The role of women in leadership at the Vineyard Church, Richmond

The original version of this article by Peter Flower was published in Richmond History 24 (2003).

The Richmond Vineyard Congregational Church archives offer a fascinating insight into how the role of women has developed within this small church over the last 172 years – set against the backdrop of the blossoming of women’s ministry across all denominations in England.

Five pieces of a jigsaw

Five distinctive pieces of a jigsaw emerge over this period which together build a unique picture of the ministry of women within the church. Firstly, from the very beginning in 1831, men and women exercised a joint responsibility for major decision making within the church. Secondly, soon after the First World War, women became eligible to serve in a leadership capacity as deacons. Thirdly, the recognition of pastoral gifting came when the first woman, Elsie Chamberlain, was appointed pastor just after the end of the Second World War. Fourthly, as in other churches, women were involved in a variety of philanthropic areas of service. And lastly, from the late nineteenth century onward, women took an increasingly leading role in church affairs as church officers of one sort or another.

The “priesthood of all believers”

The Vineyard was founded as a Congregational church and continues to function as one today. Congregationalists trace their origins back to the seventeenth-century Puritans (or “Independents” or “Dissenters” as they were also then known) who met in separate congregations free from the direction or influence of others.  One of the essentials of Congregational church life then, as well as now, is the belief in the New Testament teaching of the “priesthood of all believers”. An understanding of this is important as the role of both women and men within the church stems from this teaching. Primarily it means that, on conversion, each believer has direct access to God without the need of anyone else acting on his or her behalf – such as an ordained minister or priest. In essence, the ordained hierarchy of deacons, priests and bishops of the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church is alien to Congregationalists. Secondly, the “priesthood of all believers” means that each convert is given special spiritual gifts that are to be used to build up the church in an every member ministry.

From the early seventeenth century, women were therefore to be found in the forefront of Congregational church life. The religious upheavals of the period resulted in the re-examination of scripture and a radical challenge to previously held doctrines; women were then given many opportunities to preach and teach which had not existed before within the Puritan tradition [See note 1]. But after the Restoration in 1660, these opportunities became less common. Within a generation the cultural mores of eighteenth-century England saw the role of women in Congregational churches conforming to the traditions of society around them with women being subservient to men in church leadership. By the early nineteenth century, both the dissenting churches and the established Church of England’s teaching on the role of women was largely patriarchal and women were seen as “the repositories of moral and religious values and the guardians of Christian home life”[see note 2].

Seeds of change

This view was gradually challenged as the nineteenth century progressed. The seeds of change were sown by Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). Owing its inspiration to the French Revolution, her beliefs shaped the radical ideas of others which bore fruit later in the nineteenth century. Her ideas were expanded by Barbara Bodichon in A Brief summary of the Important Laws concerning Women (1855) and by male champions of female equality like John Stuart Mills in The Subjection of Women (1869).

Congregational writers began to explore the role of women during the first half of the nineteenth century but the thrust of argument lay around the difference in abilities and roles of men and women. Sarah Ellis (1812–72), the second wife of the Rev. William Ellis, a Congregational Minister and missionary with the London Missionary Society, wrote several books aimed at the middle-class women who made up the bulk of Congregational congregations. Their role in upholding the moral nature of society was stressed, together with the practical importance of visiting the poor and sick. Women were exhorted to “be content to be inferior to men – inferior in mental power, in the same proportion that you are inferior in bodily strength”.[see note 3]

This view was supported by John Angell James, who was a Congregationalist Minister at Carrs Lane Congregational in Birmingham in the early- and mid-nineteenth century. His series of sermons on the role of women were published under the title  Female Piety, or the Young Women’s Friend and Guide through Life to Immortality in 1852.  These sermons echoed the prevailing teaching across all denominations that men and women had different roles to play – and the home was the latter’s domain. This did not preclude, however, the encouragement of women to play an important role in philanthropic work within the church.

