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Radio minister who married a parson

by
03 May 2013

Bernard Palmer reads a life of Elsie Chamberlain

© COURTESY BBC PHOTO LIBRARY

Stalwart Congre­ga­tionalist: Elsie Chamberlain at the BBC, in the cover photo from Alan Argent's book

Stalwart Congre­ga­tionalist: Elsie Chamberlain at the BBC, in the cover photo from Alan Argent's book

Elsie Chamberlain: The independent life of a woman minister
Alan Argent
Acumen £60
(978-1-84553-931-3)
Church Times Bookshop £54 (Use code CT347 )

ANYONE disheartened by the Church of England's current impasse over women bishops will be reminded by this magisterial biography of how much worse the prejudice against women has been in the past. Elsie Chamberlain was a feisty Congregational minister - and one of the most distinguished Free Church pastors of her generation. But twice in her early career she suffered from what she termed "holy blackmail".

The first occasion was in 1946, and concerned her appointment as the first woman chaplain in the Royal Air Force. Here her main opponent was none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher. He insisted that the appointment was improper, and that it represented an affront to the Established Church. The Secretary of State for Air, Lord Stansgate (Tony Benn's father), overruled the Archbishop, whose opposition he regarded as mere Anglican prejudice against women; and the appointment went ahead.

In the event, Chamberlain's service in the RAF was short-lived. Her normally robust health went into a decline; she was diagnosed as suffering from infective arthritis, and left the RAF in July 1947.

Her second encounter with Anglican authority was personal to her domestic life and concerned her future husband, John Garrington. They had first met while studying at King's College, London, and were engaged, on and off, for the next ten years. Garrington was ordained in 1937, but his career prospects were blighted by his engagement to a Congregational pastor. He remained a curate for ten years, applying in vain for an incumbency eight times in succession.

The opposition was led by the Bishop of London, William Wand, who told him that it would be impossible for him to secure a benefice while his fiancée was still serving as a Nonconformist pastor. Wand was even reported to have said that Garrington could "go and be a butcher's boy if he wants to marry this welfare worker". The barrier was overcome only when Stansgate persuaded his government colleague Lord Jowitt to offer Garrington a benefice within the Lord Chancellor's gift at Hampton, Middlesex.

The wedding took place in July 1947, and was to prove a strong and mutually supportive relationship. Wand's concern was shown to be baseless. Chamberlain took seriously her role as the vicar's wife, caring for Garrington's church and people as well as for her own. They adopted a daughter, Janette, who has herself written a life of her mother.

In the course of her long ministry, Chamberlain had the care of a succession of Congregational churches in Friern Barnet, Richmond-upon-Thames, Hutton (Essex), Taunton, Chulmleigh (Devon), and Nottingham. Her most prestigious appointment was as associate minister with Kenneth Slack at the City Temple. But her longest spell of service was with the BBC's Religious Broadcasting Department in the 1950s and '60s, when she made a name for herself as a radio evangelist. She was the long-serving producer of the popular programme Lift Up Your Hearts - and hit the headlines in 1967, when it was axed by the BBC Director-General, Sir Hugh Greene, and she felt bound to resign as a matter of principle.

In her chosen profession, she rose to the top, chairing the Congregational Union of England and Wales in 1956-57. During the negotiations leading to the formation of the United Reformed Church in 1972, she aligned herself with those Congregationalists who objected to this proposed merger with the Presbyterians: they supported the general aim of church unity, but drew the line at organic union with another denomination. (Here she found herself at loggerheads with her former City Temple colleague, Kenneth Slack.)

After the launch of the URC she emerged as a star in the continuing Congregational firmament, succeeding Lady Stansgate as president of the Congregational Federation - a tiny dissenting rump of what even before 1972 had been a comparatively small body of Christians. She was even considered by Harold Wilson, himself a Congregationalist, for a life peerage in 1968; but in the end he turned down the idea.

Alan Argent, a Congregational minister and an academic, has written an impressively full life of an ebullient character. The book is scholarly and yet eminently readable. It is a pity, though, that its high price is likely to restrict its sales mainly to libraries. Chamberlain emerges in its pages as a person of extraordinary energy and confidence, not concerning herself overmuch with doctrinal niceties, but radiant in her inspiring faith.

Dr Palmer is a former editor of the Church Times

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