« Older Anglican Laywomen » – A. Day

« Older Anglican Laywomen: Their Struggle to Oppose Women Priests »

By: Abby Day

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English: Minorities – – Italiano: Minoranze
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Deutsch: Minderheiten – – Español: Minorías – – 中國人: 並通過

Not everyone welcomed the ordination of women in the Anglican Communion. The Church of England, the core institution at the focus of my work, is one part of this international, colonial-era inspired loose network of churches created in 1867, where three-quarters are in former colonies. 

The governing body of the Church of England, the Synod, allowed women to become deacons in 1985. In 1987, the first women were ordained as deacons.  In 1992, Synod agreed to open the priesthood to women and in 1994 agreed they could become priests. The battle for inclusion in the higher echelons of the Church continued for decades. By a narrow vote in November 2012, Synod turned down a proposal to admit women as bishops. That vote had been decided by an informal alliance of older women and members of the Church’s evangelical wing. That decision in turn met with a public outcry in both secular and clerical domains and in July 2014 Synod finally voted to allow women to be bishops. Women priests are still not universally accepted amongst Anglicans. The public focus on that dissent tends to be on the Global South, where bishops have often been opposed both to women priests and bishops, and to the acceptance of homosexuality. And yet, opposition is worldwide, notably in parts of the UK, Canada and Australia, where there have been break-away factions and large numbers of people defecting to the Roman Catholic Church. 

Reflecting on her own experience as a woman priest, one of the first to take up that role, Diane E. Rees wrote:

Since my ordination in 1996, I have come to understand that although there is generally an acceptance of my priestly ministry, it is, even now, not entirely ‘normal’. I am still a ‘woman’ priest rather than simply a priest.[1]

Amongst those who opposed women’s ordination are a forgotten generation of people: older Anglican laywomen who neither wanted to be priests themselves, nor liked the idea of other women being priests.  I refer to those women as the female ‘Generation A’, and will discuss in this paper who they are, and why they were, and remain, opposed to women’s ordination. Most of my knowledge has been obtained through ethnographic research and secondary data analysis.[2]  Thanks to funding from the Economic and Research Council, I was able to enrich the story of those women through a study carried out, half-time, over two years. My objective was to begin by immersing myself in the daily routines of one mainstream Anglican church in southern England, where I would identify key themes. I then elaborated and interrogated those themes by comparing them through study visits to other UK and international churches. Further international perspectives were gained through church visits and interviews in Sri Lanka, the United States, and Canada.

[1] Rees, Diana A. 2015. ‘To Boldly Go: How do Women in Senior Positions in the Church of England Construe Their Leadership?’ In Contemporary Issues in the Worldwide Anglican Communion: Powers and Pieties, ed. Abby Day, 129–148.Aldershot: Ashgate: 132.

[2] Day, Abby. 2017. The Religious Lives of Older Laywomen: the Last Active Anglican Generation. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Who are ‘Generation A’?

I have chosen to focus specifically on Anglican laywoman born in the 1920s and early 1930s, now in their 80s and 90s, often described as the ‘backbone’ of the Church and likely, I have argued, to be its last active generation.   The most common reason for church decline is the demographic profile. As elderly church-goers die, they are not being replaced by the next generation, nor are they attracting or retaining children or teenagers. 

My invention of the term ‘Generation A’ for a particular group of women was to signal their place in a generational schema. This is the generation preceding the post-war ‘baby-boomers’.  Many are grandmothers and great-grandmothers of the so-called generations X, Y, Z and ‘millennials’.  Many Christian organisations, such as Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians share the same age profile. 

The prevalence of older laywomen in mainstream Christian congregations – Catholic and Anglican – is a widely accepted phenomenon that will cause little surprise amongst the research community or Christian adherents. It is surprising that we know so little about them and therefore about how their beliefs, behaviours and patterns of religiosity can inform us about the character and changing nature of contemporary and future religion. 

This is the generation who have sometimes been seen to lead a parallel church from a lay position. They attend the mainstream churches every Sunday and for mid-week services, polish the brasses, organise fund-raisers, keep the church open on week-days, bake cakes and visit vulnerable people in their homes. Their often-invisible labour not only populates the physical space of the church but helps ensure its continuity and enriches surrounding communities. 