However, a more radical view about the role of women was put forward within Congregationalism by Benjamin Parsons, the minister of Ebley Chapel, near Stroud. In The Mental and Moral Dignity of Women published in 1842, and Education, the Birthright of Every Human Being, published three years later, he put forward his passionate belief in the importance of education for all. His writings helped advance the cause of education for girls which saw new opportunities open up in secondary and higher education from the 1850s onwards. The argument for educational advancement rested more and more on equality for all and from the 1860s the movement for women’s suffrage gathered momentum. But while it was not until 1918 that women were able to play a part in national government through universal suffrage, they had this responsibility within Congregational churches from the mid-nineteenth century onwards.

Men and women jointly responsible

This was because “no church insists more specifically that there can be any such thing as a solitary Christian. To be a Christian means to belong to the company of the Lord’s people, the Church, and to belong to the church, Congregationalists say, does not mean belonging the Church in general, but to a particular congregation”. [see note 4] And the place where fellowship with other believers takes place, in addition to corporate worship, prayer and bible study, is the church meeting. This is where all the members of the church come together to pray, discuss matters and take decisions about the spiritual and administrative affairs of the body. And taking the teaching given by St Paul in the New Testament, every adult member in a Congregational church, irrespective of their gender, has a real voice in the running of the church under God’s direction. At the Vineyard, this responsibility was inherent from the start in 1831 – the first piece of the jigsaw picture that shows the role of women within the church.

Of the nine members that made up the first congregation of the Vineyard Church at its first meeting in December 1831, there were two couples, Mr & Mrs Fuller and Mrs & Mrs Gandee, and the rest were single men and women. Overall, the women, namely Mrs Day, Mrs Fuller, Mrs Foulkes, Mrs Gandee, Mrs Ford and Mrs Frances, outnumbered the men six to three. And as the minute book records for the next few years, while meetings were sometimes chaired by Mr Fuller or a visiting minister, the decisions taken were by everyone notwithstanding social standing, gender or any other factor.

At the second church meeting held in January 1832, for instance, when there was no minister present, the congregation discussed how the Lord’s Supper should be administered. At the next meeting, presided over by Mr Fuller, the application for church membership of three new members was discussed and agreed. This process was followed at subsequent meetings. Those applying for membership were either admitted by “dismissal” from other churches or by profession of their faith, having been converted to Christianity “from the world” as the Church Minute Books quaintly records. Those “dismissed” had their membership from other churches transferred – from Congregational, Primitive Methodist, Baptist, Wesleyan, and Church of Scotland churches, mainly from outside Richmond.

By the end of 1832, there were 31 members, which represented a healthy growth, and all were involved in the government of the church, meeting every month or so for this purpose. During the period 1831–1845, as church numbers grew, the proportion of women to men within the church continued at the same level – 71.5% to 28.5%.[see note 5] Of these women 51% were married, 24% were single and the status of the remainder is unknown.[see note 6]

Involving the whole congregation

The practice of the whole congregation agreeing to membership of newcomers occupied considerable time at most church meetings throughout the nineteenth century. However, there could be problems if husbands were of a different denomination. At a church meeting in May 1838, a new church member, “Ellen Hannah — (late Miss Smith) was received into fellowship with this church”. The church record continues: “The husband of the above – being a member of the Established Church, and feeling a decided objection to his name appearing amongst the records of a Dissenting Church: at the suggestion of her late pastor, it was conceded that the entry should be made as above”. A note in the margin written in January 1843 and signed by Rev. Henry Martin reads: “Viz. was this quite honest?”

The practice of the whole church agreeing to the membership of newcomers continues to be followed to this day.

