Saturday, 10 April 2021

Courage calls to Courage everywhere…

Ordination of Women in the British Province

The 27th October 1970 was described by Bishop John Foy as a unique day, a day where traditions and authority were both challenged and also re-established, as we added a 'new dimension to the Ministry of our Moravian Church'. He was speaking during his address as Sr Emily Shaw became the first woman to be ordained in the British Province.

Sr Shaw's service in the Church began long before her ordination. Originally from Westwood, Oldham she was an integral part of both the Girl Guides and the Scout movement in Lancashire, before moving to Fulneck to take up the post of warden for the Choir House in 1961. Upon ordination, Sr Shaw went on to faithfully serve the congregations of Woodford Halse, Eydon and Priors Marston where she was eventually accepted and became well loved.

It is evident from correspondence that Sr Shaw did not set out to be unique, or indeed a trailblazer for women in the ministry, but she grasped at the opportunity to widen and make more effective her commitment to God through Church service. Yet we cannot allow the anniversary of her ordination to go by without note, but instead take opportunity to look back and celebrate the journey that started more than fifty years before 1970 and continues today.

The roles that women can occupy and the responsibilities they can bear that would have normally been only accessible to their male counterparts was a topic that preoccupied not only the Church but wider society for much of the 20th century.
On the political stage, the Representation of the People Act was passed in 1918, extending the vote to women for the first time. A success for the Suffrage movement, 8.5 million women in the UK were enfranchised, yet it was a stuttering start. Only women over the age of 30 who met the property qualification were entitled to vote. Two thirds of the female population remained without a vote until the Equal Franchise Act 1928.

Meanwhile in 1919, at the Provincial Synod of the British Province a proposal came forward to allow women to be eligible for roles on all representative and administrative bodies of the Moravian Church as well as being eligible for election to District Conference and Synod. While the proposal did not pass in its entirety, women became eligible for Congregation Committees and for election, with voting rights at District Conference and Synod.

From this point on the role of sisters in Church Service again began to be grappled with. Between 1745 and 1760, 200 women were ordained deaconesses under Zinzendorf's leadership and they were mainly responsible for the ministry and work of the sisters' choirs. However even at this time, women generally did not preach in Church and while this is something that Zinzendorf would later come to express regret for, the practice of these ordinations stopped after his death in 1760. By the beginning of the twentieth century, sisters could be found in many areas of church service but the idea of a woman in the pulpit or pastoral charge over male members of the congregation was initially incomprehensible. In 1925 a proposal came forward to Synod for the acceptance of suitable women candidates for the Ministry. It did not pass, but instead it was referred for discussion at a local level, to return to the Synod in 1926. From that point it was continually deferred until 1943 when the conversation gained traction again, but lively debate continued at local levels and through correspondence in this very publication.

Lancashire District Conference held at Salem on 15th May 1943 recommended to the Provincial Board that Sr Douglas be placed on the Roll of Lay Preachers. Sr Douglas was welcomed as an assistant minister at Dukinfield that following September, and the District Conference called upon the Synod to appoint a committee in order to allow for a more positive approach to women in Church Service as ministers and missionaries.

A resolution did make it to the floor of Synod in 1944 when yet further discussion was called for in the districts. Overall, it appears that congregations were against the appointment of ministers. The Eastern District felt that they could welcome the occasional help of women in the pulpit, with Upton Manor being the only congregation that was unanimously in favour of full-time women ministers.

This resolve to maintain the status quo continued, despite the background of the Second World War, where there was a clear recognition of the role and capability of women in all areas of life. It must be said that there was a growing sentiment and recognition that women could of course carry out the role of a minister but the practicalities of having to balance both Church and her responsibilities in the home, meant there was the real risk of the female minister being a 'hinderance' to future of the Church!
However, it seems that momentum was being created. Sr Etheline Maud Gubi's name is listed on the Minister's board in Brockweir, having taken pastoral charge between 1949 and 1952. The Moravian Women's Association was founded in 1950 and it has since continually proven the force that can be created when sisters come together in fellowship.

