Nostalgia by Peter Hawkes

LOCAL author Neil Rees tells me that female vicars, although still controversial to a few people, are becoming increasingly common.

What few people know is that Buckinghamshire was a pioneer in this work (and not just because “The Vicar of Dibley” was filmed in the Chilterns). Female preachers were allowed in Quaker and Methodist traditions, although there were never many of them.

In the 1870s Mrs Jackson, wife of Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon used to preach in Baptist chapels around the country and was popular in Bucks.

The Church of England was in a strange situation. On one hand whilst it had allowed the Queen of England to be its head since Tudor times, it had not allowed women to run churches.

That was challenged during the Great War. The Church of England did not have enough men, and the shortage meant that the Anglican Church had to consider appointing women to some of their roles.

The Church of England therefore discussed female ministry, and as a temporary measure agreed to license women as “Bishop’s Messenger”.

It was left to the discretion of each bishop to decide whether or not to do this. Not all bishops agreed, but women were appointed in about half of the dioceses of England.

Locally Rev. Charles Gore, Bishop of Oxford, who looked after churches in Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire, was a great enthusiast. In 1917 he licensed a group of 21 women called “Bishop’s Messengers” to run parish churches, and run missions.

They were not ordained as priests as such, but nonetheless they were licensed preachers and had most of the same responsibilities as the priests. Many were wives or sisters of clergy who took over their husband’s or brother’s work in their absence.

One of these ladies was Miss Bessie Bangay. She was born in 1889 and during the war lived on White Hill in Chesham with her twin sister Evelyn. Aged 28, Bessie was licensed to St George’s Church at Tyler’s Hill, where she was already running the Sunday School.

Tyler’s Hill is a small village near Chesham in the civil parish of Latimer and Ley Hill.

It is tucked up by Cowcroft Woods, and was built in 1871 on land given by Lord Chesham. It had been built in response to a successful Anglican Sunday School, which had been started by George Hill of Blackwell Hall a few years before. It was a branch of Christ Church, Waterside in Chesham.

Ahead of her time in many ways in the 1920s Bessie Bangay started many groups and even started a ladies cricket team at St George’s Church. At the time there were a number of women’s cricket teams about, and Chesham and Chartridge also had teams.

With some of her congregation coming from a nearby hamlet, where there was no church, Bessie planted a branch of her church there.

The only public building was the pub, so with the agreement of the landlady she started to hold meetings at the Black Cat pub in Lye Green in the 1930s. In fact she run the pub church until 1963. A reunion was held at the pub in 2011.

After the war most of the women who served as Bishops Messenger relinquished their roles. By the time of the Second World War there were only a few left. However Miss Bangay carried on.

In fact by the 1960s she was the only one left in the whole Church of England, and yet she continued into the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1980s when the Church of England began to seriously debate about whether women should run churches or not, few realised that in one village near Chesham a women had been doing just that since 1917 and was still there.

In fact Miss Bangay did not retire until 1985 when she was 95.

When she died in 1987 aged 97, she had loyally helped at St George’s church for over 70 years, and with 68 years of licensed ministry she had been the longest serving Bishop’s Messenger in England.

Only a few years later in 1994, did the Church of England began to appoint women again, when the first women priests were ordained.

This inspired the comedy the Vicar of Dibley, which was suitably filmed in the Chilterns.

The story of St George’s Church and Miss Bangay is told in the book “The Church by the Woods” by Sheila Hart and Neil Rees. Copies cost £7.50 are available on eBay or at