SCM Press, 2011
Review commissioned for the Journal of Anglican Studies, forthcoming.
It has been a poignant experience reviewing this book at a time when the Church of England has failed to finish the job, charted here, of recognising men and women as equal by opening the episcopate to them. Trevor Beeson points out, in his conclusion, that ‘it will be necessary for men in positions of leadership to listen carefully, humbly and positively to what their women colleagues may propose’. It seems, however, that members of the Church of England are not yet capable of this, or willing to do it. Beeson’s warning that ‘men will not find it easy to relinquish power’ rings as true today as ever.
Beeson begins this very readable book with a romp through the history of women’s ministry, and the development of theologies which served to exclude and oppress women. This section covers a great deal of ground very quickly, discussing the biblical record, the early church and the medieval church. Much of this will be familiar except to those coming new to this topic, but it is helpful to have it gathered together in so succinct and accessible a form. Beeson then summarises the more recent history of debates surrounding women’s ordination, from the late nineteenth century to the decision of General Synod in 2010 to send legislation to open the episcopate to women to diocesan synods for their approval. The book is well researched, and includes material that was new even to this seasoned campaigner on this issue.
It is salutary to be reminded of the long history of the movement for women’s equal representation in the church. Beeson does not limit his story to specifically ministerial roles for women. Since many were unable to have their gifts used within the Church structures, they instead used their talents and energies in many and varied ways, and it is refreshing to have such variety acknowledged. The central section of the book consists of a series of chapter length biographies of notable women, beginning with a chapter on Florence Nightingale. She of course is rightly famous for her great contribution to raising nursing standards in the Crimean war: but originally wanted to work for the Church. She wrote to Dean Stanley of Westminster Abbey ‘I would have given her [the Church] my head, my hand, my heart. She did not know what to do with them’.
Other chapters tell the stories, for example, of Octavia Hill and Henrietta Barnett, working to improve housing conditions for the urban poor of Victorian England; of Mary Sumner and the founding of the Mothers’ Union; of Cecil Francis Alexander and other hymn-writers; and of Josephine Butler and her campaigns to improve the safety and prospects of women caught in prostitution.
The story of the journey towards women’s ordained ministry begins with the rediscovery of the role of deaconesses in the modern church, first in Germany and then with the appointment of Elizabeth Ferard and Isabella Gilmore as the first deaconesses in the Church of England.
But the clear star of Beeson’s account is Maude Royden. He writes: ‘If a patron saint of women’s ordained ministry in the Church of England is ever required, the choice will have to be Maude Royden. A woman of vision and of remarkable gifts of leadership and communication, she had outstanding courage’. Maude read History in Oxford, but was not allowed to graduate because of her sex. She was closely involved in the campaign for female suffrage, and became pulpit assistant at the City Temple in 1917, her preaching creating a popular and media sensation. Women were not permitted to speak in Church of England churches, pending the results of a committee set up in 1916 to report on the matter, but in September 1918 Royden gave a midweek address at St Botolph’s Bishopsgate, and led the Good Friday three hour service despite the bishop’s protests (which succeeded only in moving the service out of church and into the parish hall). She then, with Percy Dearmer, founded an early form of Fresh Expression, known as ‘The Guildhouse’, which attracted a congregation of hundreds for the next two decades. She was also well known as an itinerant preacher and speaker, notably on the side of the coal miners in the 1926 strike, and campaigned for women’s ordination all her life.
Further chapters recount the continuing struggle for women’s full acceptance within the official structures of the Church. Again, this was much a much wider issue than simply ordination. At the turn of the twentieth century, women were deliberately excluded from the membership of PCCs, and from deanery and diocesan synods. In a debate on whether women could be elected to the newly formed PCCs, in 1898, ‘the Archdeacon of Exeter expressed his belief that women were not made by God to engage in public discussion...another archdeacon was of the opinion that “the most truly feminine women would refuse to seek office”, and that others who were elected would make the councils “weak instruments in public affairs.”’ In 1903 an early forerunner of General Synod was formed, the Church Representative Council, and women were neither permitted to be members nor to vote for the lay delegates. Women’s full participation in the structures of the Church of England has been a very slow and hard won process, resented at every step of the way.
The final chapters give potted biographies of some of the most outstanding women currently serving the Church, and a whistle-stop tour of key trends and voices in modern feminist theology. As with the historical material, this latter is a useful introduction to the subject and a convenient gathering together of material that it is often hard to find in one place.
So this is a useful and very readable book, with some fascinating stories and some enjoyably appalling quotes from the ghosts of misogyny past. Nevertheless, it is a melancholy read. Repeatedly, the biographies of these great women end with them in failing health, mentally and physically exhausted by the combination of their hard work for the people of God, and their constant battles to be allowed to serve, speak or even exist as women in the Church. As the Church of England gathers it energies, wearily, to again tackle the question of allowing women to become bishops, Beeson’s history reminds us of the forebears on whose shoulders we stand, and of the debt we owe them to get this right.