When we think of ‘woman church’ we usually ponder recent Christian feminist endeavours, such as the women church movement, which emerged in the 1980s (se the Chicago Women-Church photo here) and which is still active, especially in Catholic circles. Yet 100 years ago this month, others had already themselves made a similar ‘exodus’ from mainline church in order to challenge patriarchal religion and to create vital new space for life, mutuality and grace. Strengthened by their example, how can we today continue to create safe and spiritually sustaining spaces for those for whom received religion often seems to offer little?
In early 1914, adverts began to appear in women’s suffrage and local papers for the start of a Women’s Church in Wallasey, Cheshire. Entitled the Church of the New Ideal, it was formally launched at its first service on 29 March 1914. Held at the Liscard Concert hall, this offered both mixed-gender and women-only services, but was organised and officered by women alone. A proto-ecumenical adventure, women from seven different Christian denominations (including Anglican and Quaker) were represented in its management and it sought to include those who felt no place in any church: those women who, finding the Church
like a cage… (had) come away in sheer disgust at the attitude of the clergy towards the things which to women are dearer than life.
(Miss M.Hoy, letter to the Wallasey & Wirral Chronicle, 14 March 1914).
The Church of the New Ideal flourished initially but did not survive through to the end of the first world war, for by this time ministry opportunities for women were slowly beginning to open up. Yet the Wallasey Women’s Church thus not only created unprecedented space for women but also attempted to offer a more feminine aspect of God, adding to the impetus building up within mainstream religious circles. For, as a result of women’s exclusion, it reflected, ‘the interpretation and practice of Christianity has suffered, and the general progress of humanity has been delayed.’ Hence:
The Church of the New Ideal fulfils, spiritually and historically, the teaching explicit in Christianity, that there shall be neither male nor female in Christ: a teaching not yet put into practice by the established religious bodies.
(‘Official Statement of Aims and Methods’, Church of the New Ideal)
The inaugural services were led by the remarkable Hatty Baker. Despite continued resistance by others to her formal ordination, Hatty was a pioneer female preacher in the Congregational Church in England and a co-pastor in Plymouth. More broadly, she was involved in various feminist concerns and a leading figure in the formation of the Free Church League for Women’s Suffrage. ‘Are we not equal to forming ourselves?’ she affirmed, in the face of both opposition from women and men: ‘women of today require neither condescension nor patronage.’ Hatty Baker’s most seminal theological contribution was her book Women in the Ministry, published in 1911 and followed up with ‘intense interest’ within women’s suffragist circles. She not only argued powerfully for women in the Church’s ministry by reflecting on their ministry in the early church but she contended that equal partnership was essential to interpret God to humanity. Indeed, she declared, in every church with more than one minister, there should be at least one female minister: for ‘we surely need a woman as well as a man to interpret the heart of our Mother-Father God.’
Similarly, on the inaugural Sunday of the Church of the New Ideal, Hatty spoke about the need for the equal recognition of the feminine in God, alongside all that was good and helpful in the the masculine. Taking the theme of ‘God, our Prior Mother’, she thus outlined the theological challenge and promise ahead of women. Women needed to share their own experience and insight into God, rather than meekly follow men’s dominance, government and ideas from the Church of the past. Human beginnings had always grown in their conception of God. Now was the time for women to let go of second-hand conceptions of God, given to them by men. Awakening to their own potentialities, women were recognising that first-hand views of God were offered to them, albeit hints of which were always there in the Bible and tradition. It would be a costly task of sharing them but it was simply a reawakening to the existence of that which had been there all along.
For Hatty Baker, the religious aspect was therefore no mere incidental part of women’s struggle. It was an essential part of transforming women’s consciousness and position. To insist upon woman’s spiritual equality, she argued in popular works such as A Strategical Outpost for Woman Suffrage:
to fight for her right to enter the pulpit as readily the pew, may not only be the means of another and the greatest reformation in the Church, but may indeed be the nearest way to the poll.
Sadly, and tellingly, her own ‘pessimistic conclusion, born of bitter experience’ was that the Churches as a whole were so far from recognising women’s equality, that those who struggled for equality had to make their own way outside the churches, and ‘almost in defiance of them.’ In doing so, Church leadership and councils ‘become childish and ineffectual to the minds of progressives of either sex.’ How have things changed? Hatty Baker’s discerning words might indeed have been an epitaph for the Churches had it not been for her and others’ courageous work, sowing seeds of hope and creating, at least some, new spaces of life and grace.
whose presence is known in the womb
and whose face is disclosed in our birth and nurture,
yet whose love is beyond all our imagining,
we give you thanks for Hatty Baker, the women of Wallasey
and all pioneers of woman church.
Grant that, inspired by their brave adventure,
we too may step out into the unknown,
include those pushed to the edge,
and explore new pathways of faith and community.
In the name of the One who longed to gather all their children
under their wing like a mother hen, Amen.