January 14 – Monica Furlong

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Monica Furlong, Christian thinker

Monica Furlong was a Christian feminist who began as a journalist and went on to a prolific late-twentieth-century output of books. She published poetry, a couple of novels, stories for children, biographies of remarkable Christians, collected volumes of primary and secondary texts, works on spirituality, and especially analysis of women’s relations with Christianity in general and the Anglican Church in particular, both before and after female ordination became a reality.

But she was always on the lookout for good causes to espouse, and once she had thrown in her lot with the Movement for the Ordination of Women, and with the aims of secular feminism in general, she became to many women – and to many men as well, especially homosexuals – not just a beacon of light, more a flaming torch.

Like many intellectuals, her life was, in some ways, a protracted search for truth, accompanied by frequent disillusionment, most notably with the organised structures of society. In her book With Love To The Church (1965), she wrote, more in sorrow than in anger, of her disillusion with the apparent inability of the established Church to touch the hearts and minds of men and women of goodwill.

Born and brought up in Kenton, Middlesex, Furlong was particularly close to her father, who was a devout Roman Catholic. Monica was a second daughter, and her mother made no secret of the fact that she wanted a boy; Monica attributed the onset of a fairly disabling stammer. She was baptised as an Anglican but became, at an early age, a potential outsider; even as a child, she felt herself instinctively in sympathy with non-churchgoers. After education at Harrow county girls’ school and University College, London, she enrolled at Pitmans, and seemed destined for a dreary career as a shorthand typist.

In an attempt to break into journalism, Furlong sought a position with the Church Times but became instead secretary to a BBC talks producer, an employment for which she could not have been less well suited. In 1956, she joined Truth magazine as a feature writer and from 1958-60, she was the Spectator’s religious correspondent. Following her time with the Spectator she wrote for the Daily Mail for the next eight years.

As a freelance journalist, Furlong worked for the Guardian between 1956 and 1961, where her contributions covered a variety of emotional and socio-sexual issues – as they had done at the Mail. They dealt, too, with her preoccupation and personal commitment to the Christian faith, a vocation she had gained the self-confidence to express from her parish priest, Joost de Blank, later bishop of Stepney and Archbishop of Cape Town.

Returning to the BBC in 1974, Furlong worked as a religious programmes producer, and, by 1978, had gained the self-confidence to write a biography of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Later books included novels both for adults and children, and biographies of John Bunyan and Thérèse of Lisieux.

In the 1980s she campaigned for the ordination of women and, served as moderator of the Movement for the Ordination of Woman. Furlong’s reputation for reasoned debate and determination gave that movement considerable moral authority. When that goal was reached she called for the appointment of women to senior Church positions.

In 1987, she became a founder of the St Hilda Community (named after St Hilda of Whitby). She described it as “a body which tried to model a form of cooperation between men and women in liturgy, which used inclusive language, and which invited ordained women from other countries to come and celebrate openly, rather than, as was usual at the time, clandestinely.”

She has been called the Church of England‘s “most influential and creative layperson of the post-war period”

Monica Furlong died January 14 2003