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Nuns in different parts of the world

A nun is a member of a religious community of women, typically living under vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in the enclosure of a monastery. [1] Communities of nuns exist in numerous religious traditions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Jainism, and Taoism.

Buddhism World religion, founded by the Buddha

Buddhism is the world's fourth-largest religion with over 520 million followers, or over 7% of the global population, known as Buddhists. Buddhism encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs and spiritual practices largely based on original teachings attributed to the Buddha and resulting interpreted philosophies. Buddhism originated in ancient India as a Sramana tradition sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, spreading through much of Asia. Two major extant branches of Buddhism are generally recognized by scholars: Theravada and Mahayana.

Christianity is an Abrahamic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, as described in the New Testament. Its adherents, known as Christians, believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and savior of all people, whose coming as the Messiah was prophesied in the Old Testament.

Hinduism is an Indian religion and dharma, or way of life, widely practised in the Indian subcontinent and parts of Southeast Asia. Hinduism has been called the oldest religion in the world, and some practitioners and scholars refer to it as Sanātana Dharma, "the eternal tradition", or the "eternal way", beyond human history. Scholars regard Hinduism as a fusion or synthesis of various Indian cultures and traditions, with diverse roots and no founder. This "Hindu synthesis" started to develop between 500 BCE and 300 CE, after the end of the Vedic period, and flourished in the medieval period, with the decline of Buddhism in India.


In the Buddhist tradition, female monastics are known as Bhikkhuni, and take several additional vows compared to male monastics (bhikkhus). Nuns are most common in Mahayana Buddhism, but have more recently become more prevalent in other traditions.

Within Christianity, women religious, known as nuns or religious sisters, are found in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran traditions among others. Though the terms are often used interchangeably, nuns historically take solemn vows and live a life of prayer and contemplation in a monastery or convent, while sisters take simple vows [2] and live an active vocation of prayer and charitable works in areas such as education and healthcare. Examples include the monastic Order of Saint Clare founded in 1212 in the Franciscan tradition, or the Missionaries of Charity founded in 1950 by Mother Teresa to care for people living in grave poverty.

Catholic Church Christian church led by the Bishop of Rome

The Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, is the largest Christian church, with approximately 1.3 billion baptised Catholics worldwide as of 2017. As the world's "oldest continuously functioning international institution", it has played a prominent role in the history and development of Western civilisation. The church is headed by the Bishop of Rome, known as the pope. Its central administration, the Holy See, is in the Vatican City, an enclave within the city of Rome in Italy.

Monastery complex of buildings comprising the domestic quarters and workplace(s) of monks or nuns

A monastery is a building or complex of buildings comprising the domestic quarters and workplaces of monastics, monks or nuns, whether living in communities or alone (hermits). A monastery generally includes a place reserved for prayer which may be a chapel, church, or temple, and may also serve as an oratory.

Convent Religious community

A convent is either a community of priests, religious brothers, religious sisters, monks or nuns; or the building used by the community, particularly in the Catholic Church, Lutheran Churches, and the Anglican Communion.


A Chinese nun ascending steps on Mount Putuo Shan island A Chinese nun climbing ascending steps on Mount Putuo Shan island.JPG
A Chinese nun ascending steps on Mount Putuo Shan island

All Buddhist traditions have nuns, although their status is different among Buddhist countries. The Buddha is reported to have allowed women into the sangha only with great reluctance, predicting that the move would lead to Buddhism's collapse after 500 years, rather than the 1,000 years it would have enjoyed otherwise. (This prophecy occurs only once in the Canon and is the only prophecy involving time in the Canon, leading some to suspect that it is a late addition.) [3] Fully ordained Buddhist nuns ( bhikkhunis ) have more Patimokkha rules than the monks ( bhikkhus ). The important vows are the same, however.

Bhikkhu male Buddhist monk

A bhikkhu is an ordained male monastic ("monk") in Buddhism. Male and female monastics are members of the Buddhist community.

As with monks, there is quite a lot of variation in nuns' dress and social conventions between Buddhist cultures in Asia. Chinese nuns possess the full bhikkuni ordination, Tibetan nuns do not. In Theravada countries it is generally believed that the full ordination lineage of bhikkunis died out, though in many places they wear the "saffron" colored robes, observing only ten precepts like novices.

Theravada Branch of Buddhism

Theravāda is the most ancient branch of extant Buddhism today and the one that preserved their version of the teachings of Gautama Buddha in the Pāli Canon. The Pāli Canon is the only complete Buddhist canon which survives in a classical Indian language, Pāli, which serves as both sacred language and lingua franca of Theravāda Buddhism. For more than a millennium, Theravāda has focused on preserving the dhamma as preserved in its texts and it tends to be very conservative with regard to matters of doctrine and monastic discipline. Since the 19th century, meditation practice has been re-introduced and has become popular with a lay audience, both in traditional Theravada countries and in the west.