In many churches it was common for the wives of members to leave their husbands to go to church meetings but this was not the case at the Vineyard. The first minutes of the church meeting record the actual names of those present, but from then onwards neither the names nor numbers of those attending was noted. However, the wording of the minutes indicate that those proposed for membership of the church – both men and women – were present at meetings. For instance, in January 1833 “Mrs Draper was unanimously received (into membership) and Miss Bosshawn (from) Twickenham was proposed by Mr Franklin and he and Mr Jameson were appointed to visit her”. The next month the minute records that “Miss Bosshawn was unanimously received”. At a meeting in September 1845, the minutes specifically mention that “Susan Goodall, proposed at the last church meeting, was received into the privileges of membership by the right hand of fellowship by the pastor with unanimity and cordiality”. At a meeting held a few years earlier in December 1837, the members considered who should be admitted to the “privileges of communion”, and the minutes noted that “As Mrs Briggs was not present, it was thought she had better stand over to the next Church meeting, the same step was also desirable in reference to Louisa Blimco”. The conclusion must be that women were present and active at church meetings from the very start of the life of the church. The practice of recording the numbers present at church meetings only started in April 1888, and names of those who attended were only shown from December 1993 onwards.

However, the involvement of the whole congregation in the important decisions of the church is no better illustrated than by a sad situation which occurred in 1840. A special church meeting was called in April of that year to consider an allegation of immoral conduct of one of the members – Mrs Harriet Neile. She had become a church member in December 1837. The church record states that “It has been publicly reported that Mrs Neile (who had been for many years separated from her husband on account of his living in adultery) was in a state of pregnancy by a young man with whom she was known to be intimately acquainted. Every means were taken to ascertain whether the report were (sic) true, when from all the evidence that could be gathered, it appeared to the church that no other course was open but that of expel (sic) from their society one who had disgraced the profession of the Gospel. The whole case was considered with much penitence and tenderness on the part of the Church and it was resolved that Mrs Harriet Neile be cut off from the fellowship of this church and that the pastor so communicate the same to her.”

Appointing a new pastor

Besides this unfortunate case, which was unique in the church’s history, the most important decisions taken by the members were to appoint a new pastor to the church. This was a pressing concern for the first few years of the fledging church’s existence and a number of ministers and student ministers came to preach. In September 1833, there was much discussion at the church meeting about the services of a Mr Bevis, a student, who had preached on occasions, and who was being considered for a trial period. A proposal was put to the meeting that his return to the church would “be the cause of much discussion and unhappiness”. Of the 21 members present, 12 were women. A vote on the proposal was taken and six voted in favour, 12 against and three were “neutral”. In the event, Mr Bevis did not return to the church, but the episode illustrates the way in which adult church members, both men and women, took decisions about church affairs.

The first permanent pastor appointed was Rev Henry Martin in March 1835. This followed a special church meeting presided over by Mr Gandee in September 1834 after Martin had visited the Vineyard previously to preach. “After many and fervent prayers to the  ?– head of the church for guidance and direction an almost unanimous resolution was passed that Rev Henry Martin be requested to supply the pulpit for two months with a view to final settlement”. He was clearly the right choice for a formal invitation was extended to him early in 1835 signed by “26 members of the church and 73 members of the congregation”. Sadly, he died in 1844 after a long illness. He was only 36 and is buried in the churchyard behind the church.

The deacons’ role

Those with special leadership accountability within the church body are the pastor and the deacons, all of whom are appointed by the whole body for specific tasks. The Vineyard Church in its early years had neither pastor nor deacons. While the former post was filled in 1834, it was not until 20 years later that deacons were appointed.

Deacons in Congregational churches are elected by the congregation and share with the pastor the spiritual and administrative oversight of the local church. They are effectively lay leaders and their role echoes the appointment of those in the early church in Jerusalem described in the book of Acts.  The seven chosen at the church meeting in the first-century Jerusalem church were all men. What role, then did women play in the leadership of the Vineyard Church nineteen hundred years later?

