Early 20th century campaigns for women priests

Edit July 2014: great news that the Church of England has finally backed women bishops. Maude Royden would be proud! Below is my blog article on early campaigns for women priests and bishops, originally published in November 2012.


Following the decision of the General Synod this week not to allow female bishops in the Church of England, the media has been talking about ‘more than three decades of campaigning’ by women to become priests and bishops. Of course, it’s been considerably longer than that. Some women were arguing for this nearly a hundred years ago; people like Maude Royden.

Maude Royden image from Wikipedia

Maude Royden image from Wikipedia

Maude Royden was a preacher and a suffragist campaigner. After some women got the vote in 1918, she began campaigning for the ordination of women with the League of the Church Militant (formerly Church League for Women’s Suffrage), in 1919. It’s safe to assume Royden would not have supported the Synod’s decision. The following quotation (taken from Royden’s Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry by Sheila Fletcher) shows Royden said in answer to an enquiry about whether women should be priests back in 1914,

I go cheerfully as far as women Bishops and Archbishops and Popes.

It was also Royden who famously described the Church of England as representing ‘the Conservative Party at prayer’ (at a public meeting reported in The Times, 17 July 1917).

Edith Picton-Turbervill from They Work For You

Edith Picton-Turbervill from They Work For You

Another early supporter of female priests was Labour MP and preacher Edith Picton-Turbervill. She was the first woman appointed to Parliament’s Ecclesiastical Committee, which considers Church Measures, in 1929. She wrote in her memoirs that she was in ‘great awe’ at this honour and was bold enough to make a contribution at her first meeting.

Lord Clarendon suggested passing the Pluralities Measure without comment. Greatly daring, I asked if it did not interfere with the right of appeal to the Privy Council—a noble lord said it did, and it was not passed.

Picton-Turbervill found herself regarded as an ecclesiastical expert in the House of Commons, and she referred in her memoirs to a number of conversations with the Prime Minister (Ramsay MacDonald) on the subject, including one occasion where ‘he laughingly said that there was no vacant ecclesiastical post for which I had not my nominee ready!’ Although she was only in Parliament for two years, she succeeded in having a private members’ bill passed, the Sentence of Death (Expectant Mothers) Act 1931, which prevented the execution of pregnant women.

Royal Commission of Assent for ordination of women priests, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/11/2808/A
Royal Commission of Assent for ordination of women priests, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/11/2808/A

Despite the efforts of people such as Royden and Picton-Turbervill, women did not become priests for many years to come. The Church finally voted to allow female priests in 1992 and this was ratified as a Church Measure by Parliament the following year. Women were ordained from 1994.

This document is the royal commission giving assent to the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993, among other Acts and Measures.  It was loaned by the Parliamentary Archives to an exhibition at Lambeth Palace Library on ‘Women and the Church’ in 2009. You can see the Queen’s signature, Elizabeth R, in the top left corner.

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