As an internationally known British preacher, lecturer, and author, Agnes Maude Royden's (1876-1956) involvements spanned the issues of women's rights—political, social, and religious—social justice for the poor and disenfranchised, and world peace.
Born in Liverpool, England, in 1876, Agnes Maude Royden was the youngest of eight children and the sixth daughter. The family fortune was built on ships, and her eldest brother, Sir Thomas Royden, became chairman of Cunard Steamship Company. Intellectually more precocious than her elder sisters, Maude (as she would always be called) persuaded her parents to continue her education beyond high school. She graduated from Cheltenham Ladies College in 1896, and in 1897 went to Oxford University to continue her studies at Lady Margaret Hall. She read history and achieved second-class honors. It was here that she formed two important and enduring friendships, with Evelyn Gunter and Kathleen Courtney, who shared her strong desire to make a contribution to the world. The three of them worked together for the cause of women's suffrage and world peace.
In 1899, with her formal education at an end, Royden returned to her family home, Frankby, outside Liverpool to consider her future. She had no financial need to work but she longed to make herself useful. Maude suffered all her life from lameness, and when it was eventually diagnosed as dislocated hips there was little that could be done. Her success in conquering this handicap throughout her life was remarkable, but it did at times overtax her strength. Nevertheless, in 1900 she entered into settlement work and worked at the Victoria Women's Settlement in Liverpool for 18 months.
It was also during this period that she experienced something of a spiritual crisis. Like the rest of her family she was an Anglican, but she was attracted to Roman Catholicism, especially to the grandeur of its liturgy. While she was to remain within the Church of England, her love of the Roman liturgy can be seen in her writings on beauty in religion. This spiritual quest was the topic of many of the letters that crossed among the three friends, and it was Evelyn Gunter who suggested that she come to Oxford to take counsel with the Reverend Hudson Shaw. Hudson was an Anglican priest and a popular and dynamic lecturer for the University Extension Service, a continuing education service for ordinary citizens. The meeting with Hudson Shaw was the pivotal point in Royden's life.
Following their Oxford meetings they continued their conversations by mail, and within a few months of their meeting Shaw invited Royden to come and live with him and his wife, Effie, in his rural parish at South Luffenham. She would serve both as a parish assistant and as a companion to Effie while Hudson was away lecturing during the week. The triune bond of friendship which took shape in these first months was an unusual one. Years later, in 1947, when both Effie and Hudson were dead, Royden wrote the story of their friendship in the book entitled A Threefold Cord. She said that it was Effie who first understood the love between her husband and Maude, but she wished nothing more than that the relationship among the three of them continue. Effie was an unusual woman, intelligent and gifted, but mostly terrified of the world. Despite their love for each other, Hudson's and Maude's commitment to the sanctity of marriage and their religious vocations meant that the relationship never became physical. Instead, they poured their energy into their work and into a mutual devotion to Effie. After Effie's death in the early 1940s Maude and Hudson married, but by this time Hudson was 84 years old and he lived only two months beyond the wedding day.
It was Hudson who was instrumental in enlisting Royden in the ranks of University Extension lecturers. Royden had an unusually good education for a woman and she was no stranger to the platform. Her "trial" lecture at the Summer Meeting in Oxford in 1903 was well received, and while there was some hesitation about listing A. Maude Royden—because she was a woman—among the staff of traveling lecturers, she proved a popular speaker and for the next two years maintained a steady schedule of lecturers. In 1905 she moved to Oxford, and this marked the beginning of her involvement in the suffrage movement.
Royden's work among settlement women had heightened her awareness of the situation of women in society, but it wasn't until 1905 that she embraced the suffrage movement as a whole, and this with a certainty of commitment which she had never known before. Royden anchored her belief in the suffrage movement in Christian belief. For her it was crystal clear that what Jesus taught was the equality of all persons regardless of sex. She believed that the women's movement was "the most profoundly moral movement … since the foundation of the Christian Church." She was strongly opposed to violence and could not condone many of the actions of the more militant Women's Social and Political Union headed by the Pankhursts. Indeed, she believed that women were natural pacifists, and that their goals would be achieved through a combination of prayer and education. Royden, along with Evelyn Gunter and Kathleen Courtney, joined the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, under the leadership of Millicent Fawcett. Royden was a tireless speaker for the cause, and she became editor and a major contributing writer to the NUWSS's weekly publication, Common Cause, a position she held until 1915. In the fall and winter of 1911-1912 she traveled to the United States, where she gave a series of lectures in several major cities and conferred with American suffrage leaders.