In Thailand, a country which never had a tradition of fully ordained nuns (bhikkhuni), there developed a separate order of non-ordained female renunciates called mae ji . However, some of them have played an important role in dhamma-practitioners' community. There are in Thai Forest Tradition foremost nuns such as Mae Ji Kaew Sianglam, the founder of the Nunnery of Baan Huai Saai, who is believed by some to be enlightened [4] as well as Upasika Kee Nanayon. [5] At the beginning of the 21st century, some Buddhist women in Thailand have started to introduce the bhikkhuni sangha in their country as well, even if public acceptance is still lacking. [6] Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, [7] formerly the successful academic scholar Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, established a controversial monastery for the training of Buddhist nuns in Thailand. [8]

Thailand Constitutional monarchy in Southeast Asia

Thailand, officially the Kingdom of Thailand and formerly known as Siam, is a country at the centre of the Southeast Asian Indochinese peninsula composed of 76 provinces. At 513,120 km2 (198,120 sq mi) and over 68 million people, Thailand is the world's 50th largest country by total area and the 21st-most-populous country. The capital and largest city is Bangkok, a special administrative area. Thailand is bordered to the north by Myanmar and Laos, to the east by Laos and Cambodia, to the south by the Gulf of Thailand and Malaysia, and to the west by the Andaman Sea and the southern extremity of Myanmar. Its maritime boundaries include Vietnam in the Gulf of Thailand to the southeast, and Indonesia and India on the Andaman Sea to the southwest. Although nominally a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, the most recent coup in 2014 established a de facto military dictatorship.

Thai Forest Tradition

The Kammaṭṭhāna Forest Tradition of Thailand, commonly known in the West as the Thai Forest Tradition, is a lineage of Theravada Buddhist monasticism.

Enlightenment in Buddhism

The English term enlightenment is the western translation of the abstract noun bodhi,, the knowledge or wisdom, or awakened intellect, of a Buddha. The verbal root budh- means "to awaken," and its literal meaning is closer to "awakening." Although its most common usage is in the context of Buddhism, the term buddhi is also used in other Indian philosophies and traditions. The term "enlightenment" was popularised in the Western world through the 19th century translations of Max Müller. It has the western connotation of a sudden insight into a transcendental truth or reality.


The relatively active roles of Taiwanese nuns were noted by some studies. Researcher Charles Brewer Jones estimates that from 1952 to 1999, when the Buddhist Association of the ROC organized public ordination, female applicants outnumbered males by about three to one. He adds:

"All my informants in the areas of Taipei and Sanhsia considered nuns at least as respectable as monks, or even more so. [...] In contrast, however, Shiu-kuen Tsung found in Taipei county that female clergy were viewed with some suspicion by society. She reports that while outsiders did not necessarily regard their vocation as unworthy of respect, they still tended to view the nuns as social misfits." [9]

Wei-yi Cheng studied the Luminary (Hsiang Kuang 香光) order in southern Taiwan. Cheng reviewed earlier studies which suggest that Taiwan's Zhaijiao tradition has a history of more female participation, and that the economic growth and loosening of family restriction have allowed more women to become nuns. Based on studies of the Luminary order, Cheng concluded that the monastic order in Taiwan was still young and gave nuns more room for development, and more mobile believers helped the order. [10]


The August 2007 International Congress on Buddhist Women's Role in the Sangha, with the support of H. H. XIVth Dalai Lama, reinstated the Gelongma (Dharmaguptaka vinaya bhikkhuni) lineage, having been lost, in India and Tibet, for centuries. Gelongma ordination requires the presence of ten fully ordained people keeping exactly the same vows. Because ten nuns are required to ordain a new one, the effort to establish the Dharmaguptaka bhikkhu tradition has taken a long time.

It is permissible for a Tibetan nun to receive bhikkhuni ordination from another living tradition, e.g., in Vietnam. Based on this, Western nuns ordained in Tibetan tradition, like Thubten Chodron, took full ordination in another tradition.

The ordination of monks and nuns in Tibetan Buddhism distinguishes three stages: rabjung-ma, getshül-ma and gelong-ma. The clothes of the nuns in Tibet are basically the same as those of monks, but there are differences between novice and gelong robes.


