I spent a brilliant weekend in Glasgow at a conference to celebrate the ordination of Olive Winchester, the first woman in the UK to be ordained by a trinitarian church. On 11 May 1912, Olive was ordained as a minister in Parkhead Nazarene Church in Glasgow. The previous year she had been the first woman to get a theology degree from Glasgow University. Her ordination showed that the church she belonged to recognised her anointing and call to ministry even though they hadn’t ordained women before.
I came away from the weekend feeling reconnected to the history of women leaders in the church. Janet Wooton spoke powerfully about the need to remember our mothers and sisters in the faith. History is the way that cultures tell their stories and we need to ask who controls the narrative. I was struck by that word 'remember'. To dismember something is to pull it apart and to destroy it. In contrast, to re-member is to give something body and substance, to piece it back together.
When women were ordained as priests in the Anglican Church in 1994, the media picked up on the novelty and reported on the ‘first’ weddings, baptisms and funerals ever conducted by women. What they missed was that in fact Florence Li Tim-Oi was the first female Anglican priest in 1944, Olive Winchester officiated at her first wedding in 1913, women had been preaching and leading in the Methodist Church for over 200 years and women had been leaders in the Salvation Army since it began in the mid 19th century. And of course women have been active as leaders in the church for far longer than that. Carla Sunberg who is District Superintendent of the Church of the Nazarene in Ohio talked about her research into the Cappdocian view of women in the 4th century. Macrina was the sister of Gregory of Nyssa, one of the desert fathers. She resisted her family’s efforts to arrange a marriage for her, and with another brother, Basil, founded parallel monastic communities for men and women, for which she was the overall leader. She was known as a well-educated, independent thinker who taught the Bible and established a hospital where divine healing was practiced. And she's not alone.
When we’re disconnected to the history of the women in ministry who have gone before us, we can easily think that women in leadership is something new, and it makes it easier for people to resist and question whether it’s ‘allowed’. With the weight of church history behind us, we can step up to the mark with confidence knowing that our foremothers are cheering us on!