Royden's goals went beyond the vote. She sought better working conditions for women as well as equal pay for equal work; the protection of children; and equality of sexual standards for men and women. Her concern for society's sexual mores was at the same time both modern and staunchly Christian. She abhorred the "double standard" which, as she saw it, created two categories of women, the good (chaste wives) and the bad (prostitutes). The one was needed so that men could be assured both of the legality of their children and the sexual purity of their wives, but prostitutes were needed because males were not expected to control their passions. Prostitutes became society's "untouchables" and were treated with great cruelty. Royden insisted that if women must confine their sexual life to marriage so should men. She preached a positive approach to sexuality within marriage and, contrary to the Church of England's position, she approved of birth control. Her book Sex and Common Sense was published in 1922, and she often addressed sexual issues in her lectures and sermons.
The outbreak of World War I brought a halt to most suffrage activity in England, and it also brought Royden into conflict with a number of her colleagues in the movement. Royden promoted the idea that the women's movement should stand for peace and refuse to support the war effort. She joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Women's International League and wrote and spoke on pacifism. But pacifism was not a popular position in World War I, and Royden found herself both alienated from friends and under attack. After an especially ugly incident outside a small town in the Midlands, she changed her focus to one of structuring a peaceful society once the war was over.
In 1918 Royden adopted a baby girl (Helen) orphaned by the war, and as a response to the terrible plight of children in the postwar famine in Europe she also fostered a young Austrian boy, Friedrich Wolfe, for several years.
Her belief in the deep religious significance of the women's movement naturally propelled Royden to carry her cause for women's rights into the Church of England. In 1909 she became the first chair of the Church League for Women's Suffrage, which, following the passage of the suffrage act, would reform itself as the League of the Church Militant, dedicated to promoting women's equality within the church. As Royden revealed in her popular pamphlet Women and the Church of England (1916), not only were women barred from the priesthood but they were forbidden nearly every office in the church, despite the fact that they comprised the majority of the congregations and performed most of the parish work. There were many who supported her—lay and clergy—but a division existed between those who would accept women priests. Many, including Hudson Shaw, felt that the ordination of women was "premature." By 1919 the church had confirmed the rights of women as voting members on church councils, but the issue of "speaking" in churches was hotly debated.
Royden was in the forefront of these struggles and felt a deep commitment to the Anglican church, but she also felt she had a "calling" to the ministry, so when in 1917 the membership of City Temple, the famous nonconformist church in London, invited her to serve as a pulpit assistant, a position equivalent to associate pastor, she accepted. She was a gifted speaker and her sermons, many of which were later published in book or pamphlet form, always drew large audiences.
Several non-conformist Protestant churches then ordained women to the ministry, and this was a path that Royden could have chosen, but she refused because she wished to remain an Anglican. In 1920 she resigned her position at the City Temple in order to join with an Anglican cleric, Dr. Percy Dearmer, also chair of ecclesiastical art at King's College, London, to form a Christian fellowship that they called the Fellowship Guild. This was not a church, nor even an official arm of the Anglican church, but with its Anglican leadership and governing board it retained strong ties to the Church of England. Membership included both Anglicans and non-conformists, and it proved to be the kind of ecumenical venture which set an example for the reunion of Christendom which Royden and many of her friends sought. In addition to the popular Sunday evening worship services, the fellowship sponsored a variety of study groups on social and political issues. The fellowship "adopted" Albert Schweitzer's hospital in Lambarene, and Dr. Schweitzer once addressed the membership on a visit.
Royden's reputation as a preacher and spokesperson for peace grew to international proportions and she traveled to the United States in 1923 for the Women's International League. In 1928 Royden went on a round-the-world preaching tour, which took her again to the United States and then to China, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and India, where she visited Gandhi. In 1930 she was awarded the Companion of Honour by the British Government.
In 1936 Royden, then 60 years old, resigned from the leadership of the fellowship but continued to travel widely and was one of the pioneers in religious broadcasting, carrying on a pastoral ministry over the BBC until the early 1950s. She died at the age of 80 in 1956.
Because of her varied involvements—in the suffrage movement, the peace movement, social issues, and as a religious feminist and pastor—there are sources for Maude Royden's life in the literature of these movements. Common Cause, the publication of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, and church publications such as the Church Militant and the Church Times are good resources, as well as the newspapers of the period. Royden herself published over a dozen books and numerous pamphlets and articles. The breadth of her interests and involvements are represented in their titles: The Church and Woman (1924), Women and the Sovereign State (1917), Woman's Partnership in the World (1941), Political Christianity (1922), and Sex and Common Sense (1921). Her analysis and historical survey of the status of women anticipate the religious feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Several of her books are more inspirational in nature, including Prayer as a Force (1922), Beauty in Religion (1923), and I Believe in God (1927). The Guildhouse Monthly, the periodical of the Fellowship Guild, 1928-1955, is an excellent source for information about Royden's life and work during this period. The letters between Royden and Kathleen Courtney are available at Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford, and the Fawcett library in London is another source for Royden correspondence. Brian Heeney's 1983 study The Women's Movement in the Church of England places Royden in the context of the larger movement. Royden's own "partial" autobiography, The Threefold Cord (1947), should be read in concert with a biography (1989) by Sheila Fletcher entitled Maude Royden: A Life. □