In the year marking the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote, and shortly after a woman has been appointed Bishop of London, I talked to Bishop Ronnie Bowlby about the struggle for women’s ordination as priests in the Church of England and the role he took in leading the movement.

The first women were ordained in 1994, but the fight began long before that. It first “became a live issue” as long ago as 1930, Bowlby said, when it was presented at the Lambeth Conference (a decennial meeting of all the bishops of the Anglican Communion worldwide). The Conference, and every one following it for many years, categorically ruled out the possibility of the ordination of women. Nonetheless, the campaign did have some success when, fourteen years later, due to a shortage of male candidates, the first woman was ordained as a priest in Hong Kong. However, Florence Li Tim Oi subsequently resigned as a result of the controversy surrounding her appointment.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the issue came to prominence again. Bowlby recalls that the topic was first introduced to him - and Elizabeth, his wife, who also became a keen supporter - by a fellow vicar, Alan Webster. That, he said, was when he really became aware of the campaign, and became an advocate for it. In 1968, the Lambeth Conference did not either support or condemn the ordination of women; given every conference prior had eliminated the possibility, this seemed a notable step forward.

Bowlby said that when he became Bishop of Southwark in 1980, “one of the parishes brought forward a motion in favour of ordaining women, for the Diocesan Synod to debate. [...] This was duly debated, and a motion was agreed that it should be brought to the General Synod, and I had the job of presenting that.”

The speech he made in 1984 to the General Synod (the thrice-yearly ‘parliament’ of bishops, clergy and lay people) was when “it really took off”: the motion was passed, though not with the two-thirds majority required. It would be another eight years of campaigning before the motion would win final approval in the Synod.

For those not a part of the Church, Bowlby comments that some of the arguments used to oppose women priesthood “would not be easily understood, but were quite powerful at the time.” One such assertion was that “Christ was the head of the Church, and therefore men were the head of women”; similarly, that Christ had not chosen any women among the twelve disciples, “and so if he hadn’t done it, we mustn’t do it”. Though these lines of thinking appealed to a lot of people, Bowlby found them “unconvincing. I couldn’t really see the logic of it, and I didn’t believe that women were subordinate to men, in the Church or out of it.”

When reflecting upon the beliefs held by those who opposed the movement, Bowlby commented that he “was pretty convinced that deep down there was a certain amount of latent misogyny in the Church, as elsewhere.” He continued, "There was a certain resentment against women having authority, even though by that time women had become headteachers, doctors, all sorts.”

Bowlby was also involved in the leadership of the Movement for the Ordination of Women (MOW), as one of two Vice Moderators; the other being a woman. It was made up of a determined group of activists, with a carefully thought-out, pragmatic approach to campaigning for change within what was a very socially conservative institution. MOW had, according to Bowlby, “gained a lot of strength and been quite widely supported across all of the Diocesan churches.” He reflected that “they were very active in converting people to the idea” - and this direct approach was one of the leading causes of the motion being passed in later years.

When asked if he had any notable opponents, Bowlby immediately turned to the Bishop of London. He explained, “I was Bishop of Southwark, which covers south London and quite a bit of Surrey. The Bishop of London, Graham Leonard, was north of the river.” Bowlby continued, “Graham was strongly opposed, and so it was very much a matter of observation that the two London bishops were against each other.” Bowlby held a certain dislike for his opponent in the London diocese, who made it notably more difficult to get legislation through. Leonard was “an influential leader of the Anglo-Catholics [a group well-disposed to the Roman Catholics]”, who led certain arguments against the ordination of women. Following his retirement, Leonard converted to a Roman Catholic; this was, Bowlby commented, “the first time that had ever happened with a bishop.”

Interestingly, Bowlby pointed out that a defining aspect to people’s views on women’s leadership within the Church is how they view God. “Sometimes people need to think about what kind of God they believe in - do you think God is female? Do you think God is male? The answer is no, he can’t be - he’s both, or neither,” Bowlby remarked. Though male pronouns are used almost exclusively - because they always have been, and there is uncertainty about how else to “go about it” - most Christian churches would agree that God has no gender. Bowlby reflects that “a lot of this understanding [about women’s roles in the Church] stems from the fact that without realising it, people tend to think of God as if he were a man.” While this way of thinking may seem foreign to some, especially given the labelling of God as ‘Father’, it poses interesting questions about the role of gender within the Church.

Given over twenty years has passed since the first women were ordained as priests, and the motion was passed for women to be ordained as bishops in 2014 - with Sarah Mullally recently becoming the first Bishop of London, I asked Bowlby how he felt about his role in the beginning of a movement that continues to this day. “I’m glad I was actively involved, and did a lot towards it,” he reflected. “It was the one big issue in which I had quite a decisive influence. I’d like to be remembered for it.”