Genuine Fake (1986) was a similar examination of the life of the Californian Alan Watts, who oscillated between Anglicanism and Buddhism, and later became renowned in the 1960s for his advocacy of "free love".
Altogether different was Monica Furlong's earlier Puritan's Progress (1975), in which she suggested that John Bunyan is best regarded as an artist - a genius who voiced universal aspiration and need.
Before these biographies, Travelling In (1971), Contemplating Now (1971), and The End of Our Exploring (1973) were concerned with the intersection of prayer and psychology. Her first novel, The Cat's Eye (1976), was about psychological projection; the next, Cousins (1983), concerned a sculptress whose illicit love for a married theologian ended in disappointment but illumination for her.
A later biography, Therese of Lisieux (1987), portrayed the young French saint as severely neurotic but courageous in making the most of her limitations. Wise Child (1987) was a children's novel that made extensive use of mythology - a subject to which she was to become increasingly attracted in her later years - and, in God's a Good Man (1974), she tried her hand at poetry.
Monica Furlong was born at Kenton, near Harrow, on January 17 1930. She attended Harrow County Girls' School, where she showed much academic promise. But she lacked parental encouragement to obtain the university place for which she was more than adequately equipped. Instead she went to a secretarial training college, and her first job was as a secretary to a BBC talks producer.
This did not last long, as her stammer made it impossible for her to deal with the telephone. So Monica Furlong moved to Fleet Street and secretarial posts, first with a group of provincial newspapers, then with Benn Bros publishing group.
During this time she embarked on freelance journalism, and her writing talent was spotted by Bernard Levin, who assured her a regular column on the Spectator.
Greatly influenced by the then vicar of Greenhill, Harrow, Joost de Blank (later a notable Archbishop of Cape Town), Monica Furlong wrote mainly on religious subjects. But in 1961 she moved to the Daily Mail, contributing two or three features a week on a variety of subjects, all of which she approached from an individual, feminine angle and expressed in an engaging style.
This was a demanding assignment which occupied her for the next seven years, and enabled her to support her husband, whom she had married in 1953 and whose health problems precluded regular employment at that time. She also became deeply involved in the religious reforming movement of the 1960s, enjoying the friendship of Bishop John Robinson and of its other leaders, and wrote her first book, With Love to the Church, in 1965.
This was a sharply critical evaluation of much of the current ecclesiastical policy, and at the same time outlined her own vision of a liberal Church open to all, including homosexuals, for whose acceptance by both Church and society she was always an ardent campaigner. Thirty-five years later, a more substantial volume, C of E: the State It's In (2000), brought her analysis up to date, and concluded by suggesting that, instead of worrying about the members it lacks, the Church should instead concentrate on ensuring that the million it does have experience the best quality of Christian life that can be managed. This book won high praise from the former Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie, who was then on his deathbed.
After spending a few years in Norfolk, Monica Furlong returned to London where, from 1974 to 1978, she was a producer in the BBC's Religious Broadcasting Department. The nuts and bolts of production were not really to her liking, but she was full of ideas, and drew the best from her contributors.
She then returned to full time writing, and for a time also studied Philosophy at University College, London. She also became involved in the formation of the Movement for the Ordination of Women, serving as its Moderator from 1982 to 1985. Her leadership was not to everyone's liking, for she belonged to the movement's radical wing, believing that women would find their place in the priesthood only if they refused to accept the cautious counsel of most of the bishops.
In Dangerous Delight (1991), and Feminine in the Church (edited by her in 1984), Monica Furlong provided more ammunition. Confined to a wheelchair with her leg in plaster, following a walking accident, she was among the demonstrators outside Church House, Westminster, when the General Synod voted for women priests in 1992.
More recently, and until the end of her life, she campaigned vigorously for the appointment of women priests to senior posts in the Church, and for the ending of the system of "Flying Bishops", which enables objectors to women priests to reject the ministry of their own diocesan Bishop if he ordains them.
Bird of Paradise (1995) was a revealing and candid autobiography in which Monica Furlong related her personal experiences to a deeply religious, albeit unconventional, view of life. She then published The Flight of the Kingfisher (1996), an unusual book about Aboriginal spirituality, a subject which had fascinated her during an extended visit to Australia.
The General Theological Seminary, New York, awarded Monica Furlong an Honorary DD in 1986, and Bristol University conferred an Honorary D Litt in 1995.
The courage displayed during her final illness was no less great than that which had characterised her whole life. She is survived by a son and a daughter.
Monica Furlong, who has died of cancer aged 72, would have achieved distinction through her writings alone. 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.
Very much a child of her time, she experimented with LSD in her late 30s, and had the distinction of seeing her book Travelling In (1971), describing the experience, banned from Church of Scotland bookshops. Aware in later life of the dangers of drugs, she nevertheless always regarded the drug-taking, together with a Freudian psychoanalysis in her early 50s, as a vital part of her psychological and spiritual growth.