Hokke-ji in 747 was established by the consort of the Emperor. It took charge of provincial convents, performed ceremonies for the protection of the state, and became the site of pilgrimages. Aristocratic Japanese women often became Buddhist nuns in the premodern period. Originally it was thought they could not gain salvation because of the Five Hindrances, which said women could not attain Buddhahood until they changed into men. However, in 1249, 12 women received full ordination as priests. [11]


Roman Catholic

St. Scholastica, sister of St. Benedict and foundress of the Benedictine nuns Andrea Mantegna 019.jpg
St. Scholastica, sister of St. Benedict and foundress of the Benedictine nuns
Hildegard of Bingen and her nuns Hildegard of bingen and nuns.jpg
Hildegard of Bingen and her nuns
Maria Johanna Baptista von Zweyer, Abbess of the Cistercian abbey of Wald Maria Johanna von Zweyer c1800.jpg
Maria Johanna Baptista von Zweyer, Abbess of the Cistercian abbey of Wald
Three Sisters of Mercy in the Portal of a Church, by Armand Gautier Armand Gautier - Three Nuns in the Portal of a Church - Walters 371383.jpg
Three Sisters of Mercy in the Portal of a Church, by Armand Gautier

In the Roman Catholic tradition, there are a large number of religious institutes of nuns and sisters (the female equivalent of male monks or friars), each with its own charism or special character. Traditionally, nuns are members of enclosed religious orders and take solemn religious vows, while sisters do not live in the papal enclosure and formerly took vows called "simple vows". [12]

As monastics, nuns living within an enclosure historically commit to recitation of the full Liturgy of the Hours throughout the day in church, usually in a solemn manner. They were formerly distinguished within the monastic community as "choir nuns", as opposed to lay sisters who performed upkeep of the monastery or errands outside the cloister. This last task is still often entrusted to women, called "externs", who live in the monastery, but outside the enclosure. They were usually either oblates or members of the associated Third Order, often wearing a different habit or the standard woman's attire of the period.

Membership and vows

In general, when a woman enters a religious order or monastery, she first undergoes a period of testing the life for six months to two years called a postulancy. If she, and the order, determine that she may have a vocation to the life, she receives the habit of the order (usually with some modification, normally a white veil instead of black, to distinguish her from professed members) and undertakes the novitiate, a period (that lasts one to two years) of living the life of the religious institute without yet taking vows. [13] Upon completion of this period she may take her initial, temporary vows. [14] Temporary vows last one to three years, typically, and will be professed for not less than three years and not more than six. [15] Finally, she will petition to make her "perpetual profession", taking permanent, solemn vows. [16]

In the branches of the Benedictine tradition, (Benedictines, Cistercians, Camaldolese, and Trappists, among others) nuns take vows of stability (that is, to remain a member of a single monastic community), obedience (to an abbess or prioress), and conversion of life (which includes poverty and celibacy). In other traditions, such as the Poor Clares (the Franciscan Order) and the Dominican nuns, they take the threefold vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. These are known as the ‘evangelical counsels’ as opposed to ‘monastic vows’ proper. Most orders of nuns not listed here follow one of these two patterns, with some Orders taking an additional vow related to the specific work or character of their Order (for example, to undertake a certain style of devotion, praying for a specific intention or purpose). [17] [18]

Bridgettine Sisters at the March For Life in Washington, D.C., January 2009 Bridgettine-nuns.jpg
Bridgettine Sisters at the March For Life in Washington, D.C., January 2009
Mother Teresa, founder of the Missionaries of Charity MotherTeresa 094.jpg
Mother Teresa, founder of the Missionaries of Charity

Cloistered nuns (Carmelites, for example) observe "papal enclosure" [19] rules, and their nunneries typically have walls separating the nuns from the outside world. The nuns rarely leave (except for medical necessity or occasionally for purposes related to their contemplative life) though they may receive visitors in specially built parlors, often with either a grille or half-wall separating the nuns from visitors. They are usually self-sufficient, earning money by selling jams, candies or baked goods by mail order, or by making liturgical items (such as vestments, candles, or hosts to be consecrated at Mass for Holy Communion).

They often undertake contemplative ministries that is, a community of nuns is often associated with prayer for some particular good or supporting the missions of another order by prayer (for instance, the Dominican nuns of Corpus Christi Monastery in the Bronx, New York, pray in support of the priests of the Archdiocese of New York). Yet religious sisters can also perform this form of ministry, e.g., the Maryknoll Missionary Sisters have small houses of contemplative sisters, some in mission locations, who pray for the work of the priests, brothers and other sisters of their congregation, and since Vatican II have added retreat work and spiritual guidance to their apostoloate; [20] the Sister Disciples of the Divine Master are also cloistered sisters who receive visitors and pray in support of their sister congregation, [21] the Daughters of St. Paul in their media ministry.


A canoness is a nun who corresponds to the male equivalent of canon, usually following the Rule of S. Augustine. The origin and rules of monastic life are common to both. As with the canons, differences in the observance of rule gave rise to two types: the canoness regular, taking the traditional religious vows, and the secular canoness, who did not take vows and thus remained free to own property and leave to marry, should they choose. This was primarily a way of leading a pious life for the women of aristocratic families and generally disappeared in the modern age, except for the modern Lutheran convents of Germany.

