When the Men Voted

My life this year has been consumed by the challenge of writing a thesis on Clergy Performance Review for M. Bus at AUT. I hope to post some extracts in the new year. But the event I describe below was so momentous, I took time out to write a post. 

A historic moment was marked in Auckland this month as the Northern Presbytery of the PCANZ celebrated the passing of fifty years since the church first ordained a woman (Margaret Reid) to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. This took the form of “When the Men Voted,” a dramatic re-enactment of an hour of the 1961 General Assembly in Dunedin. Participating ministers wore suits and clerical collars, the three women featuring as lady elders wore hats and gloves, and the gathering was addressed as “Moderator, Fathers and Brethren.” There was lots of laughter, not a few tears, and huge appreciation of what this remarkable change in the polity of the Presbyterian Church has meant. After the re-enactment, the Reverend Margaret Reid Martin was greeted by the gathering, along with the 15 other women clergy present. 

Why 1961? A little history: 
Although Margaret (now Mrs Martin) was ordained in 1965, the processes and policies for this to take place had their roots further back. Some would say the pivotal moment theologically was the passing of the principle that women in the NZ Presbyterian Church may be ordained to the role of ruling elder; that event had taken place in 1955 when it was ruled by the national court (the General Assembly) that “there is no male or female” in the leadership of Christ’s church. Allan Davidson notes that objections at the time included that “men would stand back and let women do the work, that women did not want to be elders, and that they were not fitted to be elders” (Presbyterians in Aotearoa p 130) . Nevertheless women began to take their part in governance and were soon contributing to Session (eldership teams) in many parts of the country. Of course, deaconesses had served the church in myriad ways since 1903, but their role was seen to be one of servanthood, and to lie outside the leadership structures of the church. In the sixties, regulations were enacted to allow them to participate fully in local and national church decision-making. Some of those deaconesses, including Margaret Reid, had studied at the Theological Hall in Dunedin and qualified B.D. along with the men. My father Bill McLeay was in Margaret’s class there, and said she could run rings around the others academically. When the question of her suitability for ordination came to Wellington Presbytery, he gladly seconded the motion. Margaret was followed by other deaconesses who were granted full status, and starting in 1969, women who felt the call to ordained ministry and were selected for full training along with men.

But before that could happen, the church had to grapple with the issues theologically. The ground work had already been laid by a committee of Women and the Church that had been convened in 1948, before women were admitted to the eldership. Under the leadership of Rev Ian Fraser, the committee realised their main job was to inform and educate, and so address the strong opposition expressed by both men and women in the churches. A study booklet, entitled ‘Neither Male nor Female’, was distributed to parishes, and step by step, changes to the Book of Order were made, removing, for example, the word ‘male’ from many regulations. The Bible studies and congregational discussions that accompanied this change meant that many came to terms with the biblical issues of gender equality as regards women elders, who are ordained for life. The inclusion of women as ordinands for the ministry of Word and Sacrament (the role of teaching elder) came as a natural next step.

That did not mean there were not concerns. Extracts from the re-enacted debate, which firstly reiterated principles around ordination, and the theological assertion that women are of equal status with men before God, reveal the dynamics:
  • I was surprised and certainly gratified, by the large measure of agreement… in the presbyteries  … on the proposal that we set before the Assembly …the great majority of church courts did express their general approval, some very willingly and heartily. (Rev L Ker, proposer)
  •  There was also evidence of some reservations, and recognition of possible difficulties. The report encourages the approval of the principle of admission and suggests a careful method of approach to whatever reservations there are. (Rev S. Campbell)
  •  A large body of opinion would support the idea of a limited ministry for women….we ought to pause and remind ourselves that if we agree to the eligibility of women to the ministry, we agree to the eligibility of women to the full ministry, and the only thing that would limit the ministry of a woman would be the gifts that she possess. Just the same factors as limit the ministry of a man. (Rev S. Anderson)

The third clause was acknowledged to be a historic moment:
  • If we pass the clause that is now before us, it will be, to use an old figure of speech, a crossing of the Rubicon. (Rev L Ker)
  • This clause is a recognition of the strength of the spiritual status of women….Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that their best exercise of their spiritual powers is in the ministry. I feel in some ways that it is not. I feel the greatest exercise of the women’s capacity for spiritual leadership is in the home, and probably in their own organisations. But I do welcome this recognition by the church that they be placed on equality with the men. (Mr H Shove)

