In conversation with Rev Dr Margaret Forrester

This month commemorates the 50th anniversary of the decision to allow women to be ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. Rev Dr Margaret Forrester, one of the campaigners who fought for female ordination in the 1960s, told her story to Life and Work magazine.

Dr Forrester, in her own words, reflects on the journey to allowing women to be ordained - and how far women have come since.

Dr Forrester, who was awarded the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Divinity by The University of Edinburgh in July 2017. (Photo courtesy of The University of Edinburgh)

“Of course not! Girls can’t be ministers.”

“Why not?”

“They’re not allowed.”

I first had that conversation within the family when I was eight years old. It happened again when I was choosing subjects for Highers.

“Such a pity,” said the teacher, “With your interests, if only you were a boy... You would train for the ministry.”

Nurtured through Scripture Union at school, and at church by Bible Class, Youth Fellowship and Sunday worship, I began to grow in faith and Bible knowledge. Then I met two women who were to influence me greatly. In Orkney, as part of the Tell Scotland movement, I met Dr Elizabeth Hewat. At a university conference Mary Lusk (later Levison) was a principal speaker.

These two women became my friends and mentors. Although Elizabeth Hewat was honoured both in China and India, and although she was given a DD by Edinburgh University, she grieved that she, who had for so long felt the call to ministry, would never be ordained. She was however supremely generous with her friendship and her support to both Mary and me.

Mary, with dazzling academic qualifications from Oxford and Edinburgh, huge practical experience, and the only woman licensed to preach, was oddly diffident about engaging in controversy. She writes in her book, Wrestling with the Church, that her sense of vocation was ‘an incredibly audacious claim to make’. She did not set out to disturb or to shock. Yet the act of petitioning the General Assembly in 1963 did exactly that.

I knew that my vocation lay in ministry; in 1961 I had started at New College. Admission to the Faculty of Divinity was no problem – the university had opened its doors to women from the 19th century. It was however, impossible to be accepted as a candidate for ministry by the church.

Sheila White (later the Rev Sheila Spence) started at New College at the same time and together we challenged church practice at many points.

For example, there was an entrance exam for all ministerial candidates in the Church of Scotland on English Bible and New Testament Greek. We were at first refused entry. Only our sheer persistence persuaded those invigilating to allow us to sit the exams. It was satisfying but galling to discover that we passed with flying colours and several of the men who had already been accepted as candidates for the ministry failed both exams. Failing Greek was understandable. But bible knowledge?

Those three years at New College were very special; the teaching, the discussions, the worship, the community. But the world around us was changing.

I think that Mary, Elizabeth and I, and an increasing number of others, felt excited that the Church of Scotland was being asked to change and that we women were involved in the renewal of the church. Many churchmen were downright negative to the point of rudeness. Others were enormously encouraging.

From Mary’s petition in 1963 it took five years for the act to be passed. For me, the crucial year was 1967. With my husband and baby son we were on furlough from South India. Frustrated at the inaction of the Panel on Doctrine, a group of us prepared a letter to be given to every commissioner. As a courtesy we gave a copy to the Convener of the Panel on Doctrine, the Rev John Heron. Permission to place in the pigeon holes was not granted on the grounds that our letter was unofficial and may sway the vote. Indeed! Nor were we allowed to stand at the gates and hand them out. We were not given a room, either, at the Assembly Hall nor in 121 to put our case. At every possible point those in power prevented us from disseminating information.

Having tried every legitimate way to present our case to commissioners, we decided to hold a press conference. The Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) generously offered us a free room. The press turned up in full force and the next day we were given ample coverage in newspapers and radio. The attempt by the General Administration Committee to silence us worked wonderfully well. The publicity far surpassed anything we could have imagined or planned.

Therefore when the Panel on Doctrine gave the report there was vigorous debate and the Rev Grahame Bailey’s motion was passed. The motion read: ‘That the Principal Clerk and the Procurator should be instructed to draft an overture to be sent down under the Barrier Act enabling women to be ordained and to submit it to a later session’. Presbyteries would at last be allowed to debate and decide.

A year later, back in India, I was nursing my new born daughter on our veranda when a cable arrived: ‘SWEEPING VICTORY FOR THE ORDINATION OF WOMEN’. I have it still.

Six women signed that open letter, Elizabeth Hewat, and Mary Levison who went on to have a distinguished ministry, though never as a parish minister. Four are still alive. Claude Marie Barbour was ordained in the Presbyterian Church US, Mary Weir is a minister in the Presbyterian Church of Canada. Sheila Spence became a parish minister in Scotland. In Madras Christian College, India, I taught New Testament Greek to students – two bishops and a professor in the US are among my former students. Tambaram pastorate where I took regular services petitioned the Synod to allow women to be ordained and that followed within a few years. In 1974 I was ordained in the United Reformed Church to my first charge in Sussex and then when we returned to Scotland, I was called to the parish of St Michael’s in Edinburgh in 1980. My ecumenical experiences in India and England have been blessings indeed.

Fifty years on we celebrate a collegiality of women ministers. No one is first. No one stands alone. Elizabeth Hewat represents those who blazed the trail. Mary Lusk petitioned the General Assembly. Catherine McConnachie was the first woman to be ordained as a minister in the Church of Scotland. Effie Irvine was the first to be called to a parish. Jean Montgomerie was the first to be convener of an Assembly committee. Sheilagh Kesting was the first minister to be Moderator of the General Assembly. Lorna Hood was the first serving parish minister to be Moderator of the General Assembly. The year I was Moderator of Edinburgh Presbytery was the year the first women were ordained in the Episcopal Diocese of Edinburgh. The Bishop, Richard Holloway, invited me to participate in the laying on of hands. I think that counts as an ecumenical first.

These years have been full of joy and fulfilment, trepidation and adventure, disappointments and forgiveness, laughter and healing, learning and growing. For this goodly fellowship I thank God.

This article first appeared in May's edition of The Church of Scotland’s magazine Life and Work. Download or subscribe here.

Dr Forrester will be appearing at this year's Heart and Soul Festival on Sunday 20 May, in the In Conversation tent, to discuss her work in petitioning for women’s ordination.

Women's ordination 50th anniversary walk

To commemorate 50 years of women being ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament, a celebratory walk will be held on Tuesday 22 May - 50 years to the day after that momentous vote.

To commemorate 50 years of women being ordained to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament, a celebratory walk will be held on Tuesday 22May - 50 years to the day after that momentous vote.

Women who have been ordained as ministers, and their supporters, are invited to join us for a short walk up The Mound to the Assembly Hall during the General Assembly 2018.

The event is being held by The University of Edinburgh Centre for Theology and Public Issues and New College, in partnership with the Church of Scotland Ministries Council.

To register your attendance, and to find out more, please see the Eventbrite page.