Today, ecumenical and inter-religious relationships flourish in many places, both despite, and also because, of continuing tensions and oppressions of various kinds. Whilst still misunderstood by some, such relationships can do much to heal the wider ills of the world as well bring deeper understanding of one another and the world’s great wisdom traditions. It has been a great personal delight to be part of such growing life and hope. Women have been at the forefront all over the world (not least in Australia, through interfaith women’s networks such as that, in Sydney, pictured to the right above). This was not a great part of first-wave Christian feminism, yet at least one feature took significant shape as a sign for the future…
Christian unity was often assumed by all first-wave Christian feminists on many women’s issues. For whilst the organised ecumenical movement was still to be born, the ecumenical baby was beginning to stir in the womb, notably reflected in such developments as the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910. For the missionary and women’s movement had much in common and the obstacles they both encountered strengthened their common purpose. Indeed, the women’s movement for some even pointed to a divine unity which crossed the boundaries if Christianity itself. This was certainly the view of some of those who gathered for the first great meeting of the United Religious League for Women’s Suffrage (URWSS) at the Caxton Hall on 6 November 1913. Amidst ‘historic antipathies’, reported the Free Church Suffrage Times (December 1913):
Jew and Gentile, Catholic and Friend, Anglican and Nonconformist declared their sense of union in divine consciousness. “Have we not all one father”, said the Jewish speaker appropriately, and this was the general sense.
‘Everybody’ was indeed said to be present on this occasion, which acted as a great rallying point for most of the leading Church and Jewish feminists (the latter whom had their own Jewish League for Women’s Suffrage, begun in November 1912, which also helped promote feminism within Judaism). Such associations helped challenge particular prejudices. Thus, at an earlier URWSS meeting for example, the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society (CWSS) speaker Blanche Smyth-Pigott made her contribution to much surprise. She alone:
ventured a criticism of “the clergy of all denominations”, so delivering a shock to Protestant notions of priest-ridden women. (Free Church Suffrage Times, Nov 1913)
The work of the URWSS demonstrated the usual disinterest of the establishment press in the women’s struggle, except where militancy and sensationalism was involved. The Caxton Hall meeting had not only been ‘historic and unique’, but as The Vote commented (14 Nov 1913), it was ‘one of the most impressive ever held in a hall famous for its suffrage meetings’. The National Week of Prayer organised by the United League, between 1-8 November, was also warmly taken up. Yet the wider media coverage was negligible: a further incitement for the militants. Nonetheless further work continued in 1914, with a particularly impressive joint demonstration of religious suffragists in Hyde Park (cf. favourable review in The Vote 26 June 1914).
Such expression of common purpose was not always possible. In March 1912 for example, a planned march from the Embankment to Trafalgar Square by the Free Church League and London Ethical Societies fell short of its goal. The Anglicans and Roman Catholics never joined up:
owing to needless apprehension of disturbance… the former, instead of going to the square, proceeded to Westminster Abbey, and attended Evensong, while the latter withdrew altogether. (The Vote 23 March 1912)
Fleming Williams, the Free Church leaders, then took the obvious opportunity of proclaiming from the plinth of Nelson’s Column the fearlessness of his Church in the face of any circumstances! A similar demonstration fell apart too in June 1912 when there was a misunderstanding about which society had agreed to give notice to the police. On this occasion, the Free Church League held a meeting in Hyde Park regardless, but the Catholic Society retreated to more satisfying communion at the Criterion Restaurant.
Such denominational differences and point-scoring were unusual. For, despite some clear differences, like the women’s movement as a whole, the chief characteristic of the religious leagues was their remarkable complementarity in unity. It thus deserves at least a footnote in the history of ecumenism and inter-religious relations, as well as within the women’s movement itself.
God of all peoples, races and cultures,
we give you thanks for the united work of the religious suffragists
and for all who have made a track
to the ecumenical and inter-religious relationships enjoyed by so many today.
Strengthen we pray the bonds of unity between Christians
and the relationships of friendship and generosity between peoples of different faith,
that we may cultivate a culture of peace for everyone throughout our world.
In the generous love and neighbourly wisdom at the heart of our faith, Amen.