A truly ‘conservative’ evangelical account of gender and church office

Being a Scottish Baptist, I’ve not had much to say about the debate over whether the Church of England was prepared to allow women as well as men to be bishops (albeit slightly second-class ones); I confess to sadness at the result; I have Anglican friends on both sides of the debate, and knew that someone was going to get hurt, but there was great, perhaps too much, effort made in the measure to protect the integrity of those who would have found a female bishop theologically difficult, whereas the defeat of the measure offers no equivalent care for gifted and called women who feel their humanity being denigrated, or for women and men who find existence in a denomination so resistant to this particular change increasingly difficult. Further, it is so evident that the vast majority of the Church wanted the measure to pass that its being voted down by a small minority in one house looks like a basic failure of process, which has plunged the church into crisis and serious damaged its mission – and the mission of every other Christian church in the UK, given how widely this has been reported.

The press line has been that the measure was voted down by ‘conservative evangelicals,’ who are opposed on Biblical grounds concerning authority to the elevation of women to the episcopate; this is already an over-simplification: it has nothing to say about Anglo-Catholic groups such as Forward in Faith, or indeed to the possibility, heavily trailed in the run-up to the synod, that some supporters of opening the episcopate to women voted against on the grounds that the concessions granted were far too generous. (I have seen no indication of the likely relative strength of these three groups on Synod; I’d be interested if somebody could point me to a credible source.)

I want here to take issue with the term ‘conservative evangelical’. I am aware, of course, that it is the chosen self-denomination of a certain strand of British evangelicalism which is, or has been, variously defined by: opposition to charismatic renewal; a heavy emphasis on the importance of expository preaching; a Calvinistic account of the doctrines of grace; a commitment to a penal substitutionary account of the atonement; a stress on the importance of doctrine in the Christian life – and also a particular view of gender roles in church (and possibly in family – not, unlike the USA, in society). (On this list, I count 67% conservative – enough even to get past the General Synod’s voting bars, just).

The term invites interrogation, however: what does ‘conservative’ mean when qualifying ‘evangelical’? Other than political and technical usages, the meanings in the OED cluster around an aversion to change, and a desire to preserve long-standing/traditional values. Now, we should distinguish between values intrinsic to (British) evangelicalism and values incidental to it; one might have conservative taste in cuisine or clothing, for instance, and also be committed to an evangelical expression of Christianity; a ‘conservative evangelical’ might just be an evangelical who tends to lag behind the times on cultural matters that are largely irrelevant to evangelical faith.

Of my list above, perhaps only ‘opposition to charismatic renewal’ has any chance of being ‘conservative’ in this, ‘incidental,’ sense; the others are all dealing with matters that have been at or near the heart of what it has been to be evangelical, although in most cases in complex ways. Evangelicalism was not initially, and never has been, a monolithically Calvinist movement; evangelicals assumed penal substitution when everyone else did (eighteenth century), and began to question it when everyone else did (c.1810) as well – although our questioning did not lead to the near-universal abandonment of the doctrine that was evident elsewhere…

…the issue on the table, though, is gender, particularly as it applies to fitness for certain ecclesial offices. What does ‘conserving’ an evangelical tradition look like in this area?

I have blogged about evangelical re-orientations of gender before now, but not specifically, I think, about the nineteenth-century evangelical embracing of the ordained ministry of women. The story is a fascinating one: the eighteenth-century revival saw female leaders (obvious e.g., the Countess of Huntingdon) and preachers (e.g., Mary Fletcher, whose call was affirmed by John Wesley), and the early nineteenth century saw some of the new evangelical denominations opening their ministry to women and men indifferently – the Primitive Methodists, for instance. It was the nineteenth-century holiness movement, however, that saw the most significant breakthrough. Whilst holiness teaching can easily be seen as essentially a revival of Wesley’s distinctive teaching on Christian perfection, as an organised movement, it begins in the astonishing ministry of Phoebe Palmer. Palmer was forced to defend her ministry as a highly visible preacher, leader, and evangelist (although when one reads of what God did through her ministry – something like 25 000 converts under her preaching, before we begin to list the works of social transformation, the leadership activities, the theological contribution, … – the idea that her ministry stood in need of ‘defence’ should seem merely incredible). She wrote a book, The Promise of the Father (1859), which reprised an older series of Biblical arguments for the ministry of women, first advanced (to the best of my knowledge) by the remarkable Quaker theologian Margaret Fell in Women’s Speaking Justified (1666). (I don’t know of any evidence that Palmer had read Fell, but the arguments are similar enough that some level of direct or indirect influence seems likely to me).