A nun who is elected to head her religious house is termed an abbess if the house is an abbey, a prioress if it is a monastery, or more generically may be referred to as "Mother Superior" and styled "Reverend Mother". The distinction between abbey and monastery has to do with the terms used by a particular order or by the level of independence of the religious house. Technically, a convent is any home of a community of sisters or, indeed, of priests and brothers, though this term is rarely used in the United States. The term "monastery" is often used by The Benedictine family to speak of the buildings and "convent" when referring to the community. Neither is gender specific. ‘Convent’ is often used of the houses of certain other institutes.

The traditional dress for women in religious communities consists of a tunic, which is tied around the waist with a cloth or leather belt. Over the tunic some nuns wear a scapular which is a garment of long wide piece of woolen cloth worn over the shoulders with an opening for the head. Some wear a white wimple and a veil, the most significant and ancient aspect of the habit. Some Orders – such as the Dominicans – wear a large rosary on their belt. Benedictine abbesses wear a cross or crucifix on a chain around their neck.

After the Second Vatican Council, many religious institutes chose in their own regulations to no longer wear the traditional habit and did away with choosing a religious name. Catholic Church canon law states: "Religious are to wear the habit of the institute, made according to the norm of proper law, as a sign of their consecration and as a witness of poverty." [22]

In February 2019, clerical abuse of nuns, including sexual slavery, by Catholic priests has been acknowledged by the Pope. [23] [24]

Distinction between a nun and a religious sister

Sister Rosalia Sehnem of the Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity Irma Rosalia Sehnem IFPCC7.JPG
Sister Rosália Sehnem of the Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity

Although usage has varied throughout church history, typically "nun" (Latin: monialis) is used for women who have taken solemn vows, and "sister" (Latin: soror) is used for women who have taken simple vows.

During the first millennium, nearly all religious communities of men and women were dedicated to prayer and contemplation. These monasteries were built in remote locations or were separated from the world by means of a precinct wall. The mendicant orders, founded in the 13th century, combined a life of prayer and dedication to God with active works of preaching, hearing confessions, and service to the poor, and members of these orders are known as friars rather than monks. At that time, and into the 17th century, Church custom did not allow women to leave the cloister if they had taken religious vows. Female members of the mendicant orders (Dominican, Augustinian and Carmelite nuns and Poor Clares) continued to observe the same enclosed life as members of the monastic orders. [25]

A sister of the Theresienne Sisters of Basankusu wearing a brightly coloured habit, riding a motor-bike, Democratic Republic of Congo, 2013 Nun on a motor-bike 2 - by Francis Hannaway.jpg
A sister of the Theresienne Sisters of Basankusu wearing a brightly coloured habit, riding a motor-bike, Democratic Republic of Congo, 2013

Originally, the vows taken by profession in any religious institute approved by the Holy See were classified as solemn. [27] This was declared by Pope Boniface VIII (1235–1303). [28] The situation changed in the 16th century. In 1521, two years after the Fourth Lateran Council had forbidden the establishment of new religious institutes, Pope Leo X established a religious Rule with simple vows for those tertiaries attached to existing communities who undertook to live a formal religious life. In 1566 and 1568, Pope Pius V rejected this class of congregation, but they continued to exist and even increased in number. After at first being merely tolerated, they afterwards obtained approval. [27] Finally in the 20th century, Pope Leo XIII recognized as religious all men and women who took simple vows. [29] Their lives were oriented not to the ancient monastic way of life, but more to social service and to evangelization, both in Europe and in mission areas. Their number had increased dramatically in the upheavals brought by the French Revolution and subsequent Napoleonic invasions of other Catholic countries, depriving thousands of religious of the income that their communities held because of inheritances and forcing them to find a new way of living the religious life. But members of these new associations were not recognized as "religious" until Pope Leo XIII's Constitution "Conditae a Christo" of 8 December 1900. [30]

The 1917 Code of Canon Law reserved the term "nun" (Latin: monialis) for religious women who took solemn vows or who, while being allowed in some places to take simple vows, belonged to institutes whose vows were normally solemn. [31] It used the word "sister" (Latin: soror) exclusively for members of institutes for women that it classified as "congregations"; and for "nuns" and "sisters" jointly it used the Latin word religiosae (women religious). The same religious order could include both "nuns" and "sisters", if some members took solemn vows and others simple vows.

The new legal code of the Catholic Church which was adopted in 1983, however, remained silent on this matter. Whereas previously the code distinguished between orders and congregations, the code now refers simply to religious institutes.

