the challenge and cost of clergy militancy – T.J.Walshe and C.A.Wills

imgres-1First-wave feminism was very much a movement of women.  Yet, as seen in earlier posts, some men played a helpful supporting part.  Whilst not to the same degree as many women, a few also clearly suffered for their involvement.  This also helps highlight the obstacles of the struggle.  Fear of loss of position, livelihood, reputation and support continues to act as a break on involvement in struggles for justice and freedom today.  Thankfully, some are willing to transcend fear’s shackles…

Despite the Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society, there were few Catholic priest supporters.  Any crumbs of support, including overseas news, were therefore eagerly seized upon.  The NUWSS had earlier, in 1909, published a pamphlet entitled ‘The Tablet’ on Women’s Suffrage and Expressions of Opinion on Women’s Suffrage, highlighting clergy supporters.  The CWSS similarly eagerly reported the views of any positive Catholic images-3leaders, including those of Cardinal Moran of Sydney.   It had to wait until 1919 however, after Annie Christich had been received in Rome by Benedict XV, for use of papal words (see her article ‘Yes, We Approve’ in Catholic Citizen, 15 January 1919, later circulated as a pamphlet, beginning with a papal quotation: ‘We should like to see women electors everywhere’.   Until then, with hearty opposition from bodies such as the Catholic Herald, Catholic priest supporters were few and isolated.   Meanwhile, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Frances Bourne, by his own admission, remained hesitant to discuss the ‘women question’ in public.

The Rt. Revd. Monsignor T.J.Walshe was one of the exceptions,  Originally from County Waterford in Ireland, he was  educated at St Francis Xavier’s College in Liverpool, and at Ushaw College near Durham, and ordained in 1887.  Most of his ministry was spent on Merseyside, where he served in various capacities, including as secretary of the Catholic Schools Managers’ Association and as a notable lecturer, preacher and writer.

Walshe’s views were highlighted in his lead article ‘Apologia Pro Clero’ in the Catholic Suffragist of 15 March 1915.  It was both an appeal to fellow Catholics and a clear statement of conservative Christian feminism.  As Walshe confessed:

I have not hesitated to say publicly both in London and Liverpool, that I am an advocate of Woman Suffrage because I am a priest.  To me… the question of Woman Suffrage is essentially a moral question – a movement which aims at the safeguarding of Religious Education, the virtuous upbringing of the child, the stability of the marriage tie and the sanctity of the home.

To advocate this claim was therefore ‘not only a privilege but a duty’.  To oppose it was ‘not merely an outrageous anomaly, but an outrageous blunder’.  Women’s weight in the councils of men could indeed avoid the barbarism into which Europe had plunged, for:

The reign of the King of Peace will come when the rights of all His children shall receive their just recognition.

In Liverpool. Walshe and his sister regularly hosted meetings of Catholic suffragists at their house and gave unstinting support.  As Miss Florence Barry, Hon. Secretary of St. Joan’s Social and Political Alliance, wrote on his death:

In those days – when the cause was at the height of its unpopularity – it was no easy matter for a Catholic priest to identify himself with the Suffrage agitation, but Father Walshe never hesitated in proclaiming his belief in the woman’s movement, and lost no opportunity of befriending us… In a letter of good wishes to the Liverpool Branch on the occasion of its Jubilee last May, Monsignor Walshe ended : ‘I cannot conclude without reference to members of the Alliance who are no longer with us. We recall how bravely they faced opposition in the early days of the movement and how faithful their witness continued to be.’  To no one could these words apply more fittingly than to Mgr. Walshe himself.

Although there was greater support among Anglican clergy, many active Christian feminists also did not enhance their careers by involvement, especially if they were also socialists.  As Ursula Roberts observed about the damage done to her own husband’s prospects by his own views and hers. particularly when she started campaigning for women’s ordination:

He was already scorned in the diocese as a supporter of women’s suffrage, and as a socialist… I hated standing in his way.  I knew that but for my peculiar ideas, he might have been offered a canonry or some such.  (Letter 18.8.1916 Autograph Collection)

The Revd. C.A.Wills was perhaps the foremost clergy victim.   Image2He stood alongside Sylvia Pankhurst and the East London Federation through all their tumultous activities of 1914, even when other good friends stood back.  On one occasion for example, Sylvia Pankhurst planned a march to end at Westminster Abbey as an appropriate ‘symbolic’ act on Mothering Sunday (22 March 1914).  Despite approaching the Dean in the hope of adaptation to the evening service no reply had been received.  Arriving at the Abbey, led by C.A.Wills, in cassock and white surplice, the procession found the Abbey gates shut in its face.  Undeterred by the profered explanation that the Abbey was full, Wills immediately declared that ‘then we will pray where we stand’.  To the consternation of the clergy within, he then led an impressive open-air service (see accounts in Votes for Women 27 March 1914 and Christian Commonwealth 21 March.1914)

Such actions had already led to Wills being sacked as a curate by one vicar, endorsed by the Bishop of London.  The immediate cause was a sermon on 25 January 1914, entitled ‘Thou shalt do no murder’.  Declaring against forcible feeding, Wills had read out statements of leading medical men against the practice, together with the Bishop of Kensington’s considered response.   This was not the last time he suffered for his commitment.  On a later 05551aoccasion, when Lloyd George was being heckled by a suffragette at a garden party at Bessemer House in Denmark Hill, London in 1914, Wills voiced his support by shouting out ‘ Give enfranchisement to women’.  He found himself silenced with a handkerchief over his mouth and he was then bundled into a nearby lake.  Another man then jumped into the water and repeatedly tried to duck him, to the amusement of nearby bystanders.   ‘Suffragists Ducked’ was the headline in the press.


Fearless God,
we give thanks for T.J.Walshe and C.A.Wills
and for all men who have walked shoulder to shoulder with women,
seeking freedom, justice and peace.
Grant us grace to have the courage of our own convictions,
that we may further the work of your kingdom
and not count the cost.
through the strength of the Crucified One, Amen.

About blessedimp

Anglican priest, theologian and peace, justice & inter-religious activist, seeking wholeness in a fragmented world, transgender female
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