At this point it is worth considering the view of the Unity. As a Church we are one of the few denominations that has a worldwide legislative body, and by the 1950s the British Province set out to raise this question at the highest levels. In 1953, a report commissioned from the Unity found that only two Provinces had considered the issue of women in ministry at their synod: Britain and Suriname. The Board of the Northern American Province considered the decision to be one for each individual Province to make, and in principle it was 'desirable to maintain the longer established tradition of limiting the ordination in the Moravian Church to men and the governing bodies of all Provinces should be urged to adhere to this principle if possible.' The report concluded that in principle the ordination of women would be permissible.

From this point, the British Province Synod persisted and in 1956 made a recommendation to the Unity Synod that women as well as men, be eligible for ordination in the Moravian Church. In 1958, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the Unity Synod affirmed the conclusions of the 1953 report, paving the way for the acceptance of women as candidates for ministry.

Back home, the debate did not end there, and indeed it took a further ten years for the conversation to truly develop and transform. Sr Janet Twine took to the Messenger in 1967 calling for us to once again consider the role of women: 'let us remember how the women who had followed Jesus we the first to receive the message of the risen Lord. But the message was not just for them. They realised this, and felt impelled to share it.'

It was in 1968 that the Church Service Advisory Board published a report on the supply of ministry and the real concern at the reduced number of those entering training. Consideration was given to finally opening the door to ordination of women: suddenly the practical difficulties being experienced in the Church upended the view that women ministers could be a mere hindrance and there was a recognition that there had been a neglect for at least half of our ministry particularly in, as was noted, what was the 'vigorous' half.

It was felt that acceptance was still some ways off in the future and who would come forward? In July 1970, Br Paul Gubi and Sr Valerie Barker brought forward a proposal that women be accepted for the ordained ministry. The proposal was accepted and one month later Sr Emily Shaw wrote to the Provincial Board: 'I see the ordination of women as way to open to greater service those who feel called to do this work in a world which needs more of the Spirit of Jesus Christ in its midst, if ever men and women are to be happy.'

When Sr Shaw applied for the ministry, she had five years left before retirement and following her ordination she was called to serve congregations in a full-time capacity. It was with 'dismay' that the congregation of Woodford Halse heard of her call to serve them, requesting an immediate meeting with the Provincial Board to rectify the situation. However, the Provincial Board, as often is the case, were firm in their resolve and support of Sr Shaw and determined that she would carry out such the call they had discerned. It was with even greater dismay to the same congregation that she retired in 1975.

Millicent Fawcett, a suffragist leader once stated in a speech: 'Courage calls to courage everywhere, and its voice cannot be denied.' When Sr Shaw died in 1976, in a tribute to her in the Messenger, it was noted that she never sought such tributes but living in the light of Faith, she always sought to be of service.

Yet in walking in such a light with courage of conviction, Sr Shaw, carried the baton from all those before her - both sisters and brothers - who persevered to a new body, a body of courageous ordained women ministers all of who to this day continue to push new boundaries and rise to challenges in their ministry on a daily basis.

I would like to end this article noting that I could have written for many more pages, and perhaps I will eventually. Ordination was only the beginning and I have not had the opportunity to reflect on all the other areas of Church Service that sisters have helped propel forward.

Discovering Sr Shaw, led me to discover so many stories of brothers and sisters from throughout the 20th century who constantly sought to carry out the work of the Church, to spread the gospel but to also challenge the norm when it became too comfortable, and for people to meet together even in disagreement and to finally reach consensus.

roberta hoey2Sr Roberta Hoey

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Church House is the Headquarters of the Moravian Church in the British Province and is located in London at:
Moravian Church House, 

5 Muswell Hill, 
N10 3TJ


020 8883 3409

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