Since the code of 1983, the Vatican has addressed the renewal of the contemplative life of nuns. It produced the letter Verbi Sponsa in 1999, [32] the apostolic constitution Vultum Dei quaerere in 2016, and the instruction Cor Orans in 2018 [33] "which replaced the 1999 document Verbi Sponsa and attempted to bring forward the ideas regarding contemplative life born during the Second Vatican Council". [34]

United States

Nuns and sisters played a major role in American religion, education, nursing and social work since the early 19th century. [35] In Catholic Europe, convents were heavily endowed over the centuries, and were sponsored by the aristocracy. There were very few rich American Catholics, and no aristocrats. Religious orders were founded by entrepreneurial women who saw a need and an opportunity, and were staffed by devout women from poor families. The numbers grew rapidly, from 900 sisters in 15 communities in 1840, 50,000 in 170 orders in 1900, and 135,000 in 300 different orders by 1930. Starting in 1820, the sisters always outnumbered the priests and brothers. [36] Their numbers peaked in 1965 at 180,000 then plunged to 56,000 in 2010. Many women left their orders, and few new members were added. [37] Since the Second Vatican Council the sisters have directed their ministries more to the poor, working more directly among them and with them. [38]


Nuns have played an important role in Canada, especially in heavily Catholic Quebec. Outside the home, Canadian women had few domains which they controlled. An important exception came with Roman Catholic nuns, especially in Québec. Stimulated by the influence in France, the popular religiosity of the Counter Reformation, new orders for women began appearing in the seventeenth century. In the next three centuries women opened dozens of independent religious orders, funded in part by dowries provided by the parents of young nuns. The orders specialized in charitable works, including hospitals, orphanages, homes for unwed mothers, and schools. [39]

Early Modern Spain

Prior to women becoming nuns during early modern Spain, aspired nuns underwent a process. The process was ensured by the Council of Trent, which King Philip II (1556-1598) adopted within Spain. [40] King Phillip II acquired the aid of the Hieronymite order to ensure that monasteries abided by the decrees of the Council of Trent. [40] This changed the way in which nuns would live. [41] One edict of the Council of Trent was that female monasteries be enclosed in order to limit nuns' relationship with the secular world. [41] Enclosure of monasteries during this time was associated with chastity. [41] Another decree issued by the Council of Trent was that religious devotion be "true and voluntary". [41] A male clergy member would ask the aspiring nuns if whether or not their vocation was "true and voluntary" in order to ensure no enforced conversion. [41]

To be considered as a nun, one must have the economic means to afford the convent dowry. [42] During this time convent dowries were affordable, compared to secular marriages between a man and a woman. [43] Typically during early modern Spain a large number of nuns were from elite families who had the means to afford the convent dowry and "maintenance allowances", which were annual fees. [42] Monasteries were economically supported through convent dowries. [42] Convent dowries could be waived if the aspiring nun had an artistic ability benefiting the monastery. [44]

Once an aspiring nun has entered the convent and has the economic means to afford the dowry, she undergoes the process of apprenticeship known as the novitiate period. [45] The novitiate period typically lasts 1–2 years, and during this time the aspiring nun lives the life of a nun without taking the official vows. [46] As she lives in the convent she is closely monitored by the other women in the community to determine if her vocation is genuine. This would be officially determined by a vote from the choir nuns. [42] If the aspiring nun passes the scrutiny of the women of the religious community, she then can make her solemn vows. [42] Prior to making the vows, the family of the nun is expected to pay the convent dowry. [42] Nuns were also expected to denounce their inheritance and property rights. [42]

Religious class distinctions:

  • Choir nuns: Usually from elite families, they held office, could vote within the convent, and were given the opportunity to read and write. [47]
  • Lay-sisters: Lower class women, assigned tasks related to the labour of the convent, generally were not given the opportunities to read and write, and paid a lower dowry. [47]

Eastern Orthodox

Saint Sophia of Suzdal, wearing the full monastic habit of a Schemanun Saint Sofia of Suzdal crop.jpg
Saint Sophia of Suzdal, wearing the full monastic habit of a Schemanun

In the Eastern Orthodox Church there is no distinction between a monastery for women and one for men. In Greek, Russian, and other Eastern European languages, both domiciles are called "monasteries" and the ascetics who live therein are "monastics". In English, however, it is acceptable to use the terms "nun" and "convent" for clarity and convenience. The term for an abbess is the feminine form of abbot ( hegumen ) – Greek: hegumeni; Serbian : Игуманија(Igumanija); Russian: игумения, ( igumenia ). Orthodox monastics do not have distinct "orders" as in Western Christianity. Orthodox monks and nuns lead identical spiritual lives. [48] There may be slight differences in the way a monastery functions internally but these are simply differences in style (Gr. typica ) dependent on the abbess or abbot. The abbess is the spiritual leader of the convent and her authority is absolute (no priest, bishop, or even patriarch can override an abbess within the walls of her monastery.) There has always been spiritual equality between men and women in the Orthodox Church (Galatians 3:28). Abbots and Abbesses rank in authority equal to bishops in many ways and were included in ecumenical councils. Orthodox monasteries are usually associated with a local synod of bishops by jurisdiction, but are otherwise self-governing. Abbesses hear confessions (but do not absolve) and dispense blessings on their charges, though they still require the services of a presbyter (i.e., a priest) to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and perform other priestly functions, such as the absolution of a penitent.