In 1833 the state of the Vineyard church finances was giving cause for concern and at the church meeting in May it was proposed and agreed that a small Committee should be formed to “look after the chapel affairs”. Six members were appointed – all men. Although they were not termed deacons at this stage, they formed an informal diaconate. During the ensuing years, a number of ad hoc committees were also formed at different times to deal with a variety of matters. For instance, in December 1858 the pastor, Revd Bramwhite French, suggested to the church meeting the appointment of four men to “examine the roll of church members with a view to its review – there being several names which it might seem sensible to strike off”.

However, it was not until February1861 that a proposal for appointing four deacons by an elected ballot was put to the church meeting for consideration. This principle was agreed a month later and nine men were nominated. An election then took place with both men and women voting by putting a mark against the names of their choice on sheets of paper passed around the meeting. Messrs Cox, Witten, Whitely and Standen were duly elected the first deacons of the Vineyard Church. “Special prayers were made for Divine Providence in making the selection and thanks offered for the guidance vouchsafed.” But 70 years were to pass before women were elected to the diaconate at the Vineyard.

The role of the deacons (or “Committee of Managers” as they were also called until it was pointed out in 1867 that the Trust Deed of the Chapel required that the management of the church’s affairs had to be entrusted to “deacons”) was to work in partnership with the pastor on the administrative and financial affairs of the church. They were also involved in some pastoral work – for instance it was recorded that in 1877 they had visited church members over the preceding 12 months and had “been well received and become better acquainted with them”.

On the resignation of the pastor, deacons had the responsibility of overseeing the running of the church as well as facilitating the appointment of a replacement. And until 1947, this replacement was always male. As has already been pointed out, the appointment of a new pastor was one that all the church members had to agree on at a church meeting; but certainly in the nineteenth century it was customary for this decision to be endorsed by those whose finances were crucial to the church – the “seat-holders”. These were those who paid an annual rent for a specific pew in the church, a practice common in Victorian England which paid for the pastor’s stipend. As the Church Minute book records in March 1864, after a decision had been taken at the church meeting to invite Rev. Ingrams to the pastorate, it was agreed that according to “our practice, it is necessary to call together the male seat holders for their opinion”. This happened again in 1888, and it was recorded that this was actually a requirement of the Churches Trust deed.

One outcome of the growing numbers of women receiving better education during the mid- nineteenth century was that the movement for women’s suffrage gathered pace across the country from the 1860’s onwards.  In parallel was a growing demand for women to become involved in more in church affairs, both in the non-conformist churches as well as in the Church of England.

Women as deacons

Women began to argue that they should be able to serve in churches as deacons. It is possible that the first woman appointed to the diaconate of a Congregational church was at Walthamslow in 1895. This was not due to due to any great theological debate, but as a matter of practicality – the church treasurer was very deaf and his wife was needed to help him at deacon’s meetings.[see note 7] The social and political upheavals generated by the First World War lead to the passing of the historic Representation of the Peoples Act in 1918. This gave the right to vote to all men aged 21 and over as well as to women aged 30 and over who were ratepayers or the wives of ratepayers. This undoubtedly raised the whole issue of women’s role in church government; at the Vineyard, this was no exception.

In May 1919, having first been discussed at a deacons’ meeting, a resolution was put to the church about elections to the diaconate. This was designed to clarify the number of deacons, how long they should serve before re-election, who could be appointed and a host of other details about the election process. The original draft in Rule 2 specified that “Deacons should be elected from the adult male members of the church”. It was this issue that was hotly debated at the meeting. Mr Wheeler proposed, seconded by Mr Atkins that the word “male” should be deleted. The Church minute book records that twelve members spoke – five women and seven men. It is not recorded who said what, but there were a couple of further proposals put to the meeting, one of which, to defer the matter until the Annual Election the following year, was carried.

The matter was again discussed, therefore at this meeting in January 1920. Thirteen members took part in the discussion, including the minister, Rev Aveling, and when the proposal to change Rule 2 to “Deacons shall be elected from the members of the church above the age of 25” it was carried by 21 votes to 19 – a close-run thing!

