Christian feminism, as has already been seen, takes many forms. Organisationally, most feminists would tend towards ‘flat’ structures and democracy. Yet this does not mean that more hierarchical forms cannot be places in which women’s issues and opportunities are not advanced. Certainly it is a delight when significant leaders can emerge from surprising contexts…
Edward Lee Hicks (1843-1919), not to be confused with the American Quaker artist Edward Hicks (1780-1849), was Bishop of Lincoln between 1910-1919. As such, he was the leading Church feminist in the women’s movement, particularly as President of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage (though there were five other bishops actively involved in its membership). As President of the Church of England’s Peace League, he also worked right up to the outbreak of the first world war, for unity and harmony among nations.
A key factor in Hicks’ involvement in the women’s movement was his background and experience. Unlike others who were ‘born to the purple’, his father was in ‘trade’ Like many other leading church feminists, he had also had considerable first hand experience of working with the poor, not least working class women. He had been the first Principal of Hulme Hall in Manchester University and had then worked as Canon Residentiary of Manchester cathedral and rural dean of Salford at St Philip’s Salford. This drew him into the same social milieux as formed the Pankhursts.
Hicks had a deep and broad spirituality which was hugely appreciated by suffragists of a wide variety of outlooks. Indeed, although he was a bishop of the Established Church, he was reluctant to condemn militancy. Reflecting on the inglorious example of the imprisonment of the great 17th century preacher John Bunyan by an earlier Bishop of Lincoln, he urged caution and an openness to new light. ‘We must’, he said, ‘be frank and fearless – though infinitely kind.’ Therefore:
Waste no time in criticising the militants… pray for them, and see the best in them. Emulate their zeal, though not their methods.’
(address reported in CLWS Monthly Paper, December 1912)
Like Hugh Chapman, Bishop Hicks was also sympathetic to feminist concern in liturgy. Indeed, his diary (2 September 1914) records how he took the wedding of Ruth Giles a leading Lincoln suffragist, in his own chapel. Using ‘A Revised Prayer Book’, Hicks read the service, omitting ‘obey’, ‘giving away’ and other small features. However, Ruth’s father still hid in the vestry, only joining afterwards for the holy communion, as he alone of all the family still objected to the omission of the bride’s word ‘obey’.
Hicks took his theological stand on the image of God as male and female. ‘The great principles of the Gospel, as declared by St. Paul’, he said (in a sermon at St Peter’s in the East, Oxford, reported in the CLWS Monthly Paper, December 1912):
are there in the heart of Christianity, and are destined again and again to burst out with revolutionary force, until they find their beautiful expression in Christian practice.
Hicks was consequently an enthusiastic supporter of women’s advance, both in the church and the wider world. He blessed and encouraged women’s ministry, particularly backing the first female preachers, such as Edith Picton-Turbervill and Maude Royden. Indeed, though he did not become an immediate advocate when the first Anglican campaign was launched, Maude Royden herself felt Hicks would have supported women’s ordination had he lived longer.
Giver of grace,
we give thanks for Bishop Edward Hicks
and all who have used their power and influence
to enable the poor and outcast.
May bishops and all faith leaders
exercise their authority and influence
with compassion, integrity and a fearless love of truth.
In the name of the One who became poor that we might be rich, Amen.