Palmer did not raise the question of ordination, but her arguments made it inevitable. Catherine Booth was deeply influenced by Palmer, writing a defence of Palmer’s ministry, Female Ministry: Or, A Woman’s Right to Preach the Gospel (1859/1870), that echoed many arguments from The Promise of the Father. Well before Palmer’s death, the question of women’s ordination was raised regularly, and generally supported, in holiness circles. Most of the new holiness denominations founded in the late nineteenth century accepted women and men indifferently into all levels of ecclesiastical office. (As a side note, Palmer began to emphasise the baptism of the Holy Spirit more and more as her ministry went on; I don’t know the history well enough to be sure, but it seems plausible that the general lack of concern about ministers’ gender in the Pentecostal denominations might owe something to her influence.)

As any student of evangelical history knows, the holiness movement was a significant influence for many decades in British evangelicalism. The Keswick Convention was founded (in 1875) to promote Scriptural holiness; conferences on the theme, such as the 1875 Brighton Convention, drew many thousands of clergy (the big draw at Brighton, incidentally, was the preaching of Hannah Whitall Smith). A measure of how lasting this influence was can be seen in the fact that a young Anglican priest criticising holiness teaching (and suggesting a return to Puritan traditions instead) in the pages of the Evangelical Quarterly as late as the 1950s found himself the centre of controversy as a result – his name, incidentally, was J.I. Packer. I think it would be reasonable to suggest that, for several decades around 1900, British evangelicalism was decisively shaped by the holiness movement – a movement that was almost universally, and unreflectively, ‘egalitarian’ in its approach to ordained ministry.

Now, this history should neither be overplayed or underplayed. On the one hand, the evangelical Anglican clergy who flocked to hear Hannah Whitall Smith or other female preachers at Keswick and elsewhere were not generally agitating for the ordination of women in their own denomination; I do not know the history here, and it would be interesting to trace their reasoning, but the fact of the lack of any significant public pressure is fairly clear. Evangelicals in the established church were happy to learn from, and promote the ministry of, women who were ordained, but not to press their own denomination to ordain women. On the other hand, outside of the established church, things did change: both the Baptist Union of Great Britain and the Congregationalist Federation ordained and accredited female ministers in the early 1920s. The history has traditionally been presented as slightly puzzling: there was, apparently, little significant debate in either case. I have heard this explained on the basis of a broad liberalism in the two denominations, such that they unreflectively opened their ministry to women as the professions – law; medicine – were being opened to women after the First World War. This is implausible: there is no doubt that there were liberalising traditions at work, but both denominations had a strong evangelical tradition, and there was no visible dissension to ordaining women from that quarter. The dominance of holiness spirituality, with its tradition of gender equality in ministry, might be – I don’t know any evidence, but it seems a plausible hypothesis to offer – the explanation for this.

Regardless of the rightness of this particular supposition, the fact remains: the dominant tradition of British spirituality from (at least) 1870-1930 was a tradition that was aggressively and counter-culturally positive about the full ministry of women, and about female ordination. This is well established and straightforward historical fact.

In recent – very recent; I suspect the crucial turning point comes in the 1980s – years, there has been a strand of British evangelicalism that has been particularly unhappy with women teaching or exercising authority in the church, and that has tried to elevate that unhappiness into a defining point for the tradition; I do not doubt the sincerity of such people, but I do think honesty should compel them to acknowledge that their position is not ‘conservative’ but profoundly revisionist: it is a direct reversal of a settled and lasting evangelical tradition.

To be a ‘conservative Anglican’ might involve a desire to resist the elevation of women to the episcopate; a ‘conservative evangelical’ however, if words retain any meaning, should necessarily be actively committed to promoting the equal ministry of women and men at every level of church office.