The main debate was mostly around a suggested amendment to the clause’s recommendation that women be admitted to the ministry, an amendment that proposed a nationwide referendum of all Presbyterian members: 
  • I want to say this afternoon that the women do not want women ministers. We should ask the women… and we should hesitate as a daughter church of the great Church of Scotland to pass a motion so at variance with the feeling of the Scots people… and with the Word of God, which says in the Epistle to the Corinthians “Women should not address the meeting. They have no licence to speak, but should keep their place … If there is something they want to know they can ask their own husbands. It is a shocking thing for a woman, that she should address the congregation.” (NEB) This also bars the door to any possible union with the Church of England. They will never agree to women ministers. (Rev A Gunn) 
  • Most of the women that I have discussed the thing with have the same sort of guardedness about having a lady to tell them what to do spiritually. And I am inclined to support the amendment that the mind of the ladies be asked first.(unknown)

The amendment was opposed by most of the speakers that day, including a former Moderator who brought a lighter tone to the serious argument with:
  •           Moderator, Fathers and Brethren. I wish to oppose the amendment. First of all I want to say that my background is quite conservative. I was born in a town that the other day had a vote on whether they would have raw milk or pasteurised milk. (laughter) And they decided in favour of raw milk.  (laughter) They did the same thing eighty years ago, when some of the worthies, included my grandfather, opposed having water in pipes. Moderator, this Presbyterian Church is a representative spiritual democracy. On an issue of principle like this, the body that should decide is the General Assembly. (Hear hear) Some of our most outstanding Reformed theologians declare quite emphatically, that there’s no theological barrier to the admission of women to the Reformed ministry. Moderator, I would ask the Assembly to decide this issue on fundamental theological and Biblical principles. (Very Rev Dr J. Salmond)
  •      We’ve given the lead in the admission of women to the eldership, I think we can well give a lead to the Church of Scotland on the admission of women to the ministry. (Rev W. Schraeder)
  •        The Spirit of God works still within the church, will continue to work within the church, and I believe that it is working within the church not in the way of the amendment. (unknown)
  •         I’ve changed my mind. Years ago I would be absolutely against the admission of women to the ministry, but I’m not today. (Mr NcNarey)
  •          I support that principle. We are here in the church, and should not be denied because of sex. In Jesus Christ there is no male or female. We are one in the work that is needing to be done. In our Presbyterian Church in New Zealand we have given other people …a light on ways to go. We have not been afraid to listen to the Spirit of God. To do things that haven’t been done before, and other people have honoured us.(unknown woman elder)
  •      I rise to oppose the amendment simply because we are being asked to approve a principle, which is quite independent of the opinion of the women or the members of the congregations throughout the country at this time. If 99% of the women-folk of our congregations said they did not want women elders, they did not want to be women ministers, that would still not give us the right just to sit and ignore a principle. And I don’t think it’s fair to lay the responsibility upon the women who will possibly feel obliged to say,…”we don’t want to be awkward.” ….To take a small passage from one of Paul’s epistles and make it binding on the whole church for all time is unfair to the Word of God, and I defy anybody present to suggest that the lady speaker this afternoon was doing “a shocking thing! (Unknown)

The amendment was lost, and the fourth clause that set machinery in process was passed without dissent. Miss Margaret Reid, who was in a coffee bar across the road, says she was told that day that “the door was now open” to those with the gifts and the calling, and it was. 

The report adopted that day concluded with this cautious paragraph:

 “This report inclines that there are relatively few women who are likely both to possess the needed qualities and feel the call to the office of the ministry, but some women may have both the call and the qualities. Our church then should not in view of the equal spiritual status of men and women in the Christian Society exclude, solely on the grounds of sex, those women who feel the call of God to serve him in the ministry, and who are considered by the church to have the necessary qualifications to do so. 
The admission of such women in ministry may well enrich the church.”

Thanks be to God, it has indeed.

Photo credit: Roger Low


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