02 November 2006

DAME BETTY RIDLEY, who died on Monday, aged 95, believed, all her life, that women should be ordained, though she never wanted to be a priest herself. She often said that it was on the playing-fields of Cheltenham Ladies College that she had received a “conversion” to the cause, and she never ceased to work for it. But people who knew her will remember her best for her immense kindness, diplomatic skills, and generosity of spirit.

Born in a London rectory in 1909 (her father, Henry Mosley, would later be Bishop of Stepney, then of Southwell), she was educated first at North London Collegiate School, then at Cheltenham. She won a place at the Royal College of Music, but renounced it to become a missionary. That ambition was also given up when, at the age of 19, she married her father’s chaplain, the Revd Michael Ridley, a descendant of the Reformation martyr.

She was 20 and pregnant when she told the formidable ladies of the Central Council for Women’s Church Work (which her father chaired) that they were wasting their time when they ought to be working for women’s ordination. To their credit, she was invited to join them, and it was the beginning of her long career on church committees.

By 1939, her husband was a vicar in Pimlico, moving later to Finchley. With so many clergy and laymen away in the war, the Church made full use of the talents of this young, intelligent churchwoman. She became a member of the British Council of Churches (BCC), and was elected to the Church Assembly. When her husband died in 1953, leaving her with four children, she returned to Pimlico to be close to the centre of church affairs in Westminster.

She was the first woman on the Central Board of Finance, on which she served for 25 years, and the first woman member of CACTM (the Central Advisory Council for Training for the Ministry). She became vice-president of the BCC, and later became chairman of the influential administrative committee of Free Church moderators and senior churchmen.

One of her major tasks was on the committee set up by the Church Assembly to rationalise the Church’s 20-plus committees into four main boards. When Sir Peter Agnew MP resigned its chairmanship, she took over, and in 1957 eventually presented the report to the Church Assembly in a speech lasting more than two hours. Most of the proposals were accepted, and set the pattern for the Church’s boards and councils for the following 40 years.

In 1959, she began her long association with the Church Commissioners, serving on many of the Millbank committees until, in 1968, she was asked to take a part-time salaried post to set up a department to deal with redundant churches under the new Pastoral Measure. She was nearly 60, and it was the first paid job she had ever held. She moved on yet again. From the start of the General Synod, she was on its standing committee, and in 1972 became the first woman to be appointed as Third Church Estates Commissioner.

During all these years, she had supported wherever possible the cause of the ordination of women, but always in moderate terms, knowing that too much stridency could be counter-productive. She rejoiced when, in 1975, the General Synod voted that there were “no fundamental objections” to women priests. But she surprised everyone when she spoke against the following motion to begin preparing legislation to enable women’s ordination. She believed that it was too soon, and that more time was needed for the Church to get used to the idea before risking the appalling divisions that she could foresee if it went too fast.

That same year, she was made a Dame of the British Empire, and carried on as energetically as ever, a greatly respected speaker in Synod, known everywhere for her kindness and wisdom. She had intended to retire in 1980 when she was 70, but, with the appointment of Robert Runcie as Archbishop of Canterbury in that year, she stayed on a further 12 months to enable him to find her successor.

A year after her retirement, she performed her last major task for the Church when she was asked to chair the Crown Appointments Commission to find a new Archbishop of York, John Habgood. She lived for a while in a Hampshire village, and then moved into the same block of flats in Winchester as Lord and Lady Coggan. From there, she regularly visited the Reform Club, and, maintaining her record of “firsts”, was the first woman to be elected to its committee.

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