  1. David Kerrigan
    Nov 24, 2012

    Steve, this is really helpful, and therefore much appreciated. Your conclusion that “the dominant tradition of British spirituality from (at least) 1870-1930 was a tradition that was aggressively and counter-culturally positive about the full ministry of women, and about female ordination” offers a new perspective into the work of missionary women. I confess that for some time, maybe erroneously, I have argued that there was a double-standard at work whereby women were able to be ministers of the Word when in far off places, but not fit for the same role at home. In the light of your blog, I wonder whether this is indeed true. I may need to do more digging in the BMS archives. But maybe the affirmation of women in mission was more reflective of contemporary practice at home than I had thought.

    That doesn’t get us off the hook completely however. For many years, well into the 20th century, the husband was the missionary, the wife was… well, the wife of the missionary! 🙁

    • steve
      Nov 26, 2012

      Thanks for stopping by, David.
      As I say in the post, it is important not to overplay this: the holiness tradition was (a) natively and instinctively ‘egalitarian’ and (b) deeply influential; that did not mean that everyone influenced by the tradition accepted its views on gender.
      I’ve been doing a bit of digging into the early history of Keswick, which is interesting, and does display something of the ‘double-standard’ you suggest. The Convention had a separate ‘ladies’ meeting’, which seems to have been the only platform women could speak from; that said, the women invited to speak were often well-known preachers (to mixed audiences!), and the explicit call for women to go as evangelists to the majority world was regularly made. (Keswick’s roots are Anglican, of course).
      Ian Randall knows much more about this history than I do, and might be able to give you some answers quickly…

  2. David Reimer
    Nov 24, 2012

    Another one of my lateral connections, sparked by the proliferation of comment on the CoE vote more widely, and this post in particular. Both have reminded me of Alan Kreider’s fine essay, “Abolishing the Laity – An Anabaptist Perspective,” in Anyone for Ordination? A Contribution to the Debate on Ordination, ed. by in Paul Beasley-Murray (Tunbridge, Wells: MARC, 1993), pp. 84-111. (Also available as a PDF.)

    It touches on both of the key themes in this post: ‘conservatism’ and gender in ministry. Alan goes back to first principles to argue that ‘to be responsive to the vision of the New Testament and the needs of our time, Christians must stop seeing the ecclesiastical universe in clerico-centric terms’.

    Hard to believe it is 20 years old, and still timely now as it was in the climate of the ‘ordination’ debates of the early ’90s.

    • steve
      Nov 26, 2012

      Thanks, David.

      Yes, ‘abolishing the laity’ is a great phrase – something of a recent Baptist slogan – and Alan’s paper was/is extremely helpful.

  3. Ian Paul
    Nov 24, 2012

    Steve, this is a really helpful historical perspective. I wonder if you have had any joy inviting recognition of this from ‘conservative’ evangelicals? In all the conversations I have had, my discussion partner has insisted that this has been the consistent position of evangelicals, and if I support women’s ministry I am stepping out of the tradition.

    • steve
      Nov 26, 2012

      Hi Ian,
      No – not yet; I keep pointing out whenever I can that it is just boring and undeniable historical fact that evangelicals were more open to the ministry of women than any other strand of the church (except the Society of Friends) 1750-1900, 0r perhaps 1950; no-one wants to hear that though…

  4. Steve Walton
    Nov 25, 2012

    Thanks for the helpful historical reflections, Steve!

  5. Dianne Tidball
    Nov 25, 2012

    Thank you, encouraging personally and as always clear, accessible and persuasive.

    • steve
      Nov 26, 2012

      Thanks for coming by, Dianne, and for your encouraging comments.

  6. Jo Regan
    Nov 25, 2012

    Thank you for this. I was struggling to understand the term ‘conservative evangelical’ in connection with the discontentment of women in ministry when church history tells me a different story. The term evangelical also seems to have lost its true meaning somewhere along the line and is often used to denote something other than it’s historical roots lend itself to. Bebbington guves us a good definision if what ut is I believe. Why on earth are these terms so misunderstood? So much teaching is needed on this and the role if women in the church. Perhaps things are starting to change. I hope so, it would be good for something positive to come out of the synods vote on women bishops.

  7. Russell Almon
    Nov 26, 2012

    Coming from a U.S. Evangelical and Baptist context, which experiences its own contentiousness over the issue of women in ministry and ordination, your words are refreshing and encouraging to me.

