Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-jbqgn Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-06-25T10:05:46.021Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

E. L. Mascall and the Anglican Opposition to the Ordination of Women as Priests, 1954–78

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 June 2023


This article examines the grounds on which the Anglican philosopher and theologian Eric Mascall opposed the ordination of women, in a series of influential publications from the 1950s to the 1970s. It explores their basis in Mascall's understanding of the Church, the Incarnation and the ontological status of the sexes. It also considers the particular atmosphere of the Anglo-Catholicism of the period, convulsed by ecumenical advance at the Second Vatican Council and (as Anglo-Catholics understood it) the danger of moves towards the Protestant denominations in England. Whilst Mascall allowed that women priests might one day be embraced by the worldwide church, acting together, the peculiar atmosphere of the period seemed to make it the least auspicious time to make what would be a unilateral and far-reaching decision. The article also situates Mascall's interventions in the context of a wider realignment of conservatives, both evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, within the Church of England.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Ecclesiastical History Society.

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Thanks are due to Andrew Atherstone, Grace Heaton, Ian Jones, John Maiden, Charlotte Methuen, Margery Roberts and Julia Stapleton for comments on various drafts of this article, or on the issue at large.


1 McLeod, Hugh, The Religious Crisis of the 1960s (Oxford, 2007), 188212CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 On this development, see Maiden, John, ‘Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic Relations, 1928–1983’, in Atherstone, Andrew and Maiden, John, eds, Evangelicalism and the Church of England in the Twentieth Century: Reform, Resistance and Renewal (Woodbridge, 2014), 136–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 148–57.

3 Atherstone, Andrew, ‘A Mad Hatter's Tea Party in the Old Mitre Tavern? Ecumenical Reactions to Growing into Union’, Ecclesiology 6 (2010), 3967CrossRefGoogle Scholar. This is to be read along with Atherstone's article, ‘Evangelical Dissentients and the Defeat of the Anglican-Methodist Unity Scheme’, in Jane Platt and Martin Wellings, eds, Anglican-Methodist Ecumenism: The Search for Church Unity, 1920–2020 (Abingdon, 2022), 118–34.

4 Webster, Peter, ‘Eric Mascall and the Responsibility of the Theologian in England, 1962–77’, International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 21 (2021), 250–65CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 On Mascall's understanding of his vocation as scholar and priest, see ibid. 252.

6 Buchanan, Colin et al., Growing into Union: Proposals for forming a United Church in England (London, 1970)Google Scholar.

7 Webster, ‘Eric Mascall and the Responsibility of the Theologian’, 261.

8 Mascall, E. L., Saraband: The Memoirs of E. L. Mascall (Leominster, 1992), 380–1Google Scholar.

9 See, for instance, the essay by the conservative evangelical Beckwith, Roger, ‘Doctrine and Devotion in the Book of Common Prayer’, in Martin, David and Mullen, Peter, eds, No Alternative: The Prayer Book Controversy (Oxford, 1981), 73–9Google Scholar. On the critique of the direction of travel within the church from a non-aligned perspective, see Webster, Peter, ‘“Poet of church and state”: C. H. Sisson and the Church of England’, in Moul, Victoria and Talbot, John, eds, C. H. Sisson Reconsidered (Basingstoke, 2022), 159–82Google Scholar.

10 Webster, Peter, ‘Parliament and the Law of the Church of England, 1945–74’, in Rodger, Tom, Williamson, Philip and Grimley, Matthew, eds, The Church of England and British Politics since 1900 (Woodbridge, 2020), 181–98, at 198CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 On a shift in evangelical engagement with ‘permissiveness’, see Matthew Grimley, ‘Anglican Evangelicals and Anti-Permissiveness: The Nationwide Festival of Light, 1971–1983’, in Atherstone and Maiden, eds, Evangelicalism and the Church of England, 183–205. More generally, see also Atherstone, Andrew, ‘The Keele Congress of 1967: A Paradigm Shift in Anglican Evangelical Attitudes’, Journal of Anglican Studies 9 (2011), 175–97, at 185–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 See, for instance, Edward Norman's Reith Lectures for 1978, published as Christianity and the World Order (Oxford, 1979).

13 See, for instance, Mascall's preface to a collection of essays on abortion, from the evangelical Paternoster Press: J. H. Channer, ed., Abortion and the Sanctity of Life (Exeter, 1985), 7–12.

14 Anthony Kilmister, ed., When will ye be wise? The State of the Church of England (London, 1983).

15 Wendy Fletcher Marsh, Beyond the Walled Garden (Dundas, ON, 2005), 209–15, quotation at 209. Similar, though more measured, is the account in Sean Gill, Women and the Church of England from the Eighteenth Century to the Present (London, 1994), 232–67; on an earlier period, see Timothy Jones, ‘“Unduly conscious of her sex”: Priesthood, Female Bodies, and Sacred Space in the Church of England’, Women's History Review 21 (2012), 639–55, particularly 640; idem, Sexual Politics in the Church of England, 1857–1957 (Oxford, 2013), 93–130.

16 Fletcher Marsh, Beyond the Walled Garden, 212–13; Gill, Women and the Church of England, 259–60; Rupert E. Davies, The Church of England Observed (London, 1984), 50.

17 Other notable statements included the contribution of V. S. Demant, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology in the University of Oxford, to the report Women and Holy Orders (London, 1966), entitled ‘Why the Christian Priesthood is Male’: ibid. 96–114. Often cited was an essay by C. S. Lewis, ‘Priestesses in the Church?’, first published in 1948, and included in Lesley Walmsley, ed., Essay Collection and other Short Pieces (London, 2000), 398–402. In the 1970s, the Church Literature Association published a series of pamphlets, including reprints of Demant's essay, and another by Mascall himself.

18 Examples of Mascall's arguments being cited in later discussion include Susan Dowell and Jane Williams, Bread, Wine and Women: The Ordination Debate in the Church of England (London, 1994), 23; from a Methodist point of view, Davies, Church of England Observed, 41–2.

19 Resolutions 34 and 35, in The Lambeth Conference 1968: Resolutions and Reports (London, 1968), 39.

20 Resolution 28, in The Time is Now: Anglican Consultative Council, First Meeting, Limuru, Kenya (London, 1971), 34–5, 38–9.

21 For an overview, see Cordelia Moyse, ‘Gender Perspectives: Women and Anglicanism’, in Jeremy Morris, ed., The Oxford History of Anglicanism, 4: Global Western Anglicanism, c.1910–Present (Oxford, 2017), 68–92.

22 See Gill, Women and the Church, 234–42; Brian Heeney, The Women's Movement in the Church of England, 1850–1930 (Oxford, 1988), 116–38.

23 The motion was defeated in the House of Clergy by 149 votes to 94. The bishops accepted it by 32 votes to 17, and the laity by 120 votes to 106. See Paul A. Welsby, A History of the Church of England, 1945–1980 (Oxford, 1984), 258.

24 For a summary account of the process to 1980, see ibid. 255–8; Ivan Clutterbuck, secretary of the Church Union between 1966 and 1974, covers it at length, if more partially, in his Marginal Catholics: Anglo-Catholicism, a further Chapter of Modern Church History (Leominster, 1993), 240–55.

25 Although Mascall cites a later edition, it seems likely that he would have been aware of the book, or at least the debate, at the time of its first publication.

26 Edith Picton-Turbervill, Should Women be Priests and Ministers? (London, 1953); this consisted of two chapters first published in B. H. Streeter and Edith Picton-Turbervill, Woman and the Church (London, 1917). See also R. W. Howard, Should Women be Priests? (Oxford, 1949).

27 Eric Mascall, ‘The Ministry of Women’ [letter to the editor], Theology 57 (1954), 428–9; Jenny Watts, ‘Margaret Thrall: Obituary’, The Guardian, 21 December 2010, online at: <>, accessed 12 December 2021.

28 M. E. Thrall, The Ordination of Women to the Priesthood: A Study of the Biblical Evidence (London, 1958).

29 A typescript dated September 1959 is at London, LPL, CU 104/2/2. It was published as Eric Mascall, Women and the Priesthood of the Church (London, 1959); citations are of the published edition.

30 Demant, ‘Why the Christian Priesthood is Male’, 112; see also the repeated citations in the 1972 report by the Advisory Council on the Church's Ministry, The Ordination of Women to the Priesthood (London, 1972), 39–44.

31 Eric Mascall, Women Priests? (London, 1972).

32 Eric Mascall, ‘Women and the Priesthood of the Church’, in Michael Bruce and Gervase Duffield, eds, Why not? Priesthood and the Ministry of Women (Appleford, 1972), 95–120. The work went into a second edition, significantly expanded, in 1976.

33 Eric Mascall, ‘Some Basic Considerations’, in Peter Moore, ed., Man, Woman and Priesthood (London, 1978), 9–26.

34 Mascall, Saraband, 378–9.

35 Peter Webster, ‘Eric Mascall and the Making of an Anglican Thomist, 1937–46’, Journal for the History of Modern Theology (forthcoming).

36 Peter Webster, ‘Theology, Providence and Anglican-Methodist Reunion: The Case of Michael Ramsey and E. L. Mascall’, in Platt and Wellings, eds, Anglican-Methodist Ecumenism, 101–17, at 110–11.

37 As quoted by Eric Mascall, Theology and the Gospel of Christ: An Essay in Reorientation (London, 1977), 37.

38 The recollection of Judith Maltby from 1980 or 1981, as recorded in eadem, ‘One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism, but Two Integrities?’, in Monica Furlong, ed., Act of Synod – Act of Folly? (London, 1998), 42–58, at 42.

39 Mascall, ‘Some Basic Considerations’, 18.

40 Ibid. 17–18.

41 Mascall, Women Priests?, 6–9, 13–14

42 See, for instance, Eric Mascall, The Recovery of Unity: A Theological Approach (London, 1958), 170–93.

43 In an unpublished manuscript, dating from late 1984: Oxford, Pusey House Library, Mascall Papers, Box 4B, ‘The Overarching Question: Divine Revelation or Human Invention?’, fol. 101.

44 See, for instance, James Packer, ‘Thoughts on the Role and Function of Women in the Church’, in Colin Craston, ed., Evangelicals and the Ordination of Women (Nottingham, 1973), 22–26.

45 Mascall, Women and the Priesthood, 17, 33–4.

46 Ibid. 12.

47 Ibid. 15–16.

48 Ibid. 18.

49 Ibid. 22.

50 Mascall, Women Priests?, 16.

51 Dowell and Williams, Bread, Wine and Women, 23.

52 Michael Manktelow, John Moorman: Anglican, Franciscan, Independent (Norwich, 1999), 77–8. On Ramsey, see Owen Chadwick, Michael Ramsey: A Life (Oxford, 1990), 278–84.

53 Such a view had been expressed in 1938 by N. P. Williams, the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in the University of Oxford. Mascall concluded that it would bear little weight: Mascall, Women and the Priesthood, 6–11.

54 The recollection of Judith Maltby, prominent in the Movement for the Ordination of Women, as given in eadem, ‘One Lord’, 42.

55 Mascall, ‘Some Basic Considerations’, 21; on Mascall's understanding of human rights, see Peter Webster, ‘Eric Mascall and the Rise, Fall and Rise of “Christian Sociology”, c.1935–1985’, International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 23 (2023).

56 Mascall, ‘Some Basic Considerations’, 20–1. Mascall was to elaborate his thinking on the absolute binary division of sex, based on a reading of contemporary genetics, in Whatever happened to the Human Mind? (London, 1980), 131–8.

57 Mascall, ‘Some Basic Considerations’, 22–3.

58 Lewis, ‘Priestesses in the Church?’, as quoted by Mascall, Women Priests?, 17.

59 Mascall, Women and the Priesthood, 26.

60 Mascall, ‘Some Basic Considerations’, 23–4.

61 Eric Mascall, ‘The Dogmatic Theology of the Mother of God’, in idem, ed., The Mother of God: A Symposium (London, 1949), 37–50, at 43–4.

62 Later published as ‘The Mother of God’, in Alberic Stacpoole, ed., Mary's Place in Christian Dialogue (Slough, 1982), 91–7. Mascall was referring to the eighth chapter of Lumen Gentium, properly titled the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. See also his ‘Theotokos: The Place of Mary in the Work of Salvation’, in H. S. Box and E. L. Mascall, eds, The Blessed Virgin Mary: Essays by Anglican Writers (London, 1963), 12–26.

63 Mascall, ‘Some Basic Considerations’, 26.

64 Ibid. 11; on the issue at large, see Andrew Chandler, ‘Catholicity: Anglicanism, History and the Universal Church in 1947’, International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 18 (2018), 236–51.

65 Webster, ‘Theology, Providence and Anglican-Methodist Reunion’, 104–10.

66 Mascall, Women Priests?, 25.

67 Aidan Nichols, Alban and Sergius: The Story of a Journal (Leominster, 2018), 21–3; Mascall, Saraband, 80–4.

68 For more on this context, see Webster, ‘Theology, Providence and Anglican-Methodist Reunion’, 104–6.

69 ARCIC built on the work of a preparatory commission set up in response to a joint declaration by Michael Ramsey and Pope Paul VI in 1966: ARCIC, The Final Report (London 1982), 1–4; Welsby, Church of England, 272.

70 This was the feeling of Peter Moore, editor of one of the collections in which Mascall's work appeared: ‘Introduction’, in Moore, ed., Man, Woman and Priesthood, 1–8, at 1.

71 Jane Platt and Martin Wellings, ‘Introduction’, in eidem, eds, Anglican-Methodist Ecumenism, 1–10, at 7.

72 Mascall, Women Priests?, 4–5. Mascall noted the lack of precedent in Roman Catholic history in a review of Haye van der Meer, Women Priests in the Catholic Church?, Religious Studies 12 (1976), 394–5.

73 Welsby, Church of England, 257–8; Margaret Pawley, Donald Coggan (London, 1989), 234–5.

74 ‘Declaration on the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood’, 1976, online at: <>, accessed 11 January 2022.

75 Mascall was in the United States for several weeks early in 1977, months after the General Convention of the Episcopal Church had authorized the ordination of women as priests, and it is highly likely that the subject was discussed: see Mascall, Saraband, 337–43.

76 Mascall, ‘Some Basic Considerations’, 13–14.

77 Ibid. 25–6.

78 On the issues at large, see Nigel Yates, Love now, pay later? Sex and Religion in the Fifties and Sixties (London, 2010), 22–37; Peter Webster, Archbishop Ramsey: The Shape of the Church (Farnham, 2015), 65–90.

79 Mascall, ‘Some Basic Considerations’, 20.

80 Mascall, in the preface to Channer, ed., Abortion, 11–12.

81 Packer, ‘Thoughts on the Role and Function of Women’, 26.

82 Mascall, Women and the Priesthood, 17.

83 Mascall, ‘Some Basic Considerations’, 23.

84 Mascall, Women and the Priesthood, 17, 33–4; idem, ‘Some Basic Considerations’, 22–4.

85 Gill, Women and the Church of England, 262.

86 ‘Reverend Madam’, Times Literary Supplement, 17 November 1972, 1399.

87 Rowan Williams, ‘Women and the Ministry: A Case for Theological Seriousness’, in Monica Furlong, ed., Feminine in the Church (London, 1984), 11–27, at 19, referring to Mascall specifically.

88 George Carey, Know the Truth: A Memoir (London, 2004), 61–2. Carey was archbishop of Canterbury from 1991 until 2002.

89 The correspondence with Hood is at Pusey House Library, Mascall Papers, Box 13. See also ibid., Box 2, File 3, fol. 188, Graham Leonard to Mascall, 8 May 1984. Mascall's letters to the editor of The Times were published on 12 February 1982 (p. 11) and 12 June 1986 (p. 15); draft letters to the Church Times and The Tablet from February 1986 are in Mascall Papers, Box 2, File 3, fols 4–5.

90 For example, by 1986 Colin Craston had become fully and vocally supportive: Biblical Headship and the Ordination of Women (Nottingham, 1986).

91 See, from within the orbit of Reform, Douglas Spanner, ‘Men, Women and God’, in Melvin Tinker, ed., The Anglican Evangelical Crisis (Fearn, 1995), 72–93.

92 Gill, Women and the Church of England, 254. In 1986 Beckwith was listed as one of the two joint secretaries of the Association: Mascall Papers, Box 2 File 3, fol. 202, Arthur Leggatt to Mascall, 10 February 1986.

93 Benedict Green, review of Why Not? and Women Priests?, C.R. [the journal of the Community of the Resurrection] 279 (1972), 46–7.

94 Mascall, Women Priests?, 24; on the same lines, see idem, ‘Some Basic Considerations’, 26; (much later) idem, Saraband, 380.