But having opened up the opportunity for women to serve as deacons, the first women were not elected for another eleven years. This became the concern of one of the church members, Mr Atkins, who had supported their eligibility back in 1920. He wrote to the minister, Rev Saunders, in January 1931 to indicate that he wanted “to move at the next church meeting for the inclusion of women on the diaconate”. This was discussed at the deacons’ meeting and the matter raided at the church meeting in February 1931. He presented a resolution that the number of deacons should be increased from 9 to 12, with three new positions specifically reserved for women – who were not to be related to male deacons. Much discussion took place and a decision taken to defer the matter to the next meeting. The matter was then voted on but turned down by 30 votes to five. However, at the next meeting in April, there were five nominations for deacons – two of them from women. All were elected unanimously – an historic moment. The second piece of the jigsaw puzzle was in place.

At the deacons’ meeting held in May, the minister cordially welcomed the two newly elected deacons – Mrs Ashton and Mrs Cooper. Thereafter, women regularly served as deacons and in 2002  three out of six of the church’s current leadership team were women, while two out of the four Church Trustees (deacons) were women.

Women as ministers

Perhaps the seventeenth-century Puritan tradition of women preachers never really completely died out. Certainly, the Evangelical Revival of 1859–60, which reached England and Wales from America, resulted in women preaching outside the established church structures and William Booth ensured equality of service in his new Salvation Army. Women as well as men could be commissioned as officers and Booth declared that women who were gifted could preach and fill any office in his Army[see note 8].

By the end of the century, women were beginning to act as pastors in small Congregational Churches or as assistants in larger ones. Jane Brown, who pastored the Brotherton Congregational Church in Yorkshire, is the first known example and was recognised by the Yorkshire Congregational Union in 1899.

Constance Coltman

The first woman ordained as a Congregational minister was Constance Todd in 1917 at the Kings Weigh House Church near Grosvenor Square in Central London. She was ordained with her fiancé, Claud Coltman, and they got married the following day![see note 9] Other non-conformist churches were hot on their heels; a Baptist congregation first invited a women to take pastoral charge in 1918 and women pastors were recognised in 1925 but were not able to take the title “minister” until 1957. The first women ordained by the Methodists were in 1974, and in the Church of England 1994[see note 10].

Although Constance Colton paved the way for women to serve as ministers in Congregational churches, the road was not necessarily easy for others. If churches could afford a male minister this was generally their first choice.

Elsie Chamberlain

The Vineyard invited the first of its two female ministers in 1947 – thirty years after Constance Coltman was ordained. And this appointment was the remarkable Elsie Chamberlain who, after leaving the Vineyard, became nationally renown as a BBC radio broadcaster as well as a leader in the Congregational denomination.

Elsie Chamberlain

During the War the Vineyard Church had difficulty appointing a permanent pastor after their student pastor, David Jenkins left in 1942 after only two years’ ministry. The church gratefully relied on a retired minister until 1946 when he retired due to ill health. The appointment of a successor proved difficult, especially as the church had no manse to provide accommodation. The deacons were delighted to follow up a recommendation from the Moderator of the London Congregational Union about the Rev Elsie Chamberlain. After graduating with a degree in theology from King’s College, University of London , Elsie had begun her training in Christian work in Liverpool in 1939 working under the leadership of another great women pioneer, Muriel Paulden at the Berkley Street Fellowship in Toxteth. This was one of the very first Congregational churches to appoint a women pastor back in 1922[see note 11].

