November 22nd, 2006

In October 1913 a Church Times correspondent described her as speaking “with the voice of one who has a message to deliver”. Her message was that women should be ordained into the Anglican church, her name was Maude Royden and this year marks the 50th anniversary of her death.

Maude, born in November 1876 near Liverpool, was the youngest of the eight children of Sir Thomas Bland Royden, a shipowner and MP, and his wife Alice. A devout Anglican all her life, her personal faith in God and adherence to the teachings of Christianity affected all that she said and did. Following her education at Cheltenham Ladies’ College and at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, Maude worked initially among the female poor of Liverpool. Here, based at the Victoria settlement, her empathy caused tension with those in charge and, much disappointed and very exhausted by all that her work entailed, she withdrew after 18 months. Writing to a friend in 1900, she says I believe [the women] drink like fiends...I should drink if I lived in Lancaster Street. With the support of the Revd Hudson Shaw her lifelong friend and eventual husband she was appointed to teach Oxford University extension classes. It was in this capacity that she first began to address large audiences and to develop her interest in the women’s movement.

Attempting to remedy inequality within and beyond the Church

Maude’s campaign for the right to vote was but one consequence of her understanding of the Christian message and the equality it proclaimed. For her the women’s movement was the most profoundly moral movement since the foundation of the Christian Church. Yet few Anglican clergy supported female enfranchisement – many arguing indeed that woman had been created “after man, out of man, for man”. But, partly through Maude’s own efforts, the Church League for Women’s Suffrage (CLWS) was established in 1909 and Maude was its first Chair. Hudson Shaw was a member and in a sermon of 1913 entitled Christianity and Womanhood concluded that controversies over the inferiority of one sex to the other ‘should be relegated to Bedlam’. Maude was determined to use the CLWS to remedy the inequalities within the Church as well as beyond it. The women’s movement drew most support among Anglican clergy from Anglo-Catholic Christian Socialists. The League’s methods were prayer and education. It objected to interrupting services by means of extempore prayers for suffragists/suffragettes in prison or the boycott of clergy who opposed giving women the vote.

In March 1915 the League began to campaign against the Anglican Church’s refusal to consider women’s participation in the Councils of the Church above parish level. A petition to the Representative Church Council was drafted arguing that exclusion violated the Christian notion of spiritual equality and in practical terms prevented women from offering their expertise when discussing Church affairs. Maude was the keynote speaker at the meeting which launched the petition. Given their work as missionaries, she argued, women should have an equal voice with men on missionary boards and Church Councils. Indeed, she concluded somewhat provocatively, nothing but equality “not only on governing bodies but in the priesthood” would satisfy women in the long run.

The campaign for women’s admission to Anglican Orders had begun in a sustained if quiet way in 1913. Maude had been alerted to it at that time by Ursula Roberts, the wife of the vicar of St George’s, Bloomsbury, London. Both were CLWS members. Maude, although very interested in the idea, advised going slowly...The vote [compared to female ordination] is nothing to it! There should be a lot of research into the matter (for example the history of the Office of Deaconess) before any society was founded to campaign for female ordination. She declined to give a paper at the proposed founding conference (1914) to campaign for such ordination as she believed her views were too extreme. Maude argued for celibate clergy, women priests, bishops, archbishops and popes. The conference was postponed with the outbreak of war in August 1914.

The Church Times’ response to Maude’s urging at the 1915 CLWS conference that women be ordained was that for any sane person the thing is so absolutely grotesque that he [sic] must refuse to discuss it...the monstrous regiment of priestesses would be a thousandfold worse [than women in politics]. Maude was soon dubbed the ‘High Priestess’ of this new movement. Although the petition achieved little, the wider issues had not gone away as events of the following year (1916) were to show.

Allowing women to speak in public

Since the outbreak of war there had been a significant increase in the number of worshippers and the Anglican Church now established The National Mission of Repentance and Hope. At the suggestion of William Temple (Rector of St James’, Piccadilly, and a future Archbishop of Canterbury), Maude was appointed to the Mission’s Council. The Mission was to re-Christianise the country, in part through Missioners – clergy, laymen and laywomen – who were to speak to groups. This raised issues over the role of (and, literally, the place of) women active in this way. Archbishop Davidson decided that each bishop should determine the conditions allowing women Missioners to speak. Winnington-Ingram for London stated that, mindful of St Paul’s teaching (let your women keep silence in the churches), he would only permit women to speak where there was no other suitable place, only whilst the Mission was taking place, only to women and girls and only from the aisle in front of the chancel steps. They were specifically forbidden to use the lectern or pulpit. But even this was too liberal for the Bishop of Chelmsford who declared he would not sanction any woman telling her sisters of the Saviour’s love in any church in the diocese. The Bishop of London modified his ideas and followed suit.

Responding to such treatment, women in the CLWS ordination group issued a statement in August 1916 acknowledging that it may be many years before the Church...is prepared to ordain them, or their children or their children’s children. But it is their desire to seek..the guidance of the Holy Spirit, both for themselves... and the Church. In the autumn Maude herself wrote a pamphlet entitled Women and the Church of England. In it she explained how the Anglican Church still barred women from most Offices, noting that some clergy even refused to allow women to take the collection, let alone elect one as a churchwarden (such an appointment was seen by one clergyman as a slur on the parish). One cleric had eventually accepted a parishoner’s offer to ring the sanctus-bell because the rope hung down behind a curtain so no one would see her. Such treatment led her to ask whether indeed there were untouchables in the religion of Christ after all. Justifying such discrimination because the church was a consecrated place was an insult perhaps the most comprehensive that could be offered to a human being; similarly, that priests might keep women away from the altar or serve men in the congregation with Communion before women.

