Project Canterbury

Revisioning Christian Ministry: Women and Ministry in Victorian England

By Jennifer M. Stolpa.

Ph. D. Dissertation, 2000.


In the mid-nineteenth century, the advent of Anglican sisterhoods, the reinstatement of the female diaconate, and the increased work for bible women and district visitors provided women in England with new opportunities to participate in the church, reflecting the desire of a number of women for an expanded role in the church. Many Victorian novels of the 1840s and 1850s which deal with religious issues reflect the developing arguments for and against women's greater and more recognized involvement in the church's ministry.

Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey (1847), Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth (1853), and George Eliot's Janet's Repentance (1858) and Adam Bede (1859) offer support for women's equal participation in official Christian ministry. These three novelists equate the ministerial efforts of female characters with the recognized duties of clergymen. This equality is in contrast to the images of women as subordinate helpers or temporary substitutes which are found in a great number of Victorian novels.

As Brontë, Gaskell, and Eliot redefine concepts of self-sacrifice, authority, and ministry across gender boundaries, their novels challenge readers to see Christianity not as a repressive tool for a patriarchal society, but as a potentially liberating force for women (and men) from the dominant binary gender ideology of the time which limited women's roles within Christianity. Using the theoretical framework of Christian feminism and theological discussions of ministry, this study shows that Brontë, Gaskell, and Eliot uncover a Christian ethic that supersedes the dominant gender ideology and supports women's ability to occupy an equal ministerial role.

Chapter Synopses

Chapter I--Introduction

Elizabeth Johnson writes that the goal of feminist theology "is not to make women equal partners in an oppressive system," but "to transform the system" of ministry as well (32). Because Brontë, Gaskell, and Eliot engage in a revisioning of ministry and assert the equal capability of women to participate in that ministry, their works foreshadow the development of Christian feminism in the twentieth century. In the introduction I explain my choice of Christian feminism as a critical framework for this study, briefly explore the presence of Christian feminist ideals in the Victorian period, and outline the ways in which Christian feminist concepts of authority, power, care, and self-sacrifice will prove useful in analyzing these four novels.

Chapter II--The Historical Context: Victorian Clergy, the Laity, and Issues of Differentiation, Authority, and Recognition

In chapter two, I examine the historical debates which surrounded the accepted and proposed expansions of women's official roles within the ministry of Victorian England's various Christian denominations. The discussion about laywomen's relationship to the church and its ministry can be connected to the sometimes heated responses from laymen to a hierarchical church. As new opportunities for women's ministry evolved, discussion frequently focused on differentiation from clerical ministry, restricted authority, and official recognition.

Chapter III--The Literary Context: Fictional Images of Victorian Women Active in Christianity

The third chapter demonstrates that these historical discussions were reflected in a number of Victorian novels. An examination of the breadth and depth of these novelistic responses to proposed new ministries for women defines the literary context within which Agnes Grey, Ruth, Janet's Repentance, and Adam Bede were written. First, I include a brief survey of a number of novels which discuss women's proper roles in different ministerial offices. Second, I analyze the juxtaposition of clerical and female characters in works by Frances Trollope, Charlotte Yonge, Margaret Oliphant, Elizabeth Missing Sewell, Felicia Skene, and other prominent novelists of the middle of the century. Their presentations of women's ministry can be distinguished from those of Brontë, Gaskell, and Eliot; however, the prevalence of these ideas in mid-nineteenth century novels further supports the validity of closely examining this aspect of the latter group's novels.

Chapter IV--Agnes Grey: Agnes' and Weston's Preaching and Pastoral Ministries

Chapter V--Ruth: Reconsidering Christian Ministry and the Power of Silent Example

Chapter VI---Without Clerical Direction: Janet Dempster's Independent Pastoral Ministry

Chapter VII--Dinah Morris in Adam Bede: Preaching, Pastoral Ministry, and the Question of Vocation

In the fourth chapter I begin my close analysis of the four central texts of this study, starting with Agnes Grey and continuing chronologically through the other three texts in chapters five, six, and seven. In each of these chapters, I examine the various ways in which Brontë, Gaskell, and Eliot create a positive, sustained comparison of the female and clerical characters in terms of physical, moral, and spiritual characteristics. These connections suggest that each author wishes the reader to compare the two characters, sometimes from the very beginning of the novel. Then, I present the ways in which the preaching and pastoral ministries of Agnes and Mr. Weston, Ruth and Mr. Benson, Janet and Mr. Tryan, and Dinah Morris and Mr. Irwine are equated within the four novels. In their portrait of ministry, Brontë, Gaskell, and Eliot reconstruct its very definition in order to allow women to participate fully in the church's mission and in order to emphasize the need to empower others rather than to assert a hierarchical power over others.

In order to construct such a vision of ministry, Brontë, Gaskell, and Eliot adapt ideas of the time about the clergy's responsibilities. Socio-historians Anthony Russell in The Clerical Profession (1980) and Brian Heeney in The Women's Movement in the Church of England 1850-1930 (1988) define three duties that a clergyman was believed to fulfill in the mid-nineteenth century: leading public worship and celebrating the sacraments, preaching from the pulpit, and visiting and caring for parishioners (A. Russell 53-129; Heeney, Women's 78). While these novels do not encompass sacramental issues--the one duty in which no layperson could participate--they do address the last two aspects of a clergyman's duties, namely, preaching and pastoral ministry.

Each novel de-emphasizes the traditional preaching of sermons from the pulpit and creates opportunities for the laity, both men and women, to participate in forms of nontraditional preaching. Each novel depicts alternative, often informal, methods of moral teaching which allow the laity, particularly women, to participate more fully in this aspect of a clergyman's duties. Each of the novels also strongly focuses on the third of the clergyman's duties, pastoral ministry. Brontë, Gaskell, and Eliot portray equal pastoral ministries successfully undertaken by the main female characters.

Chapter VIII--Conclusion

My conclusion offers a brief examination of the connections among these four novelistic portrayals of women and Christian ministry. Finally, I connect these novels to the contemporary struggles over gender and authority which are still with many, if not all, Christian denominations today.


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