Elsie later moved to Christ Church Frien Barnet and blazed a trail as the first women appointed as a Chaplain in the RAF with the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce at Cranwell. She also caused quite a stir when she married John Garrington, an Anglican vicar of All Saints, Hampton just before coming to the Vineyard aged 37. The Vineyard Church members recognised her many gifts having met her and heard her preach. They enthusiastically endorsed the deacons recommendation for appointing her at a meeting in August 1947 and agreed that “believing that we are inspired of the spirit of Jesus Christ, having heard Miss Chamberlain’s views of what a Congregational Church should be, pledge ourselves, should she accept our invitation to become our minister, to support her by every means in our power, by our prayers, by our work and by our loyalty”.

Elsie accepted the church’s invitation to join the Vineyard and agreed a review of her position after six months as her health was not well, having been invalided out of the RAF. But her stamina was such that she successfully combined the role of pastor of her own church, as well as being the wife of a busy vicar!  She energetically built up the work within the church with a variety of well planned activities such as pastoral visits, concerts in the church, open air services, short talks on church history and so on. She took up a part-time post at the BBC in the religious broadcasting department in July 1950 and Revd Ted Stanford joined her as a co-pastor later that year so that the ministry within the church would continue.

Elsie was always very supportive of the ministry of other women and was appointed President of the Women’s Federation of the Congregational Union in May 1948. During her absence on holiday the next year she arranged for Revd Rachel Storr to take the pulpit. Rachel had preached her first sermon in Elsie’s church at Frien Barnet when she was a laywomen and although brought up an Anglican, was ordained as a Congregationalist in 1948. A young member of the church, Elisabeth Neale went to read theology at King’s College, Elsie’s old college in 1950. Five years later she was appointed pastor of Wendover Congregational Church.

A notable newcomer who joined shortly after Elsie came to the Vineyard was her old friend Lady Stansgate who was accepted as a church member in September 1948. She was the mother of Tony Benn, former Labour MP and Cabinet member. Margaret Stansgate was a formidable champion for women’s ordination having voiced her views personally with the Archbishop of Canterbury back in 1925 – with little success![see note12] She joined the Congregational church in frustration at the lack of progress made within the Church of England. After Elsie left she transferred her church membership to Kings Weigh House Church in September 1955.

Elsie resigned in December 1953, together with her co-pastor, to take up a full-time role as an Assistant Producer in the Religious Affairs Department of the BBC. The church understood her calling but were nevertheless saddened to lose her. But her links continued with the church for many years as she returned to attend the induction services of her successors, preach on occasions and open fetes and the such like. At the BBC she was responsible for many years for the widely heard programme Lift up your Hearts. As her obituary stated “…her exceptional skill in helping broadcasters to prepare and present an effective script had full play. She took her turn in the conduct of the broadcast daily service and her deep and distinctive voice became familiar to many.”[see note 13] She championed the ministry of women within the church and maintained that the chief reasons for the opposition to the ordination of women were “tradition, expediency and prejudice”[see note14]. She became to “symbolise for many the place that women were coming to have in the public ministry of the churches.”[see note 15] Elsie was elected the first women Chairman of the Congregational Union in 1957 and later, after many Congregational Churches did not join with the Presbyterians to form the United Reformed Church, the first President of the newly formed Congregational Federation in 1972.

Elsie was succeeded by Rev Ernest Crutchley and it was not until November 1975 that the possibility of a second female pastor was raised. The church had been without a pastor since the death of Rev Alfred Upstill in 1974 and the church considered inviting Mrs Saunders Veness to the pastorate. However, those present felt the Vineyard was “not the right type of church for her”. Shortly afterwards, Miss G Kinnersley read the advertisement in the press for a part-time pastor and applied. She was a deaconess in the Anglican Church with a degree in Theology and was training as a Social Worker. She was appointed in April 1976 and continued with her studies. Unfortunately her health problems necessitated being absent from deacons and church meetings early in 1977. She resigned in April as she felt she could not involve herself fully in the life of the church and her employer, Wandsworth Council, were disapproving of her part-time role. Since then to the present day all the five pastors have been men.