Human beings first and women second?

Maude also recalled at this time how she had preached a sermon at the turn of the century in Shaw’s Rutland parish but only when the congregation together with prayer-books, hymnbooks, and umbrellas, had walked across to the schoolroom to listen to her. She wondered what Jesus would have made of the scene and what principle was involved. For her, Christ’s teachings contained no suggestions of any difference in the spiritual ideals, the spheres or the potentialities of men and women. No other great religion, she wrote, has thus ignored the differences between men and women...Who else considered them first as human beings and afterwards as women?

The CLWS lost members, however, because of its involvement in the campaign for women to be ordained but Maude remained committed to that goal and critical of the Church’s failure to embrace the women’s movement as a whole: it is the tragedy of the Church that she is so anxious to see what is safe that she loses her leadership in what is right. [That women wanted to turn the world upside down] should have been a claim on the Church of Christ rather than an accusation against us.

Maude had spoken in various Nonconformist places of worship for some years before, in 1917, she was invited to preach at the City Temple, a major Congregational Church in central London. That same year the Congregational Union appointed Constance Coltman as the first female Congregational minister. Even so this was quite controversial and only after some reflection did Maude accept the invitation. She saw it as a way of advancing the women’s cause and (her phrase) “reunion”. Here again, as with women’s ordination, so with ecumenism, Maude was ahead of her time. To many, any Anglican who worshipped in a Nonconformist church was stepping outside that Catholic tradition to which the Anglican Church belonged. Even those who favoured advancing the position of women in the Church of England feared it would be seen by opponents as evidence that the women’s movement in the Church was schismatic, essentially destructive – a form of ecclesiatical militancy.

Maude preaching

A popular preacher, Maude returned several times and in the summer the City Temple invited her to become “pulpit assistant”, a post specially created for her. She accepted and remained there for three years. In 1918 Shaw, now vicar of a City Church, invited her to speak in church on the League of Nations and Christianity. The Bishop rebuked him for this. Undaunted, Shaw invited Maude to preach during the Three Hours Service, Good Friday 1919. The Bishop forbade him from allowing Maude to take the service in church. Shaw obeyed – by closing the church, displaying the prohibition notice and adjourning the service to the Parish Room. This was far too small for the congregation so many stood outside, near the open windows, even hanging onto the windowsills. She was invited for the same service in 1921 and, despite the ban, preached in church.

Maude baptizing

Early on in her time at the City Temple, Maude had baptised three children. Around the same time she was also appointed a council member of the Life and Liberty movement. Founded in early 1917, its key figures were Dick Sheppard (of St Martin-inthe Fields) and William Temple; its aims were to secure self government for the Anglican church. In October the Council went into Retreat and Conference at Cuddesdon Theological College. At first the Principal refused to admit Maude to the college because of the baptisms; he compromised by insisting that she sleep in nearby Oxford. She resigned from the Council.

Lobbying the Lambeth Conference in 1930

With the enfranchisement of women in 1918, Maude celebrated at the City Temple by adapting the words of Ecclesiastes to pay tribute to the pioneers in this struggle for equality: Let us now praise famous women and the mothers who begat us. The Church League for Women’s Suffrage renamed itself and focused on campaigning for the ordination of women, hoping to persuade the forthcoming Lambeth Conference to agree to this. Instead, it decided that at most, women would only be allowed to speak in church and then under certain conditions. But Maude remained determined to secure women’s ordination and in 1929 became the first president of the newly established interdenominational Society for the Ministry of Women. It was to lobby for this at the next (1930) Lambeth Conference. Maude also contributed to Frustrated Vocation. Prepared by the Anglican Group, it comprised letters by women who had felt called to the priesthood. She revealed here how, under present circumstances, denying a woman taking any part at all in the ministry of the Church made it really impossible for...a sense of vocation to arise.

The ordination of Li Tim Oi

By then Maude had also founded the interdenominational Fellowship Services which met in London. Preaching there regularly she gradually built up a world-wide reputation as a speaker and travelled extensively in the inter-war years preaching and promoting peace. She maintained that there was but a small gap between the Office of priest and that of preacher. In 1930 she was made a Companion of Honour and the following year became the first woman to receive an honorary Doctor of Divinity. Despite such recognition Maude’s belief that women should be ordained remained as strong as ever. Her “heart leapt with joy” when in 1944 Dr Hall, Bishop of Hong Kong, ordained to the priesthood a deaconess Miss Li Tim Oi. Reluctantly too he asked for and secured her resignation two years later under pressure from the bishops in China. Maude wrote to Li Tim Oi wondering how it was possible to “resign” from being ordained.

In 1932 Maude had begun broadcasting on BBC radio and continued to do so almost until her death and with a sincerity and conviction that few could equal. One listener was so affected by her addresses that in 1944 he wrote to the BBC. Condemning the Anglican Church’s continued refusal to ordain women he was consoled somewhat by realising that this “great and devout soul has however her own Diocese – the English-speaking world.” Nevertheless, even with such accolades, it would be more than half a century later that women in England would be ordained, and not until the month marking the 50th anniversary of Maude’s death that the General Synod would vote that women bishops were “consonant with the faith of the Church”.

Peter Street is a religious-studies lecturer at Birkbeck College, University of London, and at the Open University. Women and the Church St John’s Church, Waterloo Road, London SE1 8TY www.womenandthechurch.