It's a far cry from her old life

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as a senior nurse in accident and emergency.

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It was a great job, it really was.

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I had a good bunch of friends, I had a nice social life.

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So, you know, life was good.

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But just this horrible inside thing of, you know,

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-that there was something missing.

-Mm-hm.

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And I was involved in a trip to France to a monastery

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and for the first time in my life, I heard silence.

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Not as an ear thing or a head thing, but as a heart thing.

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I can only say it was, you know, God's, er...kick up the...

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proverbial to get me moving, basically.

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And I thought, "No, no, no, no, I can't be a nun. No!"

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THEY CHANT

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As you go through the process of formation, it takes six years.

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And at the end of the six years, then you take your solemn vows.

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Jo, in the 12 years that you've been here,

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what are the biggest changes that you've experienced?

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-If can imagine your workmates...

-Mm-hm.

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..and then living with them.

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At 9:30, I'll be back.

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It requires a lot of charity on everybody's part. Ha-ha!

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The prologue continued.

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The things I used to get picked up most on was my mouth.

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-There are words here that normally, I didn't think were that bad.

-Mm-hm.

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But they are swearwords.

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Going to church seven times a day to praise God

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means that when you're just stuck in with your work,

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or the meal just needs another five minutes,

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-but I can't, I've got to go.

-Yeah.

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Then those are the disciplines that you have to say, "No".

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-It drives you bonkers!

-Yes.

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-You know, just two minutes and I could finish this!

-Yep.

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But I'd be late and you don't want to be late.

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Because we pray together.

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And if one person's late, then it upsets the togetherness of it.

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And the fire and the smoke and the sulphur...

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Obviously, you know, there are times when,

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at the end of a day that hasn't gone your way

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and you want to just go off to the pub somewhere

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and have a chat and have a moan.

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And of course, we don't do that.

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Um...and we sit there and we go, "God, what happened?

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"Why did it go so horribly wrong?"

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Um... Or, you know, "Oh, help".

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And you find that help is there?

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-And it is.

-Yeah.

-Yeah. Yeah.

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God wants us to be happy

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-and we should have some joy in how we live, really.

-Mm-hm.

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And are you happier here than you were 12 years ago,

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working in a busy A&E?

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Um...yes. Yes.

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Yeah. Um...I can say that, you know, I wouldn't go back.

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Well, that's it from Holy Cross Abbey.

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It's been fascinating to meet the nuns

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and to have a look behind what are usually closed doors.

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Before our final song,

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we join the sisters ending the day as they always do, in prayer.

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God of mercy and reconciliation,

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mercifully come to our aid.

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That as we receive your message of peace,

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so we may work with you to restore all things in Christ.

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ALL: Amen.

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APPLAUSE

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Josie d'Arby meets nuns behind the scenes at a convent in Pembrokeshire and hears how they dedicate themselves to life in a closed community. Church detective Richard Taylor explores the history of Baptists in the UK.

Music:

King of Glory, King of Peace from St Mary-le-Tower, Ipswich As the Deer Pants from St Aidan's Church, Leeds The Lord's My Shepherd from St Germain's Church, Birmingham O Sanctissima Maria from St Machar's Cathedral, Aberdeen In Christ Alone by Keith and Kristyn Getty Christ Be in My Waking from All Saints' Church, Cheltenham Before the Throne of God Above from City Gates Church, Ilford.


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