Orthodox monastics, in general have little or no contact with the outside world, especially family. The pious family whose child decides to enter the monastic profession understands that their child will become "dead to the world" and therefore be unavailable for social visits.

There are a number of different levels that the nun passes through in her profession:

Princess Praskovya Yusupova before becoming a nun Nikolai Nevrev, 1886 Nevrev-Princess.jpg
Princess Praskovya Yusupova before becoming a nun Nikolai Nevrev, 1886
The Way of Humility: Russian Orthodox nun working at Ein Karem, Jerusalem Nun flowers black white.JPG
The Way of Humility: Russian Orthodox nun working at Ein Karem, Jerusalem


Ebstorf Abbey continued as a Lutheran convent in the Benedictine tradition since 1529. Monastery Ebstorf.jpg
Ebstorf Abbey continued as a Lutheran convent in the Benedictine tradition since 1529.

After the Protestant Reformation, some monasteries in Lutheran lands (such as Amelungsborn Abbey near Negenborn and Loccum Abbey in Rehburg-Loccum) and convents (such as Ebstorf Abbey near the town of Uelzen and Bursfelde Abbey in Bursfelde) adopted the Lutheran Christian faith. [49] Other convents, especially those in Reformed areas, closed after the Reformation, with some sisters deciding to marry.

A modern resurgence of the early Christian Deaconess office for women began in Germany in the 1840s and spread through Scandinavia, Britain and the United States, with some elements of the religious life, such as simple vows, and a daily obligation of prayer. Lutherans were especially active, and within both Lutheranism and Anglicanism some Deaconesses formed religious communities, with community living, and the option of life vows in religion. [50] The modern movement reached a zenith about 1910, then slowly declined as secularization undercut religiosity in Europe, and the professionalization of nursing and social work offered better career opportunities for young women. A small movement still exists, and its legacy is seen in the names of numerous hospitals. [51]

The example of the Deaconess communities eventually led to the establishment of religious communities of monks and nuns within some Protestant traditions, [52] particularly those influenced by the more liturgical Protestant reformers (such as Martin Luther) rather than the more extreme reformers (such as John Calvin). This has allowed for communities of nuns (or, in some cases, mixed communities of nuns and monks) to be re-established in some Protestant traditions. Many of these are within the episcopal Lutheran tradition and the closeness of Lutheranism with Anglicanism its belief and practice has led to local arrangements of inter-Communion between the two traditions, such as the Porvoo Communion. [53]


Religious communities throughout England were destroyed by King Henry VIII when he separated the Church of England from papal authority during the English Reformation (see Dissolution of the Monasteries). Monasteries and convents were deprived of their lands and possessions, and monastics were forced to either live a secular life on a pension or flee the country. Many Roman Catholic nuns went to France.

Two Anglican nuns Julianofnorwich.jpg
Two Anglican nuns

Anglican religious orders are organizations of laity or clergy in the Anglican Communion who live under a common rule. The term "religious orders" is distinguished from Holy Orders (the sacrament of ordination which bishops, priests, and deacons receive), though many communities do have ordained members.

The structure and function of religious orders in Anglicanism roughly parallels that which exists in Roman Catholicism. Religious communities are divided into orders proper, in which members take solemn vows and congregations, whose members take simple vows.

With the rise of the Oxford Movement in Anglicanism in the early 19th century came interest in the revival of "religious life" in England. Between 1841 and 1855, several religious orders for nuns were founded, among them the Community of St. Mary at Wantage and the Community of St. Margaret at East Grinstead.

In the United States and Canada, the founding of Anglican religious orders of nuns began in 1845 with the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion (now defunct) in New York.

Whilst there is no single central authority for all religious orders, and many member churches of the Anglican Communion have their own internal structures for recognising and regulating religious orders, some central functions are performed by the Anglican Religious Communities Department at Church House, Westminster, the headquarters of the Church of England's Church Commissioners, General Synod, Archbishops' Council, and National Society. This department publishes the bi-annual Anglican Religious Life, a world directory of religious orders, and also maintains an official Anglican Communion website for religious orders. Anglican Religious Life defines four categories of community. [54]

  • "Traditional celibate religious orders and communities": Members take a vow of celibacy (amongst other vows) and follow a common Rule of life. They may be enclosed and contemplative or open and engaged in apostolic works.
  • "Dispersed communities": These are orders or communities whose members, whilst taking vows (including celibacy), do not live together in community. In most cases the members are self-supporting and live alone, but follow the same Rule of life, and meet together frequently in assemblies often known as 'Chapter meetings'. In some cases some members may share a common life in very small groups of two or three.
  • "Acknowledged communities": These communities live a traditional Christian life, including the taking of vows, but the traditional vows are adapted or changed. In many cases these communities admit both single and married persons as members, requiring celibacy on the part of those who are single, and unfailing commitment to their spouse on the part of married members. They also amend the vow of poverty, allowing personal possessions, but requiring high standards of tithing to the community and the wider church. These communities often have residential elements, but not full residential community life, as this would be incompatible with some elements of married family life.
  • "Other communities": This group contains communities that are ecumenical (including Anglicans) or that belong to non-Anglican churches that have entered into relationships of full communion with the Anglican Church (particularly, but not only, certain Lutheran churches).

