Some things, such as sexuality and women’s ordination, were steered clear of by most first-wave Christian feminists. Even when they supported changes, most held back, in the interests of nurturing more conservative support for issues which were more ‘practical politics’ at the time. Yet without pioneers prepared to rock the boat there is no progress…
Ursula Roberts (1887-1971) was born at Meerut in India, daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel R J H Wyllie and Emily Titcomb. She broke from her conservative background however and, though she married the Revd. William Corbett Roberts in 1909, she was the not the typical clergy wife of the period. W.C.Roberts himself was a radical priest, suffragist, pacifist and socialist. As she related herself with amusement, when her husband was Rector of Crick, she shocked many people by going hatless, and worse, selling copies of suffrage newspapers in the streets of Rugby. More seriously, she was a successful poet and writer, pacifist and feminist.
As an active Christian feminist, Ursula Roberts was certainly a committed suffragist. The Honorary Treasurer and Honorary Press Secretary of the East Midland Federation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, she was also a member of the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, for whom she wrote The Cause of Purity and Women’s Suffrage, published in 1912, which taking a tough-minded look at prostitution, confronted low wages and child abuse.
Ursula was also highly active in the peace movement throughout her life. In the 1920s and 1930s, as part of the Adelphi magazine’s literary circle, she became part of the anti-war movement of intellectuals, and maintained her peacemaking commitment during the Cold War when intellectual involvement faded. Indeed, even in late age, in the 1960s she was a strong supporter of the campaign for nuclear disarmament. Her social insights showed through in many of her later publications, written under the nom de plume of Susan Miles. Widely published in many journals and volumes, among her books for example, was the novel, Lettice Delmer, written in verse. Published in 1958 when she was already in her seventies, Lettice Delmer tackled illegitimacy, abortion and venereal disease, latent homosexuality, and a stern Christianity. As a recent review for Persephone Books put it:
To do all of this, and in verse requires a most particular gift, and courage. Susan Miles had both, and the ability to tell a good story. Unexpectedly – no escaping the fact that blank verse may not be immediately attractive to every Persephone reader – Lettice Delmer is a page-turner, so sad that we might sometimes wish we hadn’t turned the page, but a true page-turner, and the verse form, again unexpectedly, contributes to this…
It was also an expression of her own journey. For, as the same reviewer put it:
Susan Miles places a cast of complex characters, a large cast for such a short novel, against a background of social upheaval, a new world in which class boundaries are shifting, expectations changing, for which a comfortable and cosseted upbringing may not be the best preparation.
Above all, Ursula Roberts showed her commitment to constructive change in her work for the ordination of women in the Anglican Church. Calls for this gradually emerged as women gained more confidence and reflected on women’s roles in all parts of society. It seems to have begun to have taken concrete form however in early 1913, with a circular letter from Ursula Roberts to leading Church feminists proposing a small society for the study of the question. Of her 150 or so approaches, she met with thirty or forty favourable replies (cf. the representative sample in Women in the Church, Autograph Collection, (Fawcett) Women’s Library, London). The characteristic grounds of opposition were all expressed: there was no precedent in dominical or apostolic tradition; the Church of England could/should note take unilateral action; the time was not ‘ripe’. Even Maude Royden was wary:
Experience has shown me, what no doubt it has proved even more abundantly to you! – that there is no subject which puts people into such a fever and alarm as this one. The vote is nothing to it!
Due to the war, and such cautious well-wishing, Roberts’ proposal for a conference and a society was not realised until 1917. Yet it was logical and integral step in the view of many contemporary Christian feminists. As Gertrude Francis commented approvingly in reply, it was really important that such a movement should come:
from within the Church. The awakening as it were of the soul of the Church, to a great reality… which could heal some of the overstrained relations which the women’s movement has caused to come to the forefront.
It might thus:
do much to make many women understand better the spiritual impulses underlying this movement of which they are so dimly and so vaguely half-awake…
(for) the limitations within the Church, its lack of vision regarding the present great movements and the very issue involved – all this is very real to us women who are trying to keep a hold on our faith.
The Church League, renamed the League of the Church Militant, did, in April 1919, adopt challenging ‘the custom of the Church of confining the priesthood to men’. Yet it lost support in doing so: a signal of the end of the first-wave Christian feminist consensus. For her part, Ursula Roberts subsequently became one of the key members of the Anglican Group for the Ordination of Women after a call for evidence on women and the ministry in the run up to the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops in 1930. She was also a member of the interdenominational Society for the Ministry of Women in the Church. Such work did not lead to the ordination of women in her own lifetime, but considerable advance was made in preaching and recognition and support of deaconesses, whilst the gauntlet had finally been laid down for others to take up.
God of new beginnings,
we give thanks for Ursula Roberts,
and for all who have been pioneers in promoting women’s issues in church and world.
Strengthen we pray all who write and work for peace and equality today.
Give courage to those who break new ground for justice,
and help us sow the seeds of love for others to water.
Through the Holy Spirit who creates new life in the depths of the womb, Amen.