Knowledge about the religious lives of laywomen is remarkably absent. The Church of England, and other national churches, has never collected statistics about gender. Large-scale data about women in the Anglican Communion and, more generally, Christianity, is therefore scant and limited to information based on other surveys. My work therefore attempts to make visible the invisible. It is not a study of ‘aging’ but of a certain generation that is dying and that has not been researched in depth and will not, I argue, be replaced. The gender/age component is therefore critically important in terms of the mainstream churches’ decline.

Grace Davie has been writing about the lack of knowledge about ‘ordinary’ people for decades. She has made the point that although there are large data sets available, and some small studies about the ‘exotic edges’ of religion in Britain, ‘the picture in the middle remains alarmingly blurred’ with very little known about ‘the beliefs of ordinary British people in everyday life’.[3] Writing specifically about the UK religious landscape in 1994, Davie pointed out that: 

[3] Davie, Grace. 1994.  Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging. Oxford: Blackwell: 6.

The churches attract an audience which is disproportionately elderly, female and conservative [….] the nature of family life, including the traditional codes of morality, are altering rapidly […]Changes in gender roles have for better or for worse, penetrated the churches and influenced theological thinking.[4]

[4] Ibid. : 2.

The women of ‘Generation A’ were in their sixties when she wrote that, and were then witnessing the kinds of changes she was writing about. The change in gender roles was one, I will argue below, they most fiercely resisted. Many of the women I have studied over the years were comfortable with male authority. It was what they were accustomed to and, for many, what they wanted. For example, Vera, 84,[5] had been a local village resident since 1945, when she and her husband moved to the village when they married.[6] She came from a hard-working family of manual labourers. She has never taken paid work: she told me ‘my husband wouldn’t allow it’. 

[5] All names have been changed. 

[6] Day, Abby. 2013 [2011]. Believing in Belonging: Belief and Social Identity in the Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

When I met her she was living in sheltered housing, where she had moved four years earlier when her husband died. During our conversations she explained her sense of an everyday spirituality and divine protection. She told me that when she had a stroke, the doctor was surprised that she had survived and she became convinced that God had protected her. She told me that someone had been looking after her that night, ‘either he or she’ she said, before quickly correcting herself: ‘I think it’s a he. I don’t think for one minute they would call God a she’.

Vera was raised in an era where women who could afford to did not work. Her father and then her husband were providers who looked after her both financially and materially.  She was comforted by that kind of male relationship.

Yes, I’ve had a wonderful life, really. As I say, I had a nice childhood, with a very happy childhood, I had. And even my husband, he was good to me. I don’t think we had a cross word at all, all our lives. I don’t mean to say we didn’t have our little bits of ups and downs, but I mean we didn’t fall out, if you understand me. If we did have a tiff we always managed to make it up before bedtime. We didn’t go to sleep on it, you know, anything like that. So, yes, I mean I think I’ve been very well looked after. Very well. 

Women who were comforted by being looked after by men extended that sense of being protected to God and priests. Although many women told me that their aversion to women priests and bishops was based on theological grounds, my sense was that it was more rooted in their experiences of sociality[7].

[7] As I discuss at length elsewhere (Day 2017), Generation A approves of male leadership. 

Between 1983 and 1984, Alyson S. Peberdy conducted doctoral research amongst six Church of England parishes to explore people’s responses to women’s ministry. She analysed and summarized the research in a short but richly detailed pamphlet.[8] As women were not yet admitted to the Church of England priesthood at the time of her research, the women ministering were deaconesses, the nearest equivalent to a priest. During the course of her research, Peberdy noticed that most people with good experiences of the deaconesses were in favour of women in priesthood, thought it was ‘normal’ and found it difficult to remember their earlier positions of opposition. She concluded that it was the experience of that relationship, not the theologies, that coloured laypeople’s views about women in priestly authority. 

[8] Peberdy, Alyson. 1985. A Part of Life. January 1985. London: The Movement for the Ordination of Women.

