Obituary: Dame Christian Howard

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The Independent Culture
CHRISTIAN HOWARD was an outstanding lay leader in the Church of England. Her speaking, writing and personal example led many to think again about the traditional exclusion of women from the three-fold ministry.

She realised more quickly than many bishops and clergy that women had gifts to offer the Church which should be accepted for the sake of the Gospel and not rejected on anti-feminist grounds. Small, with brilliant blue eyes and a patrician tone of voice, she was an effective public speaker and on transatlantic lecture tours her humour captivated her audiences.

Christian Howard was born in 1916 at Castle Howard, the eldest of the five children of the Hon Geoffrey and Christian Howard. Her father was an MP in Asquith's government, and her grandmother a prominent worker for women's suffrage. As a child, asked what she would like as a tenth birthday present, she said "a cricket match in the Castle Howard grounds". She was educated at home, at Folkestone, and at finishing schools in France and Italy. She gained a Lambeth Diploma in Theology and for two years taught Divinity at Chichester High School.

Howard returned to the Diocese of York after two brothers were killed in the Second World War. She served the Girl Guide movement as a divisional commissioner and also became an international representative. As Secretary of the York Diocesan Board of Women's Work, a post which she held until 1979, her influence was widely felt. Archbishop Donald Coggan made her a Lay Canon Provincial.

As an elected representative first on the Church Assembly and then on the General Synod, she played an important part for 25 years in the decision- making of the Church of England. From her usual position at the back of the hall, she frequently made a decisive late intervention, speaking without notes. She was the first woman Vice Moderator of the Faith and Order Committee of the World Council of Churches.

Howard knew that the long haul to women's ordination needed a thorough background of scholarly work. She was asked to research learned studies of the place of women within different cultures and the contemporary discussion within the Christian churches. She wrote three major reports on the ordination of women, published in 1972, 1978 and 1984 - nearly 300 pages in all.

She explored the views on women of Demosthenes, Plato and Aristotle and was equally well informed about Roman, Jewish, New Testament, Patristic, Canon Law and post-Reformation attitudes. Her researches and quick mind helped to change opinion in the Church of England. She was well aware of overseas developments in ministry, especially in Hong Kong and in the US, but as she put it, "In England everything stops for tea".

Howard insisted that "In asking the question `Can a women be ordained to the priesthood?' we are dealing not with a woman's question but what is good for the Church". Some felt this as dismissive of women's search for justice. However, Howard was anxious to remain alongside the radicals and keep different views in harness together.

The Movement for the Ordination of Women, of which she was a founding Vice-Moderator, was encouraged in its maintenance of different approaches by the knowledge that Howard had invited a women priest from overseas to celebrate in the private chapel of Castle Howard. In this she was convinced she was not overstepping Canon Law. She devoted her chief energies to synodical action, frequently saying "I am a political animal".

As the years passed, younger women moved into positions of leadership. But at a world-wide gathering of 2,500 people in Canterbury Cathedral in 1986, Howard opened the Declarations of Peace from around the world, announcing in her strong and striking voice "I bring Peace from the Province of York". As one journalist put it, "It felt like the first Pentecost, as 16 countries brought greetings to their doddering old Mum, the C of E, as she continues dithering and asking herself `Shall I or shan't I?' " Howard's determination, humour and generosity helped to carry the Church through to the final decision on 11 November 1992 when the Synod, by a two-thirds majority, agreed to the ordination of women as priests.

Christian Howard was appointed DBE in 1986. In her long illness, she was visited at her home in Coneys-thorpe by friends from many countries. In her last weeks in hospital her bedside wall was enlivened by a purple tea-towel declaring "A Women's Place is in the House of Bishops".

Alan Webster and Margaret Webster

Rosemary Christian Howard, church worker: born Castle Howard, Yorkshire 5 September 1916; DBE 1986; died York 22 April 1999.