Elizabeth Bailey is a consecrated virgin and, like it or not, that is her title. "Do I find the term embarrassing? Well, the way I see it, it is the name for it and therefore you face it," she says. "Why should they change it? It is what it says."At 64, Miss Bailey does not mince her words but then she probably never has. She is a true pioneer - the first virgin to be consecrated in England since the third century - and has the white hair and determined air that befit such a frontier spirit. In our post-Madonna age - where the very word virgin acts as a sort of Pavlovian giggle gas - it cannot be easy to have such a vocation but Miss Bailey wears it very lightly indeed.
"I think it is quite exciting myself. It is a totally different way of life and it's a perfectly reasonable and happy life. Yes, contented." She chooses that word carefully. It sounds as if her life is somehow complete, but she quickly assures that her journey is far from over. "Oh, I haven't reached the deeper level yet. I'm still on the road."
Miss Bailey at first seems ordinary enough. She hails from Essex and her father was in the Foreign Office. She is short with a dimpled smile, easy laugh and soft voice. When we meet she is wearing a plaid skirt and off-white blouse with blue sandals. Her dog Trixie lies under the table in the library at Cathedral House in Plymouth. She has an air of practicality that goes perfectly with the fact she is a nurse-midwife who has delivered thousands of babies. She has five brothers and sisters, and is an aunt many times over.
And yet, stop right there. Though her road may have begun in boring old Essex, it soon veered off to a godforsaken track in Labrador before taking another turn when the Vatican reinstated the consecration of virgins in 1970. Now, in her job as a justice and peace worker for the Plymouth diocese, she travels the twisty lanes of Devon, Cornwall and Dorset.
The unnerving thing for the rest of us about consecrated virginhood is that it is anonymous. There is no uniform, no badge, no honorific. Since Miss Bailey took her vow in 1972 there have been 103 other consecrated virgins in the United Kingdom. They are responsible only to their bishop and though a few are virtual hermits most try to live a Christian existence right in the thick of it all. Your nurse, teacher or social worker could be one. "Oh, you had a consecrated virgin living near you for a long time," exclaims Miss Bailey when I tell her where I live. "She was very musical."
Next year there is to be thanksgiving service at Plymouth Roman Catholic Cathedral to mark the 25th anniversary of the rite in Britain. All the virgins have been invited and, if everyone attends, it will make an extraordinary photo call. It will be hard to match the scene in Rome last year, though, at the global anniversary ceremony. The list of countries with consecrated virgins begins with Argentina and ends with Uruguay and Miss Bailey stops briefly only for Jordan - "That was interesting: they have 16 consecrated virgins and their ages are between 21 and 32!" In all, 26 countries were represented at Rome.
"Oh yes, we had enough for five coach-loads," she says with a smile. "I do not think life is amazing. I've come to expect miracles these days because they happen all the time. Of course what one person takes as a miracle, the other takes for granted. I think it is amazing that here I am, finally, doing a job that I really would hate to leave. After all this time, it's true to say that I've never worked harder, never been paid less and never been more content."
But then again Elizabeth Bailey has not had ordinary jobs. As a newly qualified English midwife in her mid-20s she answered an ad for someone with "pioneer spirit" to work for the Labrador Medical Mission founded by Sir Wilfred Grenfell. This was 1960 and, while the rest of England discovered the Beatles and flower power, she was travelling by dog sled to the sick and needy across Labrador's frozen land.
"I was in charge of a nursing station. There were no doctors. There were about 10 miles of track called a road and no phones. We got there by plane. There were 27 settlements to look after, 4,500 people and two nurses. Challenging? There wasn't time to think about the challenge, it was there. The first week I did a forceps delivery by myself with general anaesthetic of open ether, which I also gave. We did everything. Yes, it was a bit different to Brighton I would say."
Her work in Labrador gave her a lifelong distaste for city life and an appreciation for the unpredictable. "It was more isolated than I expected and from a religious point of view it certainly was a big shock. I had heard that there were 1,000 Catholics there but I hadn't realised that their idea of Catholicism was totally different to mine. There was no church to go to on Sunday and no telephone to call the priest with."
Miss Bailey was brought up a Catholic and from an early age liked the idea of a religious life. "I have always thought that I would be a nun if it wasn't for having to live in a community. I am not a community person like that." But she knew that something was missing. "I wanted to give the rest of my life to make it worth a bit more than a job. Even when I was in Labrador I was thinking: `this is not enough, I need to do a bit more; there is more to life than this'."
Consecrated virgins came about in the third century when young people started to choose chastity as a way of life. "They were not impelled by sexual disgust; they wanted to transcend the apparently endless cycle of birth and death," writes former nun and author Karen Armstrong. These women were seen as symbols of holiness and served as a conduit between the people and the priests. They were replaced by nuns when it was decided such women had to live together. The news of Vatican II came to Miss Bailey in Labrador via her parents who were posted in Nigeria. They had read about the re-introduction of consecrated virgins in a newspaper and sent her the clipping. And so when Elizabeth returned to work as a district nurse in Cornwall and headed off to Brighton to do her health visitor training, she also did something else. She contacted the Vatican. "It just so happened that I knew someone there - I had nursed him in London years before - who sent me a copy of the Latin test of this consecration." She had it translated and knew that this was for her: this was the extra dimension she had wanted.
On Whit Monday in 1972 the Baileys came from far and wide to see history being made. The ceremony includes the vow of chastity but not those of poverty and obedience that nuns take. For Elizabeth, the vow encompassed a way of life that she had already adopted. "I know it was more or less a putting together of what I was already doing. I would be underlining what I was already doing with a deeper motive and commitment."
She prays for about an hour and a half a day and sees all of life as spiritual. She has fallen in love - "Why are you surprised? I am a normal person!" - but always maintained her own personal vow of chastity. While there is a pang or two about not having children, she prefers the option she took. "No, I did not feel I was giving up. I felt I was receiving something. I think virginity is a gift. I don't think it's suffering. It's a way of life in itself. The whole person is involved. There are things that one would find difficult. The life is not easy because it can be quite lonely. But if you want something, you go for it, don't you?"
As a child she saw herself as a missionary and that has not changed. "But I see that most people's lives can be called missionary or being on a pilgrimage or journey. I think that most people who think about what they are doing with their lives are missionaries. For me, I can't separate religion from life because religion is life."
And with that she folds up her notes, calls her dog and escorts me to the door. Britain's first consecrated virgin since the third century has something she needs to do in Cornwall that day and is eager to be off, a perfectly ordinary woman going about her perfectly extraordinary life n
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