Eileen Campbell-Reed’s recent book about Baptist clergywomen makes a similar point, privileging relationality over theology. She looks at ‘the life world of Baptists, a potent mix of cultural ideas and practices as well as the psychological dynamics in family and society’.[9]  Her book focuses on the struggle for Baptist identity between conservative and moderate members of the American Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) between 1979 and 2000.  Campbell-Reed suggests that Baptist clergywomen’s roles in the ‘schism’ is generally ignored, with historians and theologians unappreciating more nuanced forms of the ‘struggle’: the psychological, the spatial and the gendered theological.  Her book narrates the period through stories of five clergywomen, offering important insights into how religion and gender relate to relationality. One of the women, ‘Rebecca’ is reported as saying: ‘It was not that she won the theological struggle: it was not a struggle with clear winners and losers. Rather, her life was a testament to the living truth of her full humanity, an incarnate word made flesh’.[10]

[9] Campbell-Reed, Eileen .2016. Anatomy of a Schism: How Clergywomen’s Narratives Reinterpret the Fracturing of the Southern Baptist Convention. University of Tennessee Press: 6.

[10] Ibid. : 16.

I suggest from my research, that some laywomen might have been acting from relational rather than theological logics, afraid that their everyday, hard work maintaining churches might be threatened by an incoming female authority.[11] Brown comments on how some of those women resisted the movement towards women priests for that reason:

[11] Day, Abby. 2017. The Religious Lives of Older Laywomen: the Last Active Anglican Generation. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

At one level, moreover — in their reluctance to let go of a particular kind of Christian usefulness, that involving the work of their hands – I suggest that their resistance may indeed be part of the very same impulse that has brought their sisters into the clergy. Both are seeking a more authentic female form of holiness in the church.[12]

Further, I became convinced that many women liked the male-female dynamic of male priest to female laywoman. The passion some expressed for the priests they liked conveyed a deep, personal connection. As one woman told me: ‘I love him! I love him! I love him!  I think I’d marry him! [Laughs]’. 

[12] Brown, Irene, Q. 1992. ‘Women’s Works of Devotion: Feasts, Fairs and Festivities’ In Episcopal Women: Gender, Spirituality, and Commitment in an American Mainline Denomination, ed. Catherine, M. Prelinger, 239–262. New York: Oxford University Press: 258.

Considering that many women regard their church spaces as a second ‘home’, it became more understandable why they were not in a hurry to professionalize their church activities through becoming priests. It was a fairly exclusive group to which they belonged, and which they successfully managed. It is unlikely that if they became priests they would feel more powerful or more involved in the church than they already were. They already had unlimited access to the church building and they knew that they were the ‘one body’ that gathered in the quiet weekday mornings when their priest arrived to pray with them or celebrate communion, after which they would linger for social time with each other and sometimes with him. As Rees noted about the gendered dynamic: 

The church is without doubt, primarily a masculine context at senior levels. Consequently, there needs to be an awareness of the impact that this has on women and what might be the effect of having more women at the most senior levels of the church, including bishops.[13]

Rees continues:

We do not yet know whether simply including more women in the hierarchy of the church will lead to significant change […] However, at the very least increasing numbers of women as a senior leadership level will lead to questioning about what leadership is and how we lead, and what the church is and how it should be.[14]

[13] Rees, Diana A. 2015. ‘To Boldly Go: How do Women in Senior Positions in the Church of England Construe Their Leadership?’ In Contemporary Issues in the Worldwide Anglican Communion: Powers and Pieties, ed. Abby Day, 129–148.Aldershot: Ashgate: 140.

[14] Ibid. : 141.

Now that the last generation of Anglican women who vociferously opposed women priests is disappearing it remains to be seen whether the next generations will return to the church to embrace a new kind of leadership. Considering that religious beliefs and behaviours rely on generational transmission, my view is that as far as the younger generations are concerned, the Church’s move into accepting 21st century norms of gender equality will be too little, too late. The empty pews look set to remain empty: whether the pulpit is occupied by a man or a woman is now irrelevant.


Abby Day is Reader in Race, Faith and Culture in the Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London, where her teaching, research, writing and supervisions cover sociology of religion, media, culture and critical criminology. Past Chair of the Sociology of Religion Study group in the British Sociological Association, her work focuses on improving the academic and public understanding of complex religious and non-religious identities, from ‘Christmas Christians’ to the most loyal, and now dwindling, active generation of Anglican laywomen.  

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