    Given that some of our Baptist and Evangelical family over here not only ignore our own positive history but are also shocked to discover there are fellow Baptists/Evangelicals who support women in ministry and ordination who can’t simply be dismissed as ‘liberal’ … the perspective of our British brothers and sisters are much needed.

    Thanks for this.

  8. James
    Nov 26, 2012

    It’s a good article and a helpful historical perspective though I suspect ‘conservative’ evangelicals of the more Calvinistic vartiety would question your link between the holiness movement and conservative evangelicalism.

    • steve
      Nov 26, 2012

      Hi James, yes – but that’s the point of the post. Dream up a new name (Reformed Evangelical?) for a new position; don’t pretend your new position is ‘sanctified by tradition’…

  9. Alastair Roberts
    Nov 27, 2012

    Surely this is a rather tendentious way to define the nature of the ‘conservative’ wing of any movement, not just evangelicalism. The fact that a movement has had a vibrant radical tradition from the beginning does not mean that the radical position is a conservative one. I wonder whether you aren’t using the word ‘conservative’ where you might be better off using a word such as ‘traditional’.

    The definition of ‘conservative’ that you seem to employ here seems to privilege a diachronic sense of conservatism in terms of the maintenance of a tradition over a synchronic sense of the term, which would define the internal members of a particular group according to where they are situated on a sort of political spectrum.

    Evangelicalism has always possessed an inherently radical impulse – tending towards egalitarianism (not just relative to gender), individualism, deinstitutionalization, and democratization. However, the ‘conservative’ wing of evangelicalism is probably defined less in terms of commitment to these natural impulses than in terms of resistance to them, maintaining greater consistency with earlier theological and exegetical traditions, while being leavened by the revivals and missionary movements.

    I also wonder whether it wouldn’t be helpful to reflect a little more on what we are trying to define when we define ‘evangelical’ and how the character of the object of our definition may have shifted over the course of the period of our analysis. For instance, the fact that women in ministry is becoming more of an issue within ‘conservative evangelicalism’ might have something to do with a weakening of denominational affiliations, an increased movement of the centre of gravity of evangelical identity to its expression in the realm of the parachurch, and the consequent clash of views in shared spaces (CUs, evangelical conferences, etc.) that may not previously harboured people from such disparate wings of evangelicalism.

    • steve
      Nov 27, 2012

      Hi Alastair,
      I looked at the OED definitions of ‘conservative’, and my definition in the post conforms to them, so I don’t accept it is tendentious, no.

      Yes, I agree we need to work on the definition of ‘evangelical’ much more than we do – as you know, I’ve tried to do a bit of that along the way.

      • Alastair Roberts
        Nov 27, 2012

        Thanks for the response. Just to clarify, I am not trying to call anyone’s evangelical credentials into doubt here. My point is merely that this isn’t the way that the word ‘conservative’ tends to be used in such contexts. Evangelicalism has never been a monolithic movement. There have always been those within the movement who have strongly supported highly prominent ministries of women. That much isn’t in question. However, there has also always been resistance to women in leadership amongst evangelicals and even more widespread resistance to the idea that the ministry of men and women should be ‘equal’ at every level of church office. Just because there is A strong tradition of supporting women in church leadership does not mean that it is THE tradition. On this point evangelicalism has always harboured various opinions and it seems to me that any party (from either perspective) that would pretend otherwise is merely gerrymandering the channel of history to run beneath their feet. So I very strongly disagree with your final paragraph.

        Evangelicalism has always been a movement with a radical egalitarian and democratizing impulse. Evangelicals have always varied, however, in how far they have followed this impulse. The problem with your definition of ‘conservative’ is that the term ‘conservative’ has typically been used to distinguish between various wings of the evangelical movement, not merely to how historic the respective traditions of those wings are. There are ‘conservative’ positions that are younger than their ‘radical’ counterparts.

        Part of what makes conservative evangelicals conservative is that they were more resistant to certain of the radical impulses accompanying the revivals, maintaining greater theological, ecclesiastical, and practical continuity with various preceding dissenting and nonconformist traditions. ‘Conservative’ is a helpful way to denominate such groupings, provided that we don’t presume that ‘conservative’ necessarily equates to ‘mainstream’ or ‘traditional’.