Philanthropic service

The fourth piece of the jigsaw picture of women’s ministry is that of philanthropic service which can be traced back to the last few decades of the nineteenth century. Largely as a result of the late eighteenth century Evangelical Revival, the Victorian era saw an unprecedented level of activity in meeting the needs of the poor and disadvantaged. Women were encouraged to take an active role in raising funds for mission work, visiting the sick, involvement in the temperance movement, Sunday Schools, help for prisoners, prostitutes and orphans. There is much evidence that women at the Vineyard were playing their part in many of these areas in Richmond.

This can be best uncovered by looking at a series of detailed annual printed Church Reports from 1876 to 1906, most which have survived. A further one was published in 1911 after which it appears that production ceased. They provide a fascinating insight into the life of the church during this period, when church membership ranged from 150 to 180 and there were a variety of different activities being undertaken – spiritual, social and philanthropic.

In 1876, for instance when there were 154 church members, those leading the philanthropic work were mainly men. The thriving Sunday School of 225 adult & infant “scholars” (average attendance 152), were led by a Mr Willson as Superintendent, with 28 teachers, some of whom were women. However, women led the Juvenile Dorcas Society, as well as the adult Dorcas Society, the purpose of which was to aid the sick and “necessitous poor of Richmond by grants of clothing”. Another group, the “Society for Visiting the Sick Poor”, started in 1872, had four men and two women as visitors, while the two collectors of funds were women. They had 72 cases during the year and paid 298 visits to the sick. The Auxiliary to the London Missionary Society had the pastor as President, but the Committee of seven, including Treasurer and Secretary were all women.

The pattern of philanthropic service so evident in the late Victorian and Edwardian period continued throughout the twentieth century. And it enabled women to be appointed into leading positions within the church – the fifth and final part of the jigsaw picture of women’s ministry.

For instance, thirty years later, in 1906, the church had 184 members. The Sunday school had 115 scholars (average in the morning 48 and the afternoon 77) and while the two Superintendents, the Secretary and Treasurer were all men, there were now 12 women teachers and six men. The Dorcas Society was run by women, and the Auxiliary to the London Missionary Society now had Mrs Davis in charge as Secretary and the Sick Visiting Society was headed up by Miss Gregory as Secretary and Treasurer, supported by two lady collectors and six visitors who were also women. Some new groups were evident – the Band of Hope encouraging temperance had men as Secretary and Treasurer, but women acted in other official posts. The Guild, which promoted “the religious and social life” of its members, was headed up by two men, but four out of the Committee of eight were women. The Women’s Own group, with a membership of 38 was run by women, the Bible Class, with 42 members had two men in charge, with two women as Visitors, while the Church Choir (36 members) was led by the redoubtable Matthews sisters, Nellie, as Conductor and Jessie as Organist.

Women had also begun to serve in other leading roles, other than those of deacons. For instance, in 1897 Mrs Davis was appointed a delegate to the Metropolitan Auxiliary Committee of the London Missionary Society. The following year Mrs Payne was appointed a delegate at the Surrey Congregational Union in place of the Rev Whitbread, one of the congregation, although she declined the position. Women thereafter served as church representatives or delegates on a number of local, regional and national bodies. Outside the Vineyard, the first woman to be appointed as delegate to the national Congregational assembly was Harriet Spicer in 1892.  Twenty-four years later, in 1916, Harriet’s sister-in-law, Jessie Dykes, was one of six women members out of 300 on the Council of the Congregational Union.

Just under thirty years on, in the church’s centenary year in 1931, the picture of the church was rather different than in 1906, with membership being 75. In the Choir, Jessie Matthews had chalked up 25 year’s service in 1923, when she retired, but her sister Nellie continued as Conductor until her retirement in 1935. Many of the church groups were no longer in existence. Without the benefit of the Church Reports, it is difficult to get an overall picture of the church’s life, and the Church Meeting records are concerned more with organising garden fetes, bazaars and jumble sales. However, newspaper reports show that the Sunday School was still thriving with 97 scholars (34 average attendance) but still led by a man. There were now Scout, Guide and Brownie groups, the latter two run by women. The Women’s Society still carried, on led by women, for women but other groups had been formed, such as the Missionary Fellowship run by Mrs Atkins, and the Watchers Prayer Union, led by Mr Campbell.

