Gender debates at the General Synod in 1914
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May’s Archive of the Month features the extensive collection of press–cuttings on everything to do with the Church of Ireland for the entire period from 1869 to 1917. It specifically focuses on a particular debate at the General Synod of 1914 as a case study example – when the burning issue of whether or not women should be allowed to sit on parish vestries, act as churchwardens and parochial nominators was raised for the first time.
This collection as a whole consists of 16 enormous volumes of press–cuttings which were scrupulously put together by the Revd Robert Walsh (1843–1917). Walsh was ordained for the diocese of Down in 1865 but after a first curacy in the diocese of Derry was to serve out the remainder of his career in Dublin, initially as curate of St Mary’s 1867–1874; then as incumbent of Malahide union 1874–1889, and finally as incumbent of Donnybrook from 1889 until his sudden death in 1917. Walsh became a canon of Christ Church Cathedral in 1900 and was appointed as archdeacon of Dublin in 1909, in which position he also continued until his death.
Walsh’s personal book plate featuring the Walsh family arms and motto ‘Noli irritare leonem’ (Do not irritate the lions), RCB Library MS 297/1; Walsh’s signature on his copy of the Irish Church Bill ; and the official notice of Walsh’s sudden death on 24 February 1917, as published in the Church of Ireland Gazette, 2 March 1917.
The son of the Rt Hon John Edward Walsh (1816–1869) Master of the Rolls in Ireland, and the grandson of the Revd Dr Robert Walsh, vicar of Finglas parish in Dublin 1839–1852, Robert the younger took a keen interest in record–keeping and history from the beginning of his clerical career. He opened the first volume of press–cuttings entitled ‘The Irish Church Bill and Debates upon it’ on the 1 March 1869, extracting daily press items mainly from the Standard newspaper about the bill which ultimately was enacted as the Irish Church Act (32&33 Vic. c. 42 sect. 2) whereby the union between Church and State in Ireland that had existed since the Reformation was dissolved, and the Church of Ireland ceased to be established by law and have any state connection.
Walsh’s cuttings include all sides of the evolving pro– and anti–arguments as well as his annotations and dating of each item – all of which helps to build up a true picture of the reporting on this radical and controversial piece of legislation, after which the Church of Ireland had to completely re–organise itself and devise the synodical structures at central and diocesan levels we have inherited today. Walsh carefully cut out the relevant items, and gummed them onto loose pages which were eventually bound together as individual volumes, in chronological order. Usefully he then indexed each volume (with the exception of the final one which remains unbound because he died before its completion) which will assist researchers navigating for particular subjects of interest.
Left: Detail of the speech of William Gladstone MP, Prime Minister, moving the Irish Church Bill, as reported verbatim in The Standard, 1 March 1869, together with Walsh’s annotations, RCB Library MS 297/1.
Right: Extract from the index to volume 1 showing the incredible detail and meticulous manner in which Walsh compiled his work, RCB Library MS 297/1.
Thus the collection provides a significant body of commentary complimenting the collection of working papers of the General Convention (the forerunner of the General Synod) featured as a previous Archive of the Month ‘What happened at disestablishment’ available at this permanent link: http://ireland.anglican.org/about/133
The names of all the delegates (bishops, clerical and laity) who attended the initial Consulting Committee tasked with the re–structuring of the Church once the bill became law are included, diocese by diocese, again with Walsh’s explanatory comments. The summoning of, and detail of debate at each diocesan and provincial synod held thereafter is provided in detail, culminating in the lay conference of September 1869, and then the General Convention of February 1870, which was effectively the first ever general synod, and at which every diocese and parish of the church was represented by clerical and lay delegates much as still happens at the annual General Synod to this day.
Walsh’s notes on the diocesan and provincial synods set up in the run up to the Church’s planning for disestablishment; the united provincial synods for Armagh and Dublin, September 1869; detail on the diocesan synod for the united diocese of Down, Connor and Dromore, held in Belfast, September 1869; and final notice of the opening service held at the General Convention on 13 February 1870, RCB Library MS 297/17.
After completing the first volume on the disestablishment process, Walsh maintained the disciplined practice of extracting cuttings on all manner of subjects to do with the Church of Ireland for the remainder of his life, in a series of 15 additional volumes, continuing its story up to 1917.
Title pages from the ‘Reorganisation of the Irish Church’ volumes 1 and 2, being a continuation of Walsh’s press cutting work on matters relating to the affairs of the Church of Ireland post–disestablishment, RCB Library MS 297/2 and /3.
