Bishop of St Albans’ new book honours the lives of remarkable Christian women

Brian Guile (Juliana Berners of Sopwell Manor); The Dean; The Bishop of St Albans; Moira Dean (Chris

Brian Guile (Juliana Berners of Sopwell Manor); The Dean; The Bishop of St Albans; Moira Dean (Christina of Markyate); Dr Rowland Mainstone and family member (Lady Anna Constantia Thynne); Liz Coop (Agnes, Prioress of Harrold Priory) - Credit: Archant

Eight extraordinary stories of women’s lives have been included in a new book by the Bishop of St Albans.

The Bishop, the Rt Rev Alan Smith, described the women’s stories – including that of the Prioress of St Mary’s, Sopwell, in St Albans – as “blowing many of our preconceptions out of the water.”

All the Christian women made significant contributions to the life of the church in Herts and Beds over many centuries and have also been commemorated through the creation of eight new canons’ stalls in the Cathedral.

More than 300 people gathered at the cathedral for the blessing of the stalls, including some whose generous benefactions made the new canonries possible.

In his sermon, the Bishop explained the importance of naming eight stalls after the women: “We are becoming increasingly aware that most history has been written by men, about men. We view the past through spectacles fashioned by men, and it is not insignificant that only two of the present canons’ stalls in our Cathedral are named after women.

“Not only is this unfair but it is unrepresentative of the contribution that women have made down the centuries and continue to make to mission and ministry of the church.”

Bishop Alan spoke of the women as real, ordinary people. “These were not stained glass saints, removed from the daily reality of life, but rather women whose lives displayed a mixture of holiness and worldliness. They heard the good news of Jesus Christ and sought to follow him in their generation.”

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The Bishop’s book, Saints and Pilgrims, was published at the same time as the blessing of the stalls. It is the opening shot in a volley of celebrations next year for the 100th anniversary of the Diocese of St Albans in its present form.

It has 366 short chapters about people connected with the church who have made a difference to others through their lives. They include Nicholas Breakspear, the only English-born Pope, Matthew Paris, the medieval chronicler, John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim’s Progress, Robert Runcie, Bishop of St Albans who became Archbishop of Canterbury, and Jennifer Worth, author of Call the Midwife.

Among the lesser-known people included in the book are Juliana Berners, possibly the earliest woman author in the English language, who was Prioress of St Mary at Sopwell, sometime between 1430 and 1480.

Bishop Alan said: “It is probable that she was raised at court and this may account for the fact that she was also a hunting and fishing nun – indeed, she may well be the earliest female author in English as she wrote a book on the hunting and fishing which was printed here in St Albans in 1486.

“She sounds as if she was fun and feisty – a sort of a 15th Century Lindy Runcie.”