Virgins are discovered in Essex

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There are three in Essex - but none in Cardiff. Consecrated virgins are appearing across the country, even in hostile territory. They are Roman Catholic women reviving one of the oldest customs of the Church.

Next year there will be a service of thanksgiving in Plymouth Roman Catholic Cath- edral to mark 25 years since the consecration of Elizabeth Bailey, the first woman to take her vows as a consecrated virgin in this country after the tradition was revived in 1970.

The women can be thought of as "free-range nuns". They take vows at a public ceremony but work afterwards alone and almost anonymously, responsible only to their bishop. "Two or three are almost hermits," Miss Bailey said yesterday.

She herself took her vows when she was 40. Why did she not become a nun instead?

"Give me one good reason why I should," she replied. "Originally, consecrated people were pushed into convents because it wasn't possible for women to live on their own in the world. That's not true any longer."

Consecrated virgins have an ancient history. In the early Church such women were extremely important. The bias against female sexuality made virgins seem to be the holiest of women, as well as the most useful.

As recently as 1954, Pope Pius XII published an encyclical praising virginity, observing that: "As a consequence of the fall of Adam the lower faculties of human nature are no longer obedient to right reason, and may involve man in dishonourable actions."

But the rite fell into disuse until the Second Vatican Council reintroduced it in 1970. Since then the number of women choosing this path has risen to about 100 in England.