On an equal footing

It could be said that one hundred years after the founding of the church, women were playing leading roles in the church on an equal footing as men. A few year later, the first female Church Secretary was appointed – Miss Mabel Brock in April 1943. She followed in the footsteps of her predecessor Arthur Scales, who had carried out the role for 24 years. Mabel was elected a deacon in 1945. She was still Church Secretary in 1967, having carried out sterling work when the church was without a pastor from 1961 to 1967 by chairing church meetings. During a further period from 1987 to 1992, when the church was again without a pastor, it fell upon another women, Marie Rumgay to steer the church through what became its crisis years. With church membership dwindling to less than ten, and the roof of the building requiring colossal structural repair work, Marie led the church to survival under God’s grace. This was through securing financial assistance from the Richmond Parish Lands Charity to repair the roof (to continue the work of helping those in need in the Vineyard Project in the basement below the church) and the eventual appointment of a full time pastor, Robert Sims.

Over the last 170 years, women have played an increasingly important part in the life of the Vineyard Church. Would the six women – Mrs Day, Mrs Fuller, Mrs Foulkes, Mrs Gandee, Mrs Ford and Mrs Frances, who formed the majority of the congregation in 1831, have been proud of their sister’s ministry in the Vineyard Church since then?

I believe they would.


The author would like to thank Dr Elaine Kaye MA, BD, Ph.D for her proof reading of this article as well as her guidance into background reading on the role of women within Congregational Church history. In particular her unpublished paper, “Daughters of Dissent” (1998) has been of great help.


Minute books of Church and Deacon meetings 1831–1995


Alan Argent, Elsie Chamberlain 19471967, Congregational History Circle Vol 4 Number 2 (2000) & Number 3 (2001)

Francois Bedarida, Social History of England 18511990. (1990)

Jose Harris, Private Loves, Public Spirit. An overview of British Society 18701914. (1993)

R Tudor Jones, Congregationalism in England 16621962. (1962)

Ian Sellers, Nineteenth Century Nonconformity. (1997)

Note on author

Peter Flower has a B.A. Hons in modern history from London University and is an Associate of King’s College London.


[1] Patricia Crawford, Women and Religion in England 15001720. (1993)

[2] Sean Gill, Women and the Church of England (1994)  p.6

[3] Sarah Ellis, Daughters of England 1842, quoted in an unpublished paper by Dr Elaine Kaye, Daughters of Dissent’(1998).

[4] Daniel Jenkins, Congregationalism: a Restatement (1954) p.39

[5] Jeanette King ,‘From riots in a rural retreat to salvation in a Surrey suburb : a study of Evangelicalism in Richmond:  Open University project (1999). p. 15

[6] ibid p.16.

[7] Author unknown, Privately printed booklet from Trinity Congregational Church, Walthamslow  (1960).

Quoted by Dr Elaine Kaye, ibid.

[8] Graham Dale, God’s Politicians (2000)

[9] Elaine Kay, A turning point in the Ministry of Women: the Ordination of the First Women to the Christian Ministry in England in September 1917 in W. J. Sheils and D. Wood Women in the Church, Studies in Church History (1990) pp. 505–512.

[10] Sean Gill, ibid. p. 272.

[11] Derek Watson , Angel of Jesus: Muriel Paulden of Liverpool 8 (1994) p .28–29.

[12] Sean Gill, ibid. p. 238.

[13] The Times, 12 April 1991.

[14] Six Point Group publication: Chapter by Elsie Chamberlain on ‘The World in which we worship’ 1968

[15] The Times, 12 April 1991.