In recent times the Rainbow Sash Movement has sought to bring ‘the witness and challenge of gay and lesbian people and their friends into the heart of the (Catholic) church’. Begun in Australia, the wearing of a rainbow sash at certain acts of worship has been intended as a peaceful and dignified symbolic act. It has been controversial and attacked by some church leaders. For at stake has been both the full dignity of people of various sexualities and also the nature of leadership. For leadership for justice and human rights makes a huge difference. It is a great sorrow to those working for change when those who might assist fail to play their part. First-wave Christian feminists were frequently disappointed by much of their church leadership in this way, and some prefigured the work of Rainbow Sash by their ‘spiritual militancy’…
Despite the mitigating work of individuals and groups such as the religious suffrage societies, there was a growing estrangement between many women and their religious institutions as the women’s movement developed. This is very noticeable in the increasing complaints raised in the correspondence to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson (photo left). Davidson, who was privately a passive suffragist, had considerable difficulty in maintaining his non-committal public stance as the militant campaign intensified. Between 1908 and 1914, militants put considerable pressure on him, particularly between January and September 1914, in connection with his lack of public response of forcible feeding. One group that took a particularly harsh line was the Suffragist Churchwomen’s Protest Committee, whose secretary Alice Kidd (associated with Percy Dearmer’s church and suffrage network at Primrose Hill), condemned the ‘servile attitude of the Heads of the Church towards an unjust and irresponsible government.’ As she had written, in the first of many letters, there was:
an ever increasing unrest and dissatisfaction, among our best women, at the position of their sex in both Church and State. (letter of 25.3.12, Davidson Papers)
Many of the Church’s best workers were ‘being alienated’,Alice Kidd said, and were ‘drifting her and there like ships without a rudder’. The Church was ‘failing her women at a time when, of all others, she should be their guide and support.’ Therefore:
The Church must and can precede the State in coming to the rescue before it is too late. We must remember that it is not a political question in its essence. The ‘Woman’s Movement’ is a moral, intellectual and spiritual upheaval.’
‘It is true’, wrote another Anglican woman Henrietta Spens, that:
there is a Church League for Women’s Suffrage – I thank God for that – but that is not the same thing as the Church acting as a whole in this matter. Is it it not a blot on the Church that she should come in after the event so to speak, as she certainly will – when women have worked out their own salvation by fair means or the reverse?
(letter of 5.3.14 Davidson Papers)
Some senior Anglican figures, such as the London magistrate Cecil Chapman, complained in similar terms. If politicians were unchivalrous, he said, in refusing votes to women considering their services, the Church was worse than unchivalrous in the ‘absolute indifference’ its leadership had shown to ‘the cause of women’. For the Church:
knows so well the enormous part which women play in social and religious work and the crying necessity of strengthening their hands by some measure of political power if they are not to be for ever defeated in their fight against the selfish and brutal forces which dominate the world. (letter of 31.3.12 Davidson Papers)
Such Christian feminists began to take action, exasperated as forcible feeding was inflicted upon suffragettes, as acts such as window-smashing and letter-box damage increased. Chapman himself resigned from the Central Church Committee for defense and education, and Alice Kidd began the Suffragist Churchwomen’s Protest Committee in late 1912. ‘We protest’, the group declared:
against the entirely un-Christian Spirit shown by the Bishops, Priests and Deacons of our Church towards women, and their neglect to offer public prayer in the Churches… for God’s guidance… and for a speedy and righteous settlement of the women’s agitation.
To the consternation of many Church suffragists, as well as anti-suffragists, the Suffragist Churchwomen’s Protest Committee urged action:
In testimony of our belief, and as a protest, we resolve in future not to attend the Services of any church, work for any church, contribute to the funds of any church, where the incumbent is not (1) a sympathiser with the women’s movement and (2) willing to prove his sincerity by requesting the prayers of his congregation on at least one Sunday in every month, until such time as women shall have equal voting rights with men both in the ecclesiastical and in the political world. (petition in Davidson Papers 516)
Feminists could legitimately complain about a double standard. Whereas rising Irish and industrial disorder gained regular public prayer, suffragette militancy was used as reason to avoid women’s issues. As suffragette anger and frustration turned against the churches, so too a further Spiritual Militancy League was formed in early 1913. Speaking to clergy of all denominations, it drew attention to how, though political issues were traditionally avoided in sermons, there were times when a specific or general wrong (such as the white slave traffic or child labour) raised ‘an issue not only of policy but also of conscience’ (Votes for Women 21 March 1913). Organised by Mrs Stanton Coit of the Ethical Church, the Spiritual Militancy League clad themselves in distinctive black and orange scarves and made peaceful protests in churches thereby.
Eternal Source of Peace,
whose Son Jesus Christ walked among the conflicts of his day
unafraid to witness to your love and truth,
we give thanks for Alice Kidd,
and for all who have raised their voices in prayerful protest for liberty.
Enable our churches to be places where conflicts can be offered up in prayer,
discussed with generosity and understanding,
and transformed by your constant will and presence.
In the power of the Holy Spirit who will lead us into all truth, Amen.