Scotland

The women who