Dame Betty Ridley

Leading figure in the Church of England and campaigner for women's ordination
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The Independent Online

Betty Ridley was a leading figure in the life of the Church of England from the 1960s into the 1980s, serving as Third Church Estates Commissioner from 1972 until 1981, the first woman to hold the post. She had the administrative, diplomatic and committee skills of an exceptionally talented amateur.

More than that, some will remember her particularly for her role in the very successful and moving television programme Evensong, shown in the BBC's Everyman series in December 1992. Against a background of top-class church music from Winchester Cathedral, Ridley spoke eloquently and persuasively, in layman's language, about her faith, the structure and meaning of the service of Evensong, ways in which we may apprehend God, bereavement, autumn and the autumn of life, and death itself. In her closing years, it was not the work she had done, she maintained, that seemed important; it was relationships - family and friends. The programme gave rise to a considerable correspondence from those who had been touched in one way or another by what she had said.

She was born Mildred Betty Mosley in 1909. Her father, Henry Mosley, was then Rector of Poplar, East London. He was later appointed Bishop of Stepney and, after nine years, Bishop of Southwell. Betty was educated at North London Collegiate School and Cheltenham Ladies' College. She might have become a missionary; she might have studied at a music college. In fact, at the age of 19, she married Michael Ridley, her father's chaplain, and that determined the course of her life for the next 25 years.

He became incumbent of parishes in Pimlico and Finchley, then died at an early age in 1953. Betty Ridley was left with a family of four, three boys and a girl, and with the question of how to deploy her energies in the second part of her life. Family life continued to be very important to her. She loved motoring, and driving rather fast, although the family assured her she did so safely. Then there were holidays, such as at the cottage in Pembrokeshire where a converted chicken shed served as a chapel - in which night prayers (compline) were said merrily.

Ridley had always had a strong and inquisitive faith. One particular conviction she had formed, even from her schooldays, was that women should not be excluded from those whom the Church would accept as candidates for Holy Orders. (Her father was at one time chairman of a central Council for Women's Church Work). She took many opportunities to forward this cause. She was, for example, in 1979 a founding member of the Movement for the Ordination of Women.

But she was not an impatient campaigner. She knew the Church needed time to get used to this new possibility, although later she suffered some feelings of guilt that her own plea for delay in preparing the necessary legislation might have been a betrayal of more hard-line colleagues. She did not, however, exhibit signs of frustration on her own behalf that, during her working life, the possibility of ordination had not been open to her.

Ridley recognised periodic bereavements as a fact of life. They needed, she felt, to be dealt with positively. If so, they could be fruitful. She spoke most movingly about this in Evensong. She knew about personal grief. Her only brother had been killed on the last day of the battle of El Alamein. Aged 44 she herself was widowed. Yet it was not long before new doors were opened. Her experience as a mother, a bishop's daughter and a parson's wife soon found various new outlets. And there was music. She was a member of the Bach Choir for the greater part of her adult life, singing under Reginald Jacques and David Willcocks. Music had always featured largely in the life of the family.

The list of appointments she held in the Church of England's central bodies is impressive indeed. Even before her husband died, she was elected to the Church Assembly and joined the Council for Woman's Work. She played a major part in settling the structures of the Assembly's successor body, the General Synod, through her chairmanship of the committee set up to rationalise the boards and councils that the Assembly had spawned.

For the first decade of its life, she was at the heart of the new Synod. She served for 25 years on the Central Board of Finance and she was a member - the first woman to be appointed - of the Advisory Council for the Training of the Ministry. In 1982 she chaired the Crown Appointments Commission that led to the appointment of John Habgood as Archbishop of York.

But there was not only Church House, the headquarters of the Synod, there was also Millbank, the home of the Church Commissioners. From 1959 to 1981 she was herself a Commissioner, and active on various committees. In 1972 Archbishop Michael Ramsey appointed her to succeed Sir Hubert Ashton as Third Church Estates Commissioner, the first woman to hold the post, one which she held until 1981. She impressed those she worked with over pastoral reorganisation, bishops' houses or redundant churches, both with her grasp of the detail of relevant legislation and with her warmth and empathy.

It was in recognition of all this work, its generosity - the greater part of it being entirely voluntary - and its quality, that in 1993 she was made a Dame. She felt herself deeply honoured, as she had been by the award of a Lambeth MA some years earlier.

Ridley was a person also of strong ecumenical sympathies. She therefore welcomed opportunities to serve as a member of the British Council of Churches, of which she became vice-president, and the council set up by the World Council of Churches on the Life and Work of Women in the Churches. She loved her own Church. It was, she said, "in her blood". Yet she knew it had to change. There was plenty of committee work too outside of central Church bodies, such as for the Bethnal Green Settlement, King Alfred's College, Winchester, and the Hampshire Churches Preservation Trust. Her honorary DSc from Southampton University must have given her much pleasure.

Towards the end of the Evensong programme Betty Ridley summed up her personal creed. It was that we should make our lives as full of giving as we can, according to our circumstances. Her life had certainly been full of giving, and was wonderfully free from self-importance or self- promotion. In the closing years she lived in a flat in the centre of Winchester. Neighbours in the same block had been the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Coggan and his wife Jean, who had also been full of giving. It all seemed marvellously appropriate. She could walk with archbishops and keep the common touch.

Ronald Gordon