In the United States (only), there is a clear distinction between "orders" and "communities", as the Episcopal Church has its own two-fold definition of "religious orders" (equivalent to the first two groups above) and "Christian communities" (equivalent to the third group above). [55] The Anglican Religious Life directory affirms this, stating "This distinction in not used in other parts of the Anglican Communion where 'communities' is also used for those who take traditional vows." [56]

Bursfelde Abbey has continued as a Lutheran convent since A.D. 1579 Kloster Bursfelde von NO.jpg
Bursfelde Abbey has continued as a Lutheran convent since A.D. 1579

In some Anglican orders, there are sisters who have been ordained and can celebrate the Eucharist. [57]


There are a plethora of religious orders within the Lutheran Churches, such as the Order of Lutheran Franciscans and Daughters of Mary. Nearly all active Lutheran orders are located in Europe.

The Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary, an order of Lutheran nuns, operates a guesthouse for Holocaust survivors in Jerusalem. [53]


The Saint Brigid of Kildare Benedictine Monastery is a United Methodist double monastery with both monks and nuns. [58]

Nuns play an important role in the public's image of religious symbolism. A list of notable works in which nuns play a major part ranges from A Time for Miracles , which is hagiography, to realistic accounts by Kathryn Hulme and Monica Baldwin, to the blatant nunsploitation of Sacred Flesh . Works can include those which portray Catholic nuns or non-Catholic such as Black Narcissus (Anglican), and Minsara Kanavu (church of south India).

Many stories that have depicted nuns have gone on to critical and audience acclaim such as Sister Act , Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit , and The Sound of Music . These stories have been reproduced in both stage and film. Other examples of nuns in television and film include Sally Field in The Flying Nun , Stephanie Beacham in Sister Kate and Meryl Streep in Doubt . Miss Clavel in the Madeline books and TV series is the nun of a French catholic boarding school.

Nuns have been used as antagonists in stories including Jessica Lange as Sister Jude in American Horror Story or Vanessa Redgrave in The Devils .

See also

Related Research Articles

Abbess female superior of a community of nuns, often an abbey

In Christianity, an abbess is the female superior of a community of nuns, which is often an abbey.

A religious order is a lineage of communities and organizations of people who live in some way set apart from society in accordance with their specific religious devotion, usually characterized by the principles of its founder's religious practice. The order is composed of laypeople and, in some orders, clergy. Religious orders exist in many of the world's religions.

Ordination is the process by which individuals are consecrated, that is, set apart as clergy to perform various religious rites and ceremonies. The process and ceremonies of ordination vary by religion and denomination. One who is in preparation for, or who is undergoing the process of ordination is sometimes called an ordinand. The liturgy used at an ordination is sometimes referred to as an ordination.

Monk religious occupation

A monk is a person who practices religious asceticism by monastic living, either alone or with any number of other monks. A monk may be a person who decides to dedicate his life to serving all other living beings, or to be an ascetic who voluntarily chooses to leave mainstream society and live his or her life in prayer and contemplation. The concept is ancient and can be seen in many religions and in philosophy.

Christian monasticism

Christian monasticism is the devotional practice of individuals who live ascetic and typically cloistered lives that are dedicated to Christian worship. It began to develop early in the history of the Christian Church, modeled upon scriptural examples and ideals, including those in the Old Testament, but not mandated as an institution in the scriptures. It has come to be regulated by religious rules and, in modern times, the Canon law of the respective Christian denominations that have forms of monastic living. Those living the monastic life are known by the generic terms monks (men) and nuns (women). The word monk originated from the Greek monachos "monk", itself from monos meaning "alone".

Catholic religious order religious institute of the Roman Catholic Church

A Catholic religious order is a religious order of the Catholic Church. According to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, they form part of a category of Catholic religious institutes.

Religious vows promises made by members of religious communities

Religious vows are the public vows made by the members of religious communities pertaining to their conduct, practices, and views.

A canoness is a member of a religious community of women living a simple life. Many communities observe the monastic Rule of St. Augustine. The name corresponds to the male equivalent, a canon. The origin and Rule are common to both. As with the canons, there are two types: canonesses regular, who follow the Augustinian Rule, and secular canonesses, who follow no monastic Rule of Life.

