Each generation must engage afresh with the tradition it receives. This is partly to find mediating language to communicate effectively with every new context. It is also because every theology falls short of the glory of God. As the great patriarchal Reformer Martin Luther pointed out, every Christian theologian must, in order to function at all, have a ‘canon within the canon’ of the Bible and tradition. Part of the work of Christian feminist theologians is to deconstruct the canonical assumptions of the past and to help break open God’s Word anew for today…
Within first-wave feminism, a number of theologians were active, across the denominational spectrum, responding to the challenges of the day with renewed understandings of received faith. These included some leading male church personalities.
R.J.Campbell (1867-1956) was the doyen of liberal Nonconformity until his return to Anglicanism in 1915. A ‘fearless but intemperate’ figure in his early ministry, he was a leader of the New Theology of the period, which sought to restate Christian beliefs in relation to modern biblical criticism and science. This more than made room for progressive causes. His association with the rising Labour Party, with Baha’is, Theosophists and other spiritual explorers, all gave further spice to the lively ministry he exercised, to huge response, at the City Temple in London from 1903. For Campbell, the women’s movement was a spiritual one:
the outcome of a desire for a wider, fuller life and a determination to get rid of the material disabilities which stand in the way of realising it
(Some Economic Aspects of the Women’s Suffrage Movement (1909) p.2)
Campbell indeed was one of the minority voices pleading for wages for homework, as well as equality in the workplace, to counter what he saw as women’s underlying economic problem. He defended militant suffragettes, speaking powerfully about the Christ-like ‘Spirit of Sacrifice’ in their lives and actions.
The significance for Christian feminism of Campbell and his ideas is perhaps best illustrated by Lady Constance Lytton, one of the foremost suffragette ‘martyrs’:
If I have been able to play any part in this war, I owe it to him. It was in a sermon preached by Mr Campbell in the City Temple that he said words which broke down the barriers that released for me the floodgates of enthusiasm.
(in Christian Commonwealth, 26 Oct 1910)
Henry Scott Holland (1847-1918) in contrast represented the changing mainstream of the established Church. Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, London from 1884, until becoming Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford in 1910, in 1889 he had helped form the Christian Social Union, a moderate Christian Socialist body. His theological vision was taken up by many suffragists: notably on the masthead of the newspaper of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, which read:
Christianity is the proclamation of the Divine entry into History: of the Divine submission to the historical conditions of human experience; of the Divine sanction given to the things of time and the affairs of earth, to the body, the home, the city, the nation. A kingdom of God come down here, visibly, audibly, tangibly, evidently, manifested on earth – this is its first and last message.
This was the Anglican Church League’s ‘Charter’. Linked to the Catholic revival in the Church of England and the wider ‘Social Christianity’ of the late nineteenth century, like Christian Socialism, it reflected a restoration of the importance of the doctrine of the Incarnation at the heart of Christian Faith. If baptism proclaimed a ‘sacramental democracy’ , then why is this not realised in life?
Word made Flesh,
We give thanks for R.J.Campbell and Henry Scott Holland,
and all theologians who have wrestled with the Gospel in the world.
Strengthen all who seek your divine presence in our human struggles,
grant that we may ground our faith in your love made real among us
and enable us to share your spirit of true sacrifice.
In the power of your Incarnation, Amen.