By Jane de Gay, Professor of English Literature at Leeds Trinity University and Associate Priest at St Martin’s Church, Potternewton

How does Christianity appear to the world outside the church, to unbelievers and those who are hostile to religion? How do they perceive church buildings and the clergy? And what values do Christians and non-Christians share?

These are questions that I was led to contemplate as I researched my book, Virginia Woolf and Christian Culture. Woolf was not a believer in the conventional sense of the word. ‘I hate religion!’ she shouted at her friend, the composer Dame Ethel Smyth, after hearing her Mass in D performed at the Albert Hall. ‘Certainly and emphatically there is no God’, she wrote in a memoir towards the end of her life. My research into Woolf has been a very interesting dialogue: she has challenged me to reflect on what I do as an Anglican priest, but I’ve found a surprising amount of common ground too.

In a talk at Leeds Church Institute on 3rd October, I discussed three aspects of my debate with Woolf: social justice, sacred space and the clergy. These topics are all relevant to the church today and so Helen Reid of LCI invited Revd Prebendary Rose Hudson-Wilkin of Westminster Abbey (Chaplain to the Queen and the Speaker of the House of Commons, and Priest in charge of St. Mary-at-Hill, Hackney) to respond to my talk and discuss these questions from her own experience.

Social Justice

Although Woolf was not a believer, her extended family was extremely devout. Her Victorian ancestors were members of the Clapham Sect, an Evangelical group committed to social justice, most notably the fight against slavery. Woolf’s great-grandfather, James Stephen, who lived in the Caribbean for several years, helped Wilberforce in his campaign to end the slave trade; her grandfather, Sir James Stephen, wrote the Act to abolish slavery in 1833. For James Stephen, the struggle involved speaking out against society’s values: he was ostracized in the Caribbean for not keeping slaves; he resigned as an MP when Parliament did not support Wilberforce, and he wrote pamphlets urging people to vote out the government.

Woolf took on the mantle of the Stephen family when she spoke up for women’s rights, noting how much society depended upon the unpaid labour of women, and urging women to reject the establishment and criticize society from the outside.

My conversations with Woolf have made me aware of the importance of checking my privilege, reflecting on whether my practices are exclusive, and remembering that the church must speak out on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised.

Rose spoke powerfully about the importance of using your privilege to bring others along. Being an ‘establishment figure’ carries responsibility: you can access resources and you are going to be listened to, so you must use these gifts to help others. This is what the Clapham Sect men were doing when they spoke up against slavery. Rose compared herself to Esther, who spoke to the King of Persia on behalf of the Jews: she can represent the voice of the poor, like the people of Hackney, among politicians.
Rose added that we can only extract ourselves from the values of our society if we are thinking people who are informed and ask questions. We need to pause in our churches, in our families, and consider our values. Additionally, as women, we have to ask ourselves what we believe about who we are and how the world works: are we still steeped in the kind of patriarchy that sees women as helpmeets?

Sacred Space

My research has shown that Woolf loved visiting churches and cathedrals for peace and solace. However, she also pointed out that churches and cathedrals are built to express power: not so much the glory of God but the power of those who built them. In a quirky essay (written for Good Housekeeping magazine in 1932), she showed how visitors can overcome subservience to those in power by experiencing church buildings on their own terms, learning to laugh at the statues of great men in order to enjoy the peace and serenity of the space.

My studies have shown the importance of opening our churches to people of all faiths and none. Rose wholeheartedly agreed. But Woolf also raises questions as to how visitors experience our church buildings: she reminds us that people may not see our buildings as we would want them to and that that is no bad thing. Rose reminded us that churches should be clean and inviting, a space in which people can sit and be and experience the presence of the spirit. The tombs in churches are there as a reminder that in the midst of life we are in death: they give us a sense of holiness and the chance to pause and think about life.


Woolf was highly critical of the clergy, who were all male in her lifetime. She did, however, value some ministers like her local vicar at Rodmell, who was approachable and one of the community. Rose reminded us that the clergy should always love the people they are called to serve, walking with them and playing a key role in the life of the community.

Woolf recognized that women had spiritual gifts that the church of the time was ignoring. In her 1938 essay Three Guineas, she celebrated the ancient prophetesses who received divine wisdom, and she reminded the church of her day that Jesus and St Paul had female disciples. In these and other examples, I find much in Woolf that affirms my calling as a female priest – but she also makes me aware that the church has often been hostile to women and that I should constantly review its values. Rose agreed, putting it beautifully and succinctly: we should celebrate being female priests, but we should take care not to model ourselves on men.

Churches today are called more and more to reach out and serve people whoever they are and to meet people wherever they are in life’s journey. As my dialogue with Rose showed, Virginia Woolf’s observations offer us much food for thought as we seek to do these things.

De Gay, Jane (2018) Virginia Woolf and Christian Culture Edinburgh University Press