A religious is, in the terminology of many Western Christian denominations, such as the Catholic Church, Lutheran Churches, and Anglican Communion, what in common language one would call a "monk" or "nun", as opposed to an ordained "priest". A religious may also be a priest if he has undergone ordination, but in general he is not.

The Vow of Obedience in Catholicism concerns one of the three counsels of perfection. It forms part of the vows that Christian monks and nuns must make to enter the consecrated life, whether as a member of a religious institute living in community or as consecrated hermit.

Buddhist monasticism

Buddhist monasticism is one of the earliest surviving forms of organized monasticism in the history of religion. It is also one of the most fundamental institutions of Buddhism. Monks and nuns are considered to be responsible for the preservation and dissemination of the Buddha's teaching and the guidance of Buddhist lay people.

Consecrated life, in the canon law of the Catholic Church, is a stable form of Christian living by those faithful who are called to follow Jesus Christ in a more exacting way recognized by the Church. It "is characterized by the public profession of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience, in a stable state of life recognized by the Church". The Code of Canon Law defines it as "a stable form of living by which the faithful, following Christ more closely under the action of the Holy Spirit, are totally dedicated to God who is loved most of all, so that, having been dedicated by a new and special title to his honour, to the building up of the Church, and to the salvation of the world, they strive for the perfection of charity in the service of the kingdom of God and, having been made an outstanding sign in the Church, foretell the heavenly glory."

Religious habit distinctive set of garments worn by members of a religious order

A religious habit is a distinctive set of religious clothing worn by members of a religious order. Traditionally some plain garb recognisable as a religious habit has also been worn by those leading the religious eremitic and anchoritic life, although in their case without conformity to a particular uniform style.

Anglican religious order

Anglican religious orders are communities of men or women in the Anglican Communion who live under a common rule of life. The members of religious orders take vows which often include the traditional monastic vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, or the ancient vow of stability, or sometimes a modern interpretation of some or all of these vows. Members may be laity or clergy, but most commonly include a mixture of both. They lead a common life of work and prayer, sometimes on a single site, sometimes spread over multiple locations.

Enclosed religious orders Christian religious orders separated from the external world

Enclosed religious orders of the Christian churches have solemn vows with a strict separation from the affairs of the external world. The term cloistered is synonymous with enclosed. In the Catholic Church enclosure is regulated by the code of canon law, either the Latin code or the Oriental code, and also by subsidiary legislation. It is practised with a variety of customs according to the nature and charism of the community in question.

A religious institute is a type of institute of consecrated life in the Catholic Church where its members take religious vows and lead a life in community with fellow members. Religious institutes are one of the two types of institutes of consecrated life; the other is that of the secular institute, where its members are "living in the world".

A bhikkhunī (Pali) or bhikṣuṇī (Sanskrit) is a fully ordained female monastic in Buddhism. Male monastics are called bhikkhus. Both bhikkhunis and bhikkhus live by the Vinaya, a set of rules. Until recently, the lineages of female monastics only remained in Mahayana Buddhism and thus are prevalent in countries such as China, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam but a few women have taken the full monastic vows in the Theravada and Vajrayana schools over the last decade. From conservative perspectives, none of the contemporary bhikkuni ordinations are valid.

Religious sister (Catholic)

A religious sister in the Catholic Church is a woman who has taken public vows in a religious institute dedicated to apostolic works, as distinguished from a nun who lives a cloistered monastic life dedicated to prayer. Both nuns and sisters use the term "sister" as a form of address.


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  29. Constitution "Conditae a Christo" of 8 December 1900, cited in Mary Nona McGreal, Dominicans at Home in a New Nation, chapter 11 Archived 2011-09-27 at the Wayback Machine
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  50. See CSA history here.
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  53. 1 2 Israeli press report concerning one German Lutheran order of nuns.
  54. Anglican Religious Life 2012-13, published Canterbury Press, Norwich, 2011, ISBN   978-1-84825-089-5, pp. iii, iv, 19, 147, 151, 171.
  55. See Title III, Canon 24, sections 1 and 2 of the Canons of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, also quoted at Anglican Communion Religious Communities.
  56. Anglican Religious Life 2012-13, Canterbury Press, Norwich, 2011, ISBN   978-1-84825-089-5, p. 151.
  57. What We Do Archived 2010-06-16 at the Wayback Machine sisters of St. Margaret, (Episcopal religious community of women)
  58. Patricia Lefevere. Methodist woman founds monastery. National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved 1 October 2011. St. Brigid’s oblate group has grown to 16 members since the dedication of the monastery on St. Brigid’s feast in 2000. Besides Stamps, it counts another 13 United Methodists, one Catholic and one Disciples of Christ member. The ages of group members range from 23 to 82. One-third of them are men; half are ordained. The community continues to grow.

Further reading