THE United Reformed Church was the first to ordain women ministers. Mary Schofield explains why it wishes the Catholic Church to follow suit.
"IF THE Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches are to be genuinely catholic and whole, in the modern world, then their ministries must become open to women."
With these words, the Rev Bernard Thorogood, General Secretary of the United Reformed Church, began a sermon to mark the golden jubilee of the ordination of the Rev Kathleen Hendry, who still served as Associate Minister in the Purley United Reformed Church.
The Congregational Church was the first to train and ordain women in Britain. It began in 1913, just before the outbreak of World War I, when the first woman to enter the ministry of that church was accepted at Mansfield College, Oxford, for theological training. In 1917 just before the end of the war Constance Shacklock was ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacraments.
Women wishing to enter the ministry in those days did not achieve their goal easily. Some found it very difficult to get into a college, and to be accepted by their male colleagues. Masculine chauvinism reared it ugly head. But having achieved training and ordination, many found great difficulty in finding churches who would accept their ministry. Men were still preferred.
When they achieved their goal they still found difficulties. One woman minister had to deal with the rector of a parish church who objected to her burying the dead in his churchyard. Another, on going to a church, was met by a treasurer who was very much against her. His reason — he thought she wouldn't understand about repairs to the church and the boilers, or how to handle their difficult caretaker! After taking her into the boiler room to meet the caretaker, he conceded he was wrong and left the caretaker in his own words "to her tact and diplomacy."
But this kind of disapproval has gradually been worn down over the years.
In May, 1956, a significant event occurred — the Rev Elsie Chamberlain was inducted as Chairman of the Congregational Union in England and Wales, the highest office any person could reach in the Church.
As a young woman she had trained and become a promising dress designer, but left this profession when she felt a very strong call from God to enter His ministry. She served in various churches, was the first and only woman to be commissioned as an RAF chaplain. She worked for many years with the Religious Department of the BBC producing such well-loved programmes as Lift Up Your Hearts. A valued and much loved colleague during her time there was Fr Agnellus Andrew.
To this woman, who was married to an Anglo-Catholic priest, I owe a great deal. When I started to write, in spite of an extremely busy life, she was there to encourage me, to listen to my doubts, to prod me when I got depressed, to encourage my sense of humour and ability to laugh at myself if I put my "foot in it" as I'm inclined to do. And she dampened my pride if I got too "big-headed". She showed me clearly by her love and caring what Christ must have been like.
Now in her late sixties, and a widow, she still carries out her caring ministry to two small Congregational Federation churches in rural Devon.
The Presbyterian Church of England also had women ministers prior to its uniting with the Congregational Church. The Rev Ella Gordon was the first to be ordained in the Presbytery of Newcastle in 1957. They also had an Order of Deaconesses and some of these have been ordained since the union in the United Reformed Church. Women ministers now serve in many different spheres. They are on committees of the British Council of Churches, do industrial chaplaincies, work with local ecumenical projects, serve on local councils of churches where some of them have become chairpersons. They also serve abroad as missionaries. It is not unusual for them, in these days, to be invited to preach in churches of denominations which do not at present ordain women. They have come a long way since 1913.
Besides ordaining women the URC has trained many others to serve as lay preachers, and they exercise their ministry of preaching without ordination — in small churches which do not have a fulltime minister.
Perhaps the best way to finish is to quote the words of Bernard Thorogood talking about women: "There are," he said, "feminine and masculine elements of personality, and no man exists without some femininity and no woman exists without somne masculinity. Jesus recognised femininity, He appreciated it, as shown in His reaction to the woman who washed His feet with her tears and dried them with her hair — she touched His heart with her femininity in a beautiful way. The world, I believe, and churches, need the kind of outpouring of love and devotion that this woman showed."
For myself, I cannot forget that the first person to whom Jesus appeared after His Resurrection was a woman, Mary Magdalene. It was she who was commissioned by Christ to "go and find the brothers, and tell them I am ascending to my Father, and your Father, to my God and your God." And it wes she who said: "I have seen the Lord."
We are grateful that in the URC — as well as in the Methodist and Baptist churches — many women, ordained to the ministry and with the love and devotion of May of Magdala, proclaim that same message today.