Kirk pioneer for women’s rights honoured by capital's University

An heroic pioneer for women’s rights within the Kirk has been honoured by the University of Edinburgh for helping pave the way to the ordination of female ministers.

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“This is really an honour for everyone who was involved in that struggle and I accept it on their behalf too,” Dr Forrester (right) said.(Photo courtesy of The University of Edinburgh)

Met with fierce resistance and anger

Rev Dr Margaret Rae McDonald Forrester (76) has been awarded the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Divinity for being part of a group of women who, in 1967, petitioned the General Assembly to allow women to be ministers of Word and Sacrament.

The move, which was met with fierce resistance and anger at the time, led to the landmark ruling by the Assembly in favour of the proposal the following year. It was the culmination of an issue which arose in 1963 when Mary Levison, then an assistant chaplain at the University of Edinburgh, asked the General Assembly to ordain the position but was met with deaf ears.

“This is really an honour for everyone who was involved in that struggle and I accept it on their behalf too,” DrForrester said. “I worked with five other great women to ensure the proposal was debated in the Assembly because, remember, at that time, women couldn’t even debate in the hall.My thanks also go to the great men who supported our cause and debated so well that day.”

A question of education

Dr Forrester told of how a clerk at the General Assembly refused to allow a letter her group produced to be put in commissioners’ pigeon holes urging them to debate the issue.

Instead, a national press conference was held in Edinburgh which led to front page headlines across the UK, putting pressure on Kirk leaders to allow the debate.

“For me, it has always been a question of education,” said the retired minister. “The words ‘struggle’ or ‘fight’ don’t come easily for me. Education was key in understanding the Bible. I still have a sense of wonder and awe that I was caught up in God’s plan for reform of the Church.

“There were great women and great men involved in this reform. Ultimately it was men who voted for this.”

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“I worked with five other great women to ensure the proposal was debated in the Assembly because, remember, at that time, women couldn’t even debate in the Hall." (Photo courtesy of The University of Edinburgh)

A woman of great stature

The first female Moderator of the General Assembly Dr Alison Elliot, who took up the role in 2004, said: "Margaret is a woman of great stature within the Church of Scotland. Her courageous leadership, pastoral sensitivity and manifest integrity have made her a popular role model throughout the Kirk. Warm congratulations to her, and to The University of Edinburgh, for recognising her distinction with this degree."

Dr Forrester’s ministry took her first to India. With her husband Duncan, who passed away last year, she worked at Madras Christian College. Their children, Donald and Catriona, were born there.

Having been ordained in the United Reformed Church in England, Dr Forrester was inducted by the Church of Scotland in 1980 to St Michael’s Church in west Edinburgh and was the first female parish minister in Edinburgh Presbytery.

After retiring from ministry she became a published children’s fiction author, writing three volumes of books about her cat Mac.

The Church of Scotland was one of the first national churches to accept the ordination of women.

Commenting on the progress of gender equality in the UK almost 50 years since her historical contribution to the cause, Dr Forrester said: “I think there is always a lot to be done. Look at Wimbledon, for example, where Andy Murray has highlighted the inequality of the number of male to female appearances on Centre Court. We should always be vigilant.”

The five other women who worked with Dr Forrester to achieve the historic breakthrough for women's rights within the Kirk are:

Claude Barbour – now a Professor in USA, retired

Elizabeth Hewat MA, BD, PhD, DD, deceased

Mary Levison MA. BD, C of S minister, deceased

Mary Weir MA, BD, Presbyterian Church of Canada, Retired

Sheila White MA, BD, C of S minister, retired