In recent months I’ve had occasion to look at the lives of several Anglican women of the last century or so, for possible inclusion in a biographical dictionary. Many of these names have been overlooked by historians (or at least historians of the churches), and I may reflect (in another post) on why that has been the case. It has also been a different kind of writing experience for me; I’ve written two book-length studies of individual lives, but not the kind of short summaries that are required here; that too probably merits another post. But for now, here are the first fruits, on Mollie Batten, teacher, administrator and college principal.
Edith Mary (Mollie) Batten was born on 8 February 1905, the third of the four children of a London draper, and the family subsequently moved to Southport. The nature of the Batten family religion, if any, is not clear. Batten read chemistry at the University of Liverpool, graduating in 1925, and then returned to London. An early vocation to the service of others showed itself in her appointment, in 1928, as secretary of the West Ham branch of the Invalid Children’s Aid Association, which had been founded by a clergyman in 1888. Though it is not clear which came first, she resided for a time at St Helen’s House in Stratford, (a women’s institution linked to the men’s mission originated by Trinity College, Oxford) and was also confirmed in the Church of England. Her guide in the latter was Leslie Hunter, vicar of Barking.
In 1933 Batten moved to Birmingham to become warden of the Birmingham University Settlement. During this time the connection with the Church continued: in 1935/6 she taught a course in social studies for the ordinands of the Queen’s College in Birmingham, covering education, public health, work and recreation, and public and private assistance. (She later recalled that this had probably been the first such course at a male theological college.) Her work in rationalising and expanding the settlement’s work brought her to national attention, and into the role of organising secretary of the British Association of Residential Settlements (from 1938). In the same year she became an adviser to the Ministry of Labour, and in 1940 joined its staff, with a particular responsibility in manpower planning and the welfare of workers.
Batten had in 1932 gained a degree in economics from the London School of Economics, by means of evening classes, to add to her knowledge of chemistry. After the war, she turned down the prospect of a permanent position in the civil service, moving instead to St Anne’s College, Oxford, in 1947 to read for a third degree, this time in theology, awarded in 1949.
Recognising Batten’s considerable administrative ability, the central bodies of the Church of England made increasing use of her talents. Under the chairmanship of Leslie Hunter (by this time bishop of Sheffield), she was a member of a committee set up by the two archbishops in 1944 to examine the training of women for work in the Church, which produced the report Training for Service in 1945. Later, and also in conjunction with Hunter, she was a member of the committee on central funds which recommended (in 1956) the creation of the Church of England’s Board for Social Responsibility. In 1957, she was considered (at Hunter’s suggestion) for the honorary Lambeth degree of M.Litt – which had not hitherto been awarded to women – as the Church looked for ways of recognising the work of women in particular; she had already been appointed OBE in 1948.
Such recognition by the Church, had it in fact been granted, would have been largely for her work as principal of the new William Temple College. It had been founded by Hunter in 1947, based on a syllabus drafted by Batten (with F.A.Cockin, canon of St Paul’s). Batten was appointed its second principal in 1950. The original conception, as set out in Training for Service, had been of a college specifically for women, but under Batten’s leadership it accepted both men and women; mostly laymen, but including some clergy and ordinands, both for long programmes of study leading to formal qualifications, and for shorter courses. It also hosted consultations and conferences on particular themes aimed at a national audience, and at those who would not have identified themselves as Christians. A typical course of study included the Bible, church history, and the life and worship of the contemporary church; yet almost as prominent were history, psychology, sociology, law and government. Students were encouraged to apply their learning directly to their present and future professional life: in ordained ministry perhaps, but also in education, industry, social work or public administration. The college in this form survived only a short time after Batten’s retirement, but a member of her staff, Freda Matchett, thought Batten had been a ‘courageous, shrewd and enterprising’ leader who had won the college a worldwide reputation.