        I also believe that we should beware of deracinating evangelical identity. Evangelicalism has taken different forms in different church contexts. Just because evangelicals were widely in support of women in leadership in one evangelical context does not mean that the same was true across the board. Many evangelical denominations have been fiercely resistant to women in leadership and they were no less evangelical than those who were supportive.

        It seems to me that your claim that being a conservative evangelical should necessarily involve a commitment ‘to promoting the equal ministry of women and men at every level of church office’ is weakly founded on a historical level too. Much early support for women preachers – like lay preachers more generally – seems to rest upon appeal to extraordinary, exceptional, and extenuating circumstance. It is one thing to believe or claim that in the context of exceptional gifting, in a situation of desperate need, where the failure or lack of men appointed to a particular task has left key ministries unperformed, or outside of the context of the administration of the sacraments, a woman’s sex should provide no obstacle to her performing roles that would usually be reserved for men: it is a complete different thing to support ‘the equal ministry of women and men at every level of church office.’

        The exception did not threaten the rule for many evangelicals. The same movement of Wesleyan Methodism that was happy with women preachers in the context of revival and lay preaching, banned women from preaching to mixed groups in 1803, a rule holding for over a hundred years. If principled support for the ‘equal ministry of women and men at every level of church office’ really was the norm, how do we explain such developments? As John Calvin once remarked, ‘God’s extraordinary acts do not annul the ordinary rules by which He wishes us to be bound.’ It seems to me that this isn’t too far from the position of many who supported the early women preachers. The same people who were happy with exceptions held very fast to the rule, especially when a movement that had developed within the context of the established Church of England began to adopt its own ecclesial form and sacramental ministry.

        I have also to be persuaded that, even among those evangelicals who would have been more supportive of women in leadership, this support typically took the form of ‘promoting the equal ministry of women and men at every level of church office,’ and particularly as that expression would commonly be understood today. Were theories of gender equality and the belief that women and men should be equally represented at all levels of Church and public life really so widely held among them? Or were many of them merely not opposed to women in leadership in principle, while maintaining and even strongly supporting the norm of men in leadership in practice? How many evangelical voices from history do we have decrying the fact that women are not as represented as men in the pastorate?

        I really don’t believe that the history tidily aligns with any side’s theological prejudices here. Progressive and open evangelicals are clearly following traditional trajectories, but I am not convinced that their positions or theological reasoning are quite as close to those of their evangelical forebears as they might suggest, even though there is a clear developmental continuity. Likewise, conservative evangelical views on women in leadership should not pretend to represent the mainstream of the evangelical tradition on the matter.

      • Alastair Roberts
        Nov 27, 2012

        And, I should add, Wesley’s expressed position from 1777 rather supports my assessment: “The difference between us and Quakers in this respect is manifest, they flatly deny the rule itself (of I Corinthians 14) though it stands clear in the Bible. We allow the rule: only we believe it admits of some exceptions.”

  10. Tom Lake
    Nov 28, 2012

    Hi Steve,

    Just coming to this a little late, but I wonder if you are being fair to ‘Conservative’ Evangelicals? They would argue that their tradition outdates even Margaret Fell by going back to the New Testament. Of course, on the way, they would cite people like John Owen, Calvin, Augustine etc. but principally it is the NT (and the OT of course!) that they claim to conserve.

    The presence of differing opinions through history (and especially as recently as the 19th Century) is neither here nor there. Historically we know, for example, that the Reformation brought a huge amount of ‘radical’ theology; but the presence of these thoughts says nothing of the true doctrine passed on from the Scriptures through the faithful in the Church. The Conservative Evangelical argues that they stand in the line of the faithful going back to the Apostles and Jesus.

    I suspect they would also take issue with some of the historical figures you cite, and this would only further convince them that these people were failing to conserve the gospel. For example, Hannah W. Smith was, apparently, a universalist; Margaret Fell was from a fringe group which has ultimately abandoned the gospel; Phoebe Palmer was a perfectionist etc.

    The issue really is how are the Scriptures to be understood? Historical arguments can only ever be secondary at best. The Conservative Evangelical considers himself (or herself) conservative, not simply because of some historical tradition, but because he or she stands in the line of those defending the true gospel. Thus, to show that the Conversative Evangelical is not truly conservative after all, we have to do so by biblical exposition, not historical study.


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