The second and third volumes in the series he titled ‘Reorganisation of the Irish Church’ – covering the meetings held throughout Ireland to make all the preparations for the future of the Church through the momentous changes that occurred after disestablishment. As well as The Standard, many of the early press cuttings were extracted by Walsh from the Daily Express, but laterally he used The Irish Times extensively too.
Once the Church’s new structures were up and running, Walsh styled his later compilations in volume numbers 4–16 simply as ‘Irish Church Records’ covering various aspects of church life at central and local levels, including local diocesan synods, parish meetings, controversial subjects, and annual events – the key one of which was the Church’s General Synod (effectively its AGM and supreme decision–making body).
Initially the General Convention of 1870 and subsequent seven early General Synods were held at a variety of large–capacity venues in Dublin – including the Ancient Concert Rooms in Great Brunswick Street, and the Molesworth Hall. However, a purpose–built hall was made available to the Church as the result of a most generous gift, in the context of the large–scale restoration of Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, undertaken by the English architect, George Edmund Street, and generously funded by Henry Roe, whiskey distiller.
Roe gifted the Church a new Synod Hall for ‘General Synods and Diocesan Synods’ on condition that the restored cathedral would be linked to the Church’s synodical government. This was gratefully accepted by a resolution of the synod of on 14 April 1871, as Walsh’s record shows. Thereafter Street constructed the hall on the site of the former St Michael’s church (incorporating its 16th–century tower) and joining it to the cathedral building across the road via the dramatic covered footbridge that remains one of Dublin’s iconic features. It was across this bridge that successive synod members would walk following the annual synod service in the cathedral, to participate in the official business, an annual tradition that continued until 1982, when the building was deemed too difficult to maintain and subsequently sold to Dublin Corporation, functioning today as Dublinia.
A case study of Walsh’s coverage of the General Synod in 1914 demonstrates the overall value of his painstaking work. Compared with the relatively bland and dry record of the General Synod Report for that year, which simply records the business of each day’s proceedings and the resolutions won or lost therein, Walsh’s newspaper articles bring the debates to life, providing much additional colour.
The Synod of 1914 was held at the Synod Hall in Dublin, following the usual service in Christ Church Cathedral, and involved four days of proceedings from Tuesday 28 April to Friday 1 May. The reported headlines of the address of the President of the Synod, the Primate and Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Revd John Baptist Crozier, convey Ireland on the brink of change: ‘Ireland Torn Asunder – The Gathering Storm’.
The speech did indeed capture the archbishop’s ominous views of how changing times were threatening the Church of Ireland. Interestingly, when he spoke of the ‘ever darkening shadows’ and ‘clouds above our heads grow[ing] blacker’ it was not the growing likelihood of war on mainland Europe to which he was referring. Rather it was the situation at home, and the ‘cruel tragedy’, as he put it, ‘that there should be the real danger of drenching the fair fields and towns of Ulster with the blood of our countrymen to create “a united Ireland”’! Referring specifically to the third Home Rule proposals, he could not believe that the ‘sons and daughters of Ireland really desire’ such a measure, and viewed with ‘holy horror the growing prospect before us of intensified hatred and separation’.
After setting the general context, the archbishop went on to outline other matters of business. He read out the obituary list of clergy who had died during the previous year, and in the form of a letter read out received the apologies of the much–respected Provost of Trinity College Dublin Dr Anthony Traill (who was recovering serious illness) the Primate then went through the main issues for discussion and debate during the four–day synod.
He flagged the relatively healthy state of the Church’s finances as would be outlined in the report of the Representative Church Body; outlined that there would be debates on the proposed revisions of the Prayer Book and Hymnal with reports from their respective working committees; commented on the successful opening of the new Divinity Hostel since following provisions granted at the 1913 synod; and further flagged various pending amendments dealing with the diocesan representation at the synod and episcopal appointments. Towards the end of the speech he touched on what would prove to one of the more contentious issues of the 1914 synod – the representation (or lack of it) of women on vestries.
Urging ‘respectful consideration of the petition’ to be presented as the archbishop framed it ‘from some of the most faithful daughters of the Church asking for a certain definite management position’ Crozier outlined the value of ‘women on our vestries’. This, he argued, could not be exaggerated especially in remote parishes, where he noted particularly ‘the zeal and self–denial of women for the Sustentation Fund to support parish finances. Women were vital cogs in the wheels of individual parishes as organisers, fundraisers and managers, yet they had no voice nor could they vote in relation to the distribution of the Church’s funds, an anomaly, the archbishop continued that had not existed before disestablishment. Treading with obvious caution, the archbishop signalled that perhaps the petition had gone too far, as he was sorry the vestry representation issue had been brought together with the parochial nominators one, the latter he predicted (accurately it would turn out) would prove a step too far. Nevertheless he gave the petition his blessing, and signalled he wanted no disrespectful debate or prejudice, warning this was ‘no sex war of women who fear not God neither regard man’, but the appeal of women who ‘are amongst the noblest Church workers in Ireland’.