After retiring from the college in 1966, Batten acted as research officer for the Board of Social Responsibility, but was also to tread a larger stage. She had known Michael Ramsey in his role as president of the college, and the two had corresponded on social matters being debated in Parliament such as education, the New Towns, or Sunday trading. When, during the planning of the 1968 Lambeth Conference, Michael Ramsey became conscious of the overwhelmingly male composition of the group of observers and consultants assembled to aid the bishops, it was to Batten that he turned to in order to betoken a redressing of the balance; she was one of very few lay people present amid hundreds of bishops, and the only woman. Two American clerical observers noted a ‘buxom, gray-haired, plainly dressed’ presence, whose interventions from the gallery were widely heeded. Particularly notable was what became referred to as ‘Mollie’s leave-us-as-we-are talk’, in which she courteously yet insistently prodded at a kind of semi-clericalising of the laity that had been latent in the discussions about a permanent diaconate; it was not at all clear that lay men and women needed any kind of commissioning other than their baptism and confirmation to carry out their various secular ministries, or to minister within the church itself.
The Lambeth fathers should not have been surprised, since Batten had contributed an essay (one of her very few publications) to a volume of preparatory essays on ministry for the Conference, under Ramsey’s editorship, with the title ‘Laymen in Society’. It contains a robust assertion of the role of the laity in the broadest sense, both those identifiably committed to the visible church and the so-called ‘laymen incognito’ who are not so identified but who nonetheless act in response to the Holy Spirit in pursuit of the good, as they ‘with singleness of mind and integrity of purpose, try to discern the truth of things’. It was vital that the Church worked out how to enable the totality of the laity to be ‘the salt of cleansing, the light of illumination, and the leaven of change in the world’. The essay reads as a summation and a justification of her life’s work.
Yet this emphasis on the esteem of the vocation of the laity sat well alongside vigorous support for the cause of the ordination of women, which came to the boil in the 1960s. A sermon given in Great St Mary’s church in Cambridge in 1966 was entitled ‘For God’s sake: put woman in her place’; Batten played a leading role from the late 1950s in the Anglican Group for the Ordination of Women to the Historic Ministry of the Church, continuing into the early 1980s even after suffering a debilitating stroke. Later leaders of the movement came to regard her as a role model.
Batten moved to Midhurst, West Sussex, in 1969, where she played an active part in both the dioceses of Chichester and Portsmouth, and in the local government of Hampshire. She was for a time chairman of the Chichester Labour party, in a parliamentary seat that has returned only Conservatives for a century. She died on 28 January 1985.
Mollie Batten, ‘Theological education’, Theology 68:535 (1965), 25-31.
Mollie Batten, ‘The education of “The Laos”’, Theology 68:540 (1965), 278-85.
Mollie Batten, ‘Laymen in society’ in Michael Ramsey (ed.), Lambeth essays on ministry: Essays written for the Lambeth Conference 1968 (London, SPCK, 1969), pp.17-29.
Mollie Batten, ‘Five glimpses of Geoffrey Lampe’ in C F.D. Moule (ed.), G.W.H. Lampe: Christian, scholar, churchman: a memoir by friends (Oxford, Mowbray, 1982).
Andrew Chandler, The latter glory of this house: a history of two Christian commonwealths in modern Britain, 1828-1980 (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2013), subsequently republished by I. B. Tauris.
Sean Gill, Women and the Church of England. From the eighteenth century to the present (London: SPCK, 1994).
Grace Heaton, ‘Smashing the stained glass ceiling: an exploration of the campaign for women’s ordination in Church of England, 1968-1994’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Oxford, 2023)
Gordon Hewitt (ed.), Strategist for the Spirit: Leslie Hunter, bishop of Sheffield, 1939-62 (Oxford, Becket, 1985).
James B. Simpson and Edward M. Story, The long shadows of Lambeth X (New York: McGraw Hill, 1969)
Peter Webster, ‘Archbishop Michael Ramsey and the Lambeth Conference’, Anglican and Episcopal History, 91:2 (2022), pp.152-75
Lambeth Palace Library, Fisher Papers, vol 205.
Lambeth Palace Library, Ramsey Papers, various volumes.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Who was Who