Giles Fraser: Do people need saving from this?

No one doubted the devout character of Maude Royden’s faith, nor her intelligence, nor her grasp of the scriptures, nor the power of her oratory. Born in 1876, she became a sought-after speaker on moral issues. In 1913, the Bishop of Winchester invited her to address a gathering of 2000 men at the Church Congress.

In 1916, the Archbishop of Canterbury put her on his national mission team that had the task of re-Christianising wartime England. But the one thing the Archbishop would not allow her to do was to preach — or even to speak publicly in church. This prohibition, and the fight against it, was to generate some of the first skirmishes in the theological culture wars that continue unresolved to this day.

In 1918, the Rector of St Botolph’s-without-Bishopsgate, the Revd Hudson Shaw, invited Miss Royden to address the congregation after evensong, assuring his Bishop that the address and the service would be separated by an organ recital. The Bishop of London, Dr Arthur Winnington-Ingram, had a policy that allowed women to address only other women, and then only from the foot of the chancel step (and, remarkably, he regarded himself as a liberal, being a supporter of women’s suffrage).

The Bishop sent Mr Shaw letters trying to get him to withdraw the invitation. Instead, the Rector went ahead, and then invited her again on Good Friday. There was no legal impediment to his invitation. “I absolutely forbid you on your honour and your oath of canonical obedience,” wrote the Bishop.

The Rector was defiant. He closed the church — putting up the notice of prohibition — and invited the worshippers to gather in the parish hall instead. Nine hundred people tried to get in. A petition was organised and sent to the Bishop: “When an evangelist so plainly called by God is harassed and impeded by those who should be her chiefest upholders and strengtheners, we feel the time for silent acquiescence is past.”

Conservative voices complained at the presence of “ecclesiastical Bolshevists”, and that a woman giving a sermon to men was radical feminism gone mad.

The contemporary parallels are depressing. I have invited the Bishop of New Hampshire, the Rt Revd Gene Robinson, to preach at St Mary’s, Putney. There are no legal impedi-ments to this. But the powers that be want this to happen “after the service” or “in the church hall”. Apparently, a few bars on the organ, or the gap between the church and the church hall are sufficient prophylactics to protect the sanctuary from the profanity of being a woman or being gay. What sort of crazy theology is that?

God moves to the left

America’s evangelical Christians are anti-gay, pro-gun, keen on capital punishment and obsessed with lower taxes. And, of course, they all vote Republican. At least, that’s what vicar Giles Fraser thought – until he went to meet them.

This article appeared in the Guardian on Friday February 08 2008 on p12 of the G2 Comment & features section. It was last updated at 00:15 on February 08 2008.

As night fell, a small group of pilgrims crept through a side door and into the silent and empty gloom of Canterbury cathedral. A hand-held torch did little to illuminate the wonders of the 14th-century nave. We felt our way past the place of Thomas Becket’s murder, up a flight of stairs and gathered around a simple stone throne where the arch-bishops of Canterbury are consecrated. No one spoke. Faces were serious and tense. Here is the centre of gravity of world Anglicanism. Some of the party were not sure if they still wanted in. Many wanted them out.