Top: Primate’s words of caution on linking the vestry representation issue with women as nominators and churchwardens, RCB Library MS 297/17.
Bottom: Appeals for ‘no prejudice created by the sex war of women’, in the Primate’s address, RCB Library MS 297/17.
After the primate had concluded his speech, Canon J.A.F. Gregg (then professor of Divinity at Trinity College Dublin and a canon of St Patrick’s cathedral, later to be Archbishop of Dublin) presented the petition, which at that point (on the first day of synod) bore the signatures of some ‘1,125 women members of the Church’ praying that the General Synod might be pleased to amend chapter III of the Constitution.
It was agreed at this point that the motion and debate would be postponed until the following day at 3.30pm when Mr Justice Madden [High Court Judge John Madden] who was ‘keenly interested’ in the issue would be available to participate.
When it came to the actual debate the following day, support for the petition had risen overnight to 1,140 signatures, including several clergy in support, one of whom was Gregg who in proposing the motion urged synod to put women on a ‘better legal footing’ by reflecting on changed times and that the role of women was, as he put it, ‘no longer as mild satellites for men as they might have been regarded 40 years ago …’. The Rt. Hon Justice Madden seconded the motion, drawing attention to the higher education of women, and urged synod to ‘loyally discharge the debt due to women’
Thereafter there were amusing but largely negative interventions revealing the difficulties of the more liberal–minded and progressive to move things forward. The Revd F.R. Montgomery Hitchcock DD warned synod that allowing women on vestries would open the floodgates to Roman Catholics and non–conformists. The bishop of Ossory, the Rt Revd John Henry Bernard warned ‘social disputes would increase further rather than diminish with women on the select vestries’, whilst his dismissive remarks about the risks of allowing them to be nominators (to chose clergy for a parish) received laughter.
When Captain R. Wade Thompson [barrister at law and lay representative for the diocese of Meath] argued that the New Testament was ‘not in favour of women’s involvement in the governing of the Church, Archbishop Crozier intervened to clarify there were ‘no select vestries in St Paul’s time’.
The progressive bishop of Cashel, the Rt. Revd Henry O’Hara, and who had tried (again unsuccessfully to raise the same matter some ten years before) appealed to his colleagues that the representation of women was ‘a matter of common justice’. He cited the example of his own diocese where ‘nearly half the parishes … did not have a sufficient number of men residents to constitute a vestry’. A last ditch effort to amend the motion to deal only with the vestry representation and leave the churchwarden and nominator issues for another time failed, and following a vote both this amendment and original motion were heavily defeated.
In his annotated remarks (added to the volume after he had gummed in the press cuttings) Walsh revealed his own views on ‘the female franchise’ issue. He does not appear surprised that the motion was heavily defeated. Under the press cuttings he inserted these interesting reflections which sum up where matters stood: it had been opposed by both clergy and laymen in populous parishes where the balance of numbers on vestries was not an issue; clergy who might have been more willing to support the controversial motion appeared ‘afraid to show their colours’, and left the synod hall before the vote was taken; while the ‘chief supporters of the motion were clergy and laity representing parishes with only small populations’ where he emphasised with an underline ‘ladies’ – but not ‘suffragettes’ might be franchised
It would take a further six years before the Church of Ireland constitution was amended to allow women to be included on the register of vestrymen [sic]. Women were not permitted to serve as churchwardens and parochial nominators until the constitution was consolidated in 1947; whilst the terms ‘vestrymen’ and ‘synodsmen’ (as opposed to vestry and synod ‘member’) continued to be used to describe members of these representative bodies – irrespective of their gender – until 1960. Thanks to Archdeacon Walsh’s painstaking compilations of press cuttings we are enlightened on a whole range of issues about the nature of decision–making and modest pace of change within the central structures of the Church, 100 years ago.
At the local parish level, research which has been shared with us by Mary Williams who has used vestry minutes and other sources in Kill (Kill o’ the Grange) parish in Dublin demonstrates how gender issues played out in particular places, with her specific focus on the contributions to parish life of the eminent statistician William S Gosset and his wife Marjorie Gosset. The full text of an article produced for the parish magazine is available at this link.
For further information please contact:
Dr Susan Hood