Born and brought up in Kenton, Middlesex, Furlong always retained a nostalgic devotion to the suburbs. Her father, to whom she was particularly close, was a Roman Catholic who served mass at Westminster cathedral. Her relations with her mother, a sometimes caustic agnostic, were more ambiguous. 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, and a terror of using the telephone, to her mother’s dissatisfaction with her gender.
She, herself, was baptised as an Anglican in a conventional sort of way, but became, at a very 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 presented herself to the formidable Rosamund Essex, editor of the Church Times. She was asked if she knew the difference between a cope and a chasuble, and did not get a job. Instead, she became secretary to a BBC talks producer, an employment for which she could not have been less well suited; by now, her stammer prevented her from saying the word “Hello” on the telephone.
In 1956, she joined Truth magazine as a feature writer, where, on her first day, she met Bernard Levin, a lifelong friend. From 1958-60, she was the Spectator’s religious correspondent, and, for the next eight years, wrote for the Daily Mail, then a more radical paper than it is today, earning the princely sum of £6,000 a year; lunch at Fortnums became a normal occurrence, and party invitations flowed.
Back in 1953, when she was only 23 - and lacking any sense of self-worth - Furlong had married the second man who proposed to her, William Knights, who ran a newsagents. They had two children, to whom both parents were devoted, but the marriage had foundered long before she braced herself for a divorce in 1977.
Sadly, the incompatibility had long been apparent to her friends and family. Furlong had, in fact, married in desperation, and the intellectual and class differences between her and her husband widened every time he declined to accompany her to some social occasion. It was now he who felt inadequate, and his absence from her side made her feel embarrassingly unsupported.
As a freelance journalist, Furlong wrote 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.
De Blank was a deeply troubled homosexual, who brought out all Monica’s compassion for the plight of clergy in his position, and her contempt for the anomalies in the law relating to homosexual conduct. A change in the law was one of the causes she did not hesitate to support, doing so in practical and political ways, striking up friendships with people in prison, or with those whose lives had been blighted by the spotlight of publicity.
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.
Though without any personal vocation to the priesthood, Furlong became totally committed to supporting those women who had, and, in 1980, took part in a famous, silent protest during an ordination service. She and seven others were ejected from St Paul’s cathedral, one of the protesters being belaboured by an irate wandsman. Through the crass behaviour of the clergy, the Movement for the Ordination of Woman, founded in 1979, took off, and, from 1982-85, Furlong lent it her considerable moral authority - and her reputation for reasoned debate and determination - by serving as moderator.
She was, by now, drifting further and further from the arms of the established Church. She had no faith in the integrity of the general synod; she was distressed by the disdain with which many male clergy viewed both women and homosexuals; and, 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.”
Ironically, it was in her old newspaper, the Daily Mail, that Paul Johnson chose to castigate the St Hilda Community for “re-writing Christ”. Like the Bishop of London, Graham Leonard, who had evicted community members from one of his churches, Johnson merely drew attention to the community’s activities and aims.
Under psychoanalysis, Furlong’s ability to control her stammer improved dramatically and, as she grew older, she became ever more adventurous, discovering the joys of solitude in vast deserts. But though she worried less about what the Church hierarchy thought of her, like many loyal and sensitive Christians she found it hard to distance herself entirely from the need for discipline and liturgy.
It may not be too fanciful to suggest that her decision to withdraw With Love To The Church from her acknowledged oeuvre in Who’s Who was prompted by the fact that the Church never returned her love. By way of consolation, she received two honorary doctorates - of divinity, from the General Theological Seminary of New York, and of literature, from Bristol University.
Like so many disillusioned Anglicans, Furlong could never quite shake off her bonds with the Church, and, in 2000, her writings came full circle with the publication of a hefty tome entitled C of E: The State It’s In. Part potted history, part rather obvious observations about the general synod and other boring bodies, it contained a number of strange inaccuracies, but, between the lines, it also reflected a deep yearning for the prose of Cranmer and the old Anglo-Catholic liturgy. Not surprisingly, for he too had been knocked about in his time, she reserved her most sympathetic and pertinent insights for Dr George Carey, then Archbishop of Canterbury.
It was said that many women found Monica Furlong like water in a dry land, perhaps a rather trite description of an astringent person who preferred to say that the one thing she could not abide was “constipated good taste”. As a girl, she always regretted she had not been a suffragette. But in her own time and her own way, that is precisely what she was. And a very talented and self-effacing one, too. Her autobiography, Bird of Paradise, appeared in 1995.
She is survived by her former husband, and her son and daughter.
Monica Furlong, mystic and writer, born January 17 1930; died January 14 2003
This obituary has been revised and updated since its author’s death last year