We do not expect fair treatment for women from male Victorian leaders. Margaret Laird reminds us that Archbishop Benson, for all his establishment background, had a proper regard for the place of women

That a Victorian archbishop instinctively reached a conclusion similar to that of two modern academics, who dedicated years to research on the subject seems remarkable. In ‘Gracious Patriarchy’ (ND May), Fr Geoffrey Kirk neatly summarized the findings of Professor Simon Baron-Cohen and Steven Rhoads that ‘sexual differences are ‘given’ rather than contingent and constructed.’ The archbishop who came to a similar understanding was Edward White Benson, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1883–96.

Before holding his ecclesiastical appointments, Benson had been Headmaster of Wellington College and he retained a lifelong interest in education. As Chancellor of Lincoln, he founded a theological college and established night schools for working men, and as archbishop he did everything possible to promote and support church schools. In one of his last letters to the Prime Minister at that time (Lord Salisbury), he sought permission for representatives of the Church of England, authorized by himself and the Archbishop of York ‘to draw the attention of Her Majesty’s government to the needs and just claims of voluntary and denominational schools.’

Right to education

Another of Benson’s educational achievements was the contribution he made to women’s education. His sister Ada was a pioneer of the girls’ High School movement and as Bishop of Truro, he founded ‘a good girls High School’ there. He firmly believed in higher education for women and encouraged his daughters to receive the benefit of a university training.

Benson had a sensitive understanding of the female sex and, although his fits of depression placed a great strain on his wife, according to Edward Carpenter ‘he often got on better with women than with men.’ Benson’s respect for women is reflected in much of his correspondence.

He certainly did not underestimate their intelligence and his letters to the Wordsworth sisters, daughters of his great friend the Bishop of Lincoln, were no less theological in content than those written to his male colleagues. Benson believed that women had a distinctive role in the Church and encouraged their participation. For example, in writing to his wife, he praised the Bishop of Lincoln’s enthronement sermon: ‘He spoke of clerical and lay action and – what do you think? – of women’s action, to whom as well as ourselves the Church belongs. I wish you had been there, but especially then.’ Benson also showed concern for the status of women and sympathized with the Bishop’s daughters who ‘were highly and naturally indignant because no seats were provided for them by the Chapter’ at the enthronement.

Women’s meetings

The Archbishop’s attitude to women was certainly more enlightened than that of the average ecclesiastic or educated man at that time. His son, and biographer, records that ‘he did not regard women as more easily victors in the strife for holiness, nor as more heavily handicapped in the race for knowledge, neither as necessarily superior in character nor essentially inferior in intellect, but he did not advocate what are vulgarly called ‘women’s rights’ nor did he underestimate the differences between the minds of women and men. He firmly recognized this, but he did not always dwell upon it because he estimated people as individuals.’ Benson did not exclude any subject from a woman’s study merely on the grounds that she was not a man. However, he was clear about the distinctive roles and aptitudes of men and women. He valued special female qualities and ‘like a wise master builder’ wrote his son, ‘Benson believed that these qualities must be put to good use.’

There is ample evidence that this theory was put into practice. For example, in 1884, in response to a request from some influential ladies who desired to purify and elevate the moral tone of society in London, the archbishop, so that they could discuss the problem, arranged a meeting at Lambeth Palace and about thirty ladies attended. After this, women’s meetings on Wednesday afternoons became a permanent feature of his archepiscopate. Each week his syllabus for the exposition of Scripture went to the printers in good time. A few words put together at the last minute was not Benson’s style, and these women deserved and received his full attention as much as any other members of his flock. ‘He did not tolerate or encourage an easy or sentimental pietism amongst his female congregation,’ explained his son, ‘nor did he leave much space for emotionalism.’

Queen Victoria, suspicious of these gatherings, strictly forbade the Princess of Wales to attend them. ‘I cannot understand,’ she said, ‘why Princesses should want to go to Lambeth Meetings. It’s all sacerdotal. I can’t think what it is all about.’

The wider Church

There was another area in which Benson encouraged women’s participation. As a result of his lifelong study of St Cyprian, he developed a keen interest in the Universal Church and Christian unity. ‘The love of Christ,’ he said, ‘compels a burning desire for unity.’ His historical sense and knowledge of liturgy and symbolism gave him a natural affinity with the Eastern Churches. When the Armenians appealed to him for help to preserve their existence as a national church, he, aware of the political implications, and after consultation with the Prime Minister, established a mission to the Armenians, and then declared, ‘Now we must have a Ladies’ Association.’

Apparently, committees he initiated were often mainly female. The archbishop’s efforts to make full use of women’s capabilities and distinctive gifts ‘was an aspect of his work which cannot be reckoned amongst the least in his life,’ concluded his son.

Throughout his ministry, Benson constantly turned to the early Church and to St Cyprian in particular for guidance on almost every subject. Firmly entrenched in the writings of Cyprian are the principles rapidly being undermined by the Church of England: the fatherhood of God and the patriarchal nature of the Christian faith, the bishop as the focus of unity, and ‘the mutual adherence of the priesthood’, described by Cyprian as ‘the glue which holds the Church together.’

Although Benson was envisaging the Church as a balanced community with men and women playing distinctive roles, he, unfailingly sought guidance from past history, for as he himself declared, ‘we should keep what we have received from the divine tradition and practice of the Apostles.’