Steven Haws CR considers the legacy of Charles Gore


One of the great Anglican thinkers and teachers of the twentieth century, according to Michael Ramsey, former Archbishop of York and Canterbury, was Charles Gore (1853–1932). He was Principal of Pusey House, Oxford, founder of the Community of the Resurrection, Canon of Westminster Abbey, and subsequently Bishop of Worcester, Birmingham and Oxford.

One hundred years ago, Charles Gore, while Bishop of Oxford, preached on the first anniversary of the extension of the parliamentary franchise to women. That Gore would be invited to preach on this occasion signalled long overdue recognition to women who before the First World War had no voting rights in parliamentary elections. But it was more than just being able to vote. As far back as 1896 Gore became interested in the women’s movement and supported women’s suffrage in both church and state. On several occasions he would speak out against the ill-treatment of women in society and in one joint meeting he spoke along with lay preacher and suffragist Maude Royden celebrating the freedom of women for self-realization. While his penchant for ‘liberal catholicism’ might resonate in the minds of latter-day liberals, Gore’s own view of a liberal catholic stems from what he believed to be nothing more than the broad spectrum of Anglicanism and maintaining the ancient patterns of the creeds, the scriptures, the sacraments and the ministry to which all are engaged and liberal in its scattered idea of authority and refusal to multiply dogma beyond what scripture requires.

It is interesting to note that Gore supported the ministry of women, but as one reads the extract from his sermon he clearly reveals his own belief and viewpoint concerning ordination. Michael Ramsey, while Archbishop of York, was author of From Gore to Temple—The Development of Anglican Theology between Lux Mundi and the Second World War 1889-1939:

‘By the time of Gore’s death in 1932, a new version of Liberal Catholicism appeared which included more radicalism in Biblical Studies, more consideration of the place of experience in theology, and sometimes (though not invariably) more tendencies towards Latin ways of worship. With these tendencies the meaning of the term ‘Liberal Catholicism’ somewhat shifted. It meant less the Anglican appeal as such than an appeal to a particular synthesis of religion and contemporary scholarship and less an appeal to Catholicism as the institution of the undivided Church than an appeal to Catholicism as the phenomenon of sacramental religion down the ages.’

‘Liberal Catholicism was, Gore believed, embodied in the Anglican appeal to Scripture, tradition and reason. The favourite term did not mean for Gore a party, or a type of religion, or a particular set of tenets. It was for him virtually synonymous with Anglicanism as rightly understood, for the Church of England in its inherent character appeals to Scripture and tradition and reason, and thus bears witness to the Holy Catholic Church of Christ in a way in which Rome (though its errors) cannot, and the East (through its intellectual conservatism) does not. It was a witness all too often obscured by compromises, and tremendous in its moral demands, yet embodied in the Anglican vocation from the first.’

This certainly was Gore’s belief during his lifetime. His sermon was appropriately titled ‘Thanksgiving and Dedication.’ Here are extracts from that sermon preached in St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, on Thursday 6 February 1919, on the first anniversary of the extension of the Parliamentary franchise to women:

‘From the Letter of St Paul to the Philippians 4.4–5: “Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men.” I am very glad that no words of mine have intervened to interpret the first expression of your heartfelt thankfulness in commemoration of what happened exactly a year ago. Then the nation did a tardy but necessary act of justice and opened to women the great opportunity and responsibility of the political suffrage. It happened wonderfully enough.’

‘You remember the situation before the War, how impossible it seemed. It was true that most people said, “Oh, I suppose it will happen someday.” But the antagonism and the acrimonies of the conflict had produced a situation from which the wisest did not seem to see the way of issue. And then the war came, and for a moment diverted people’s attention, and the spectacle of the service of women in all sorts of departments of human life, and the independence and the capacity which they exhibited gave even to the most unbelieving an excuse for withdrawing their opposition, and so a year ago the Act was passed.’

‘I spoke of it just now as a great act of justice. So it is. St Paul tells us that the powers that be are ordained of God. In St Paul’s day the powers that were the powers of a nominal republic that was in fact becoming more and more unmistakably and overtly a despotism. Nowadays, the powers that be, whether under the forms of a Republic or under the forms of a Constitutional monarchy, are democratic. If you believe in a movement of God in history then the movement of God today is towards democracy, and you know what democracy means. It means the government of the people, for the people and by the people. That is the splendid phrase which Lincoln borrowed from an earlier writer and made for ever to ring in the ears of men upon the plains of Gettysburg. Government of the people that belongs to all; government by the people that means all must take their part. The government of the people, for the people, by the people, that is democracy. It neither is a great ideal, which in America nor in England is yet real.’

‘It means many things if it is to be successful. It means a widespread extension of interests, education, and service. But amongst other things that democracy means it undoubtedly means the admission of women in political privileges, partly because they are like men, persons; and democracy means the spiritual equality of opportunity for all persons, partly because they are unlike men—because there are many things with which the government of a State and legislation must concern itself with regard to which women have a far wider and deeper experience, and a far just view and a far deeper insight than men. Therefore, because they are like and because they are unlike men, any State which in any real sense claims to be democratic must add its women to its subjects, to its political opportunities because it needs the mind of all. That is the point of a democracy.’

‘It needs the point of view of all; of all classes, of all kinds, of both sexes, of all individuals, brought to bear on the constitution of that common whole which is to be the united effort and expression of the life of the nation and the State. It is justice to women.’


Bishop Gore then continues:

‘A Father of the Christian Church, St Gregory of Nazianzus, nearly 1600 years ago, looking at the legislation of the then Roman Empire with regard to the relations of the sexes and to marriage said: “The laws have been made by men, therefore they have been unjust to women.” You feel that, I dare say, but it inheres almost in the nature of things that the point of view which is not represented is overlooked. It belongs to democracy that because no one should be overlooked, therefore everyone and every point of view should be represented. That is justice, and with this great enlargement of women’s opportunity there has come by a more gradual process an almost unlimited extension of the opportunities of service for women. There are very few pieces of literature that fascinate me more than Miss Austen’s novels. To read them is delightful for many reasons, one being that they give you an almost infinite sense of what can be accomplished in the way of progress in particular directions. You cannot conceive a social state as regards men, and ten times more so as regards women, more totally different from anything that we should conceive to be tolerable than the society depicted by Miss Austen.’

Here Bishop Gore offers his insights on the ministry of women:  

‘The extension of opportunity to women for which you have come to give thanks to-day, quite apart from the granting of the suffrage, is marvellous. Doubtless there is more to come. The Church is a very conservative body. In some things it is right to be conservative. I do not believe that it would ever be right for the Church to add women to the priesthood. I believe that rests on a principle which will never alter. But I feel no doubt also that there is a very wide opening for the ministry of women of which as yet little advantage has been taken. In the beginning there was a diaconate for women as for men, and I would see it not only incidentally but formally restored as an order of the ministry, and as a symbol of all the manifold forms of social service; preaching, prophesying, teaching are not confined to men.’

‘“Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,” that was the forecast, and it is a forecast which admits of far more abundant realisation than it has had.’

‘Who can doubt that there is a gift as manifest among women as among men, as teachers, as exhorters, as superiors, as guides? I do not see that there is any principle which can prohibit to women any function which can be assigned to laymen. That may admit of a great extension, and I am not without hopes that order may be taken not in one diocese, nor in another diocese, but in all dioceses corporately which shall give recognition to such a principle. And so I desire to join heartily in your thanksgiving both for that which was accomplished a year ago and for all that it represents and involves and is accompanied by.’

Gore ended his sermon as he began it by quoting St Paul’s letter to the Philippians chapter four, verses six and seven. His listeners were in no doubt of his sincerity in giving thanks for what had been achieved and the dedication of countless women who persevered against the tide of injustice.  

Gore’s liberal catholicism is apparent in writings that bear testimony to his understanding of the doctrine of the incarnation, the cross of Christ, authority, the Bible and the Church, with which most Anglo-Catholics from the traditionalist wing of the Church of England could find common ground. Towards the end of the twentieth century, however, there was a shift in how liberal catholicism had changed from the way Gore had envisaged it. What we now have is a new style of liberal catholicism—some of which divides rather than unites our common witness to the wider Church of which we are a small part, while there is an attempt to build on what we do share in common yet without compromise.

What would Bishop Gore make of this new version of liberal Catholicism, ‘inclusive’ or ‘exclusive’ of interpreting doctrine and scripture within the spectrum of the age in which we live? Would he embrace it or reject it?


Brother Steven Haws is a member of the Community of the Resurrection, Mirfield.