Linda Hurcombe writes:
IN NOVEMBER 1978, the General Synod of the Church of England voted against legislation allowing women to be priests. Dr Una Kroll, legs shaking, and supported by her friend Sue Dowell, stood and declared: “We asked for bread, and you gave us a stone — long live God!” Her cri de cœur and subsequent tireless campaigning found reward 14 years later when, in 1992, the first women were ordained to the priesthood of the Church of England.
But it was not until 1997 and after her husband’s death, with the children grown, that Una, now aged 72 and serving as a deacon in a Welsh parish, was ordained priest by the then Bishop of Monmouth, Dr Rowan Williams. Readers rejoiced at the Church Times headline: “She asked for bread, and they baked her a cake”.
Una Kroll, who died last Friday, aged 91, was that rare phenomenon — an instinctive contemplative with a clear vocation to active social justice, what some call “holy disobedience”. At various, and sometimes concurrent, times in her life she had been a nun, doctor, deacon, author of numerous books, devoted wife and mother, parliamentary candidate, counsellor, and spiritual director.
Una was born in London. Her father, George Hill, left her mother, Hilda (née Pediani), when Una was two. Una was tended by family and friends on the European mainland. By the outbreak of the Second World War, she was back in north London. Mentored by a Franciscan friar, Una converted to Christianity in 1947 during her medical studies at Cambridge.
In 1948, she qualified in London, where she felt at first hand the sharp end of inequality toward women in medicine. The young Dr Kroll, aged 22, embraced the infant NHS and wrote a supportive article for the Daily Express. Already feeling the call of ordination, she joined an Anglican religious order in 1954 and went to Liberia as a medical missionary. Three years later, she was recalled, “because I was a troublemaker, more on the side of the Africans than the American overlords”. The Order sent an American monk, Leo Kroll, to Liberia to settle the dispute.
Subsequent events are the stuff of fairy tales. The nun and the monk fell in love and eventually married. Leo was dismissed from his Episcopalian Order, the Society of the Holy Cross. Una was dismissed from being a junior nun. Off they went to Namibia with USPG, where, in Una’s words, “I made trouble again, and we were both thrown out.”
They arrived back in England in 1961. Una returned to general practice in south-east London. Her patients were from deprived estates with very few facilities. Here she faced not only poverty and the importance of the Abortion Act, but also gay people fearful of their then illegal status. At that time she still thought of homosexuality as a medical condition. She said she could not sustain this view “because I saw love”, having met other Christians who were not heterosexual but in committed life partnerships. She became actively involved with moves to decriminalise homosexuality.
Doughtily but unsuccessfully, Una stood for Parliament in 1974 as an independent candidate in support of equal opportunities. Her Sutton constituents “thought I was crazy, but were supportive”. For Una, women’s ordination and sexual parity were two sides of the same coin. Some of her more conservative colleagues in the pro-ordination group were uncomfortable with her support of gay people. Thus The Christian Parity Group was born, with its down-home “Ordain women now” T-shirts and “Funny Money”, and described by Una as her “ginger group”.
Una had more recently turned her intellect to a Gospel Audit, and her personal life to a more contemplative life in Bury, near Manchester. And, mysteriously to some, “I’ve become a Roman Catholic in solidarity with Catholic women who are denied any voice in the Church whatsoever and who are treated despicably. Since I became a Roman Catholic, I have loved it. I am happy where I am. I’m completely fulfilled. I don’t exercise the priesthood in any obvious visible or concrete way, but I believe that I am a priest in the Church of God.”
Una moved to a Franciscan Care Convent in the latter weeks of her life. To the very end, she devoted herself to prayer, to helping countless friends as spiritual director, counsellor, and soul friend. May she rest in peace and rise in glory.
Information in this article is from a recent interview with the Revd Dr Kroll for Christian Voices Coming Out, a heritage project that captures the stories of pioneering LGBT Christians, and their advocates and allies.