Can women be laity?

Here’s one of those great questions with a history that we have somehow forgotten about…

This week, I’ve had the interesting experience of being an oral history source: interviewed by a student writing her dissertation on the history of the Movement for the Ordination of Women. In the course of getting my head around the events of the 1980s, I came across the notes I wrote for going out to other deaneries in my diocese to put forward the various arguments for and against women as priests. Here’s an extract from my notes – unreferenced, but the proceedings of these various meetings still exist – in which I was reflecting on how the post-1969 synodical government of the Church of England, with a General Synod made up of Houses of Bishops, Clergy and Laity was innovative in its time, and introduced my listeners to a lesser-known gender dimension of the inclusion of lay people.

For the Convocation of Canterbury (i.e. meeting of clergy) of 1885, there were still many doubts about the competence of the House of Laymen [sic] then being proposed. An ‘eighth resolution’ was added to the list of those concerning the proposed House, and this stated that the laity would not be expected to comment on ‘matters of faith and doctrine’. A speaker said that ‘trust the laity’ was ‘a generous sentiment, in things the laity understood‘ (my italics). Another speaker said that the laity could not pronounce on theology, because a lay House would not have ‘the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit’. In 1885, ‘laymen’ meant just that – lay men. By 1919, the House of Laymen, far from creating the ‘considerable embarrassment’ feared by one of the speakers in 1885, had behaved so well the the next step was considered, and Convocation was discussing whether women could be laymen. 

One of the attributes of being a layman was that, with due preparation and discernment, you could apply to be admitted to the diaconate; from the diaconate, to the priesthood; and for some, that would eventually mean becoming a bishop. The then Bishop of Ely was alarmed at the idea of women laymen, saying, ‘If the abstract proposition is once laid down that women are as laymen, the House will presently be asked to take the logical step and open the priesthood to women as to men’. And in due course, that did happen!

If you want to read more about this, Trevor Beeson’s The Church’s Other Half (2011) traces the very slow process of including women in the decision-making bodies of the church.

And one other bit of history, from the Archbishops’ Commission on Women and the Ministry, in 1936. Here, the glorification of ‘Christian womanhood’ is all about how women can rise above the carnal in a way that men, poor things, can’t. And that, somehow, becomes an argument against women ever becoming priests, because it wouldn’t be fair to those poor, vulnerable men to put them at the front of the church where everyone could see them:

We maintain that the ministration of women will tend to produce a lowering of the spiritual tone of Christian worship, such as is not produced by the ministrations of men before congregations largely or exclusively female. It is a tribute to the quality of Christian womanhood that it is possible to make this statement; but it would appear to be a simple matter of fact that in the thoughts and desires of that sex the natural is more easily made subordinate to the supernatural, the carnal to the spiritual, than is the case with men; and that the ministrations of a male priesthood do not normally arouse that side of female nature which should be quiescent during the times of the adoration of almighty God. We believe, on the other hand, that it would be impossible for the male members of the average Anglican congregation to be present at a service at which a woman ministered without becoming unduly conscious of her sex.

Is it any wonder that the Church of England still hasn’t got its act together on homosexuality when such views on heterosexuality were held in the lifetime of some church members? (the average age of a Church of England member in my diocese is 62)

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About fluff35

I blog on a range of subjects arising from various aspects of my life. On https://theretiringacademic.wordpress.com, I focus on my reactions to early retirement and think about aspects of teaching and research which I hope will be stimulating to those still working in higher education. On https://sharedconversations.wordpress.com, I blog as an authorized lay preacher in a pretty standard parish church of the Church of England, who needs to write in order to find out what she thinks. I took part in the Oxford/St Albans/Armed Forces C of E 'Shared Conversations' in March 2016 and continue to try to reflect on some of the issues. On https://mistakinghistories.wordpress.com I share my thoughts on various aspects of the history of medicine and the body. I also write for The Conversation UK on https://theconversation.com/profiles/helen-king-94923/articles
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