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franciscan - May 2005

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2005

A Rehabilitation of Eve: the British Christian Women’s Movement

by Jenny Daggers

Writing in 1978, in the Christian Action Journal, Diana Collins declared: 'The time has come for "the rehabilitation of Eve"'.  Like the authors of Dispossessed Daughters of Eve, Susan Dowell and Linda Hurcombe, Collins saw contemporary Christian women as linked with Eve in their exclusion from a full place in the churches.  Collins' words encapsulate the ethos of a movement which came to awareness during that year as women involved in a variety of groups and projects began to encounter one another, and to delight in discovering their belonging to a wider and growing network.  This article tells of a movement that grew in strength through the 1970s into the early 1990s.  Its central concern was the position of women in the churches.

The movement's origins lay in five currents, each giving rise to this same concern with the position of women: the post-Vatican II Catholic renewal movement; the World Council of Churches Community of Women and Men in the Church programme; the debate on the ordination of women - particularly in the Anglican church but also in the Catholic and Methodist churches - and radical Christianity. The fifth current was the Women's Liberation Movement, which gained impetus in Britain from the late 1960s.

The particular course of the ordination debate in the Church of England was highly influential on the shape and outworking of the British Christian women's movement.  The spectrum of denominational groups was marked by diversity, ranging from Catholic and Anglican to Quaker and Unitarian and including many ecumenical ventures, such as the Feminist Theology Project, started by Judith Jenner, and the various initiatives of the Oxford Christian Feminists.  This denominational diversity was enriched by women who found themselves on the church margins while embracing the spirit of the wider women's movement - but resisting its determined secularism.

Yet the Anglican women's ordination debate provided a lynch-pin uniting this diverse network in solidarity with the Movement for the Ordination of Women (MOW), despite vigorous internal disagreements about the relevance of women's ordination to re-envisaging the position of women in church and society.  The stasis in the ordination debate and particularly the misogyny it laid bare, forged a lynch-pin so strong that a gradual decline in the sense of belonging to a network of groups inevitably followed the eventual decision to ordain women within the Church of England.

The egalitarian and communitarian ethos of the Christian women's movement mirrored that of the wider women's movement.  In the space of this article, it is not possible to give their due to all who contributed to the movement but it is possible to emphasise that those mentioned here were sustained by the broad network, where reflections were shared and group activism was stimulated and organised.  Newsletters were a feature of the network - from the Christian Parity Group Newsletter and the Roman Catholic Feminist, Quaker Women's Group, Unitarian Women's Group and Christian Feminist newsletters started in the late 1970s, and the Women in Theology and Catholic Women's Group newsletters begun in the 1980s.  Also founded in 1978 was the Christian Women's Information and Resources Project, housed in Oxford, which created an archive and lending library, preserving publications, including newsletters, produced by the various groups, and importing valuable literature from outside Britain.

To give a flavour of Christian feminist activism, I will present a few 'snapshots' taken across the years 1972 to 1990.  Amid post-Vatican II activity, Ianthe Pratt founded a Christian Women's Resource Centre in Dulwich, South London, and initiated ecumenical conferences in Oxford during the early 1970s.  Early experimental liturgies were developed further during the life of the Catholic Women's Network and in the Association for Inclusive Language.  Roman Catholic feminists were found demonstrating at the 1978 conference at Westminster Cathedral, wearing T-shirts with the slogans, 'Rites for Women' and 'Equal Rights in the Church'. Christian feminists participated in the 1980 National Pastoral Congress in Liverpool, and later sent representatives to sit on the, rather less exciting, National Board of Catholic Women.

Una Kroll of the Christian Parity Group, and Pauline Webb, who successfully steered the move to ordain women in the Methodist Church, both participated in the 1974 World Council of Churches international conference, 'Sexism in the Seventies'.  Many Christian feminists attended the 1981 Sheffield conference and participated in the subsequent Working Party to promote dialogue between the British churches and the women's movement with Janet Morley as secretary.  The dialogue also led to denominational publications, such as Beasley-Murray's Man and Woman in the Church (Baptist Union, 1983) and Lewis's The Motherhood of God (Church of Scotland, 1984).

In 1978, the Christian Parity Group, aided by other groups, organised a tour of Britain by Canon Sr Mary Michael, ordained within the American Episcopal Church, which hit the national press.  Kroll encouraged liturgical experiment to make full use of existing scope for women's ministry. Just as early Catholic women's liturgy fed into the liturgical life of the Catholic Women's Network, so early Anglican experiment was continued in later Women in Theology and related groups.

The Student Christian Movement (SCM) Women's Project and groups such as the Alliance of Radical Methodists (ARM) were an early site of radical Christian feminist activity with their publications bringing feminist views to voice in the early 1970s.  Mary Condren wrote challenging articles and commissioned work by British and American writers in a series of SCM pamphlets, while Morley, Jenner and Kroll were among those who wrote for a special edition of the ARM Reporter.  Christian feminists, particularly members of the Quaker and Unitarian women's groups, also explored the new - minority - interest in the Goddess arising within the Women's Liberation Movement.  Many groups were a regular presence at the Greenham Common Peace Camp, from the Oxford Feminists Peace Vigil to participants in Goddess rituals.

These snapshots convey some sense of the diversity of the British Christian women's movement.  As the network developed, the five currents often flowed together, though distinctions were not erased.  A minority of women wrote in a more systematic way reflecting on the issues concerning the network such as Angela West of the Oxford Christian Feminists, Monica Furlong from within MOW and Janet Morley from successive locations, including Women in Theology.

It helps make sense of this variety to realise that in the first three currents in the churches, older concerns from late nineteenth and early twentieth century 'Church feminism' were reinvigorated.  These centred on the special spiritual gifts women can bring to the church.  But times had moved on and the new Women's Liberation Movement asserted women's own needs and a positive view of women's sexuality.  During the life of the Christian women's movement this new emphasis was to be found intertwined with the old.  So Sara Maitland, in her Map of the New Country, spoke of Christian feminists bringing gifts to the church, while Diana Collins' desired 'rehabilitation of Eve' affirmed the positive importance of women's sexuality and independent judgement.  Christian feminist liturgies created a model of church where Eve was welcome and, in the words of the St Hilda Community, Women Included. f

Jenny Daggers lectures in Theology and Religious Studies at Liverpool Hope University College. She is the author of The British Christian Women's Movement: a Rehabilitation of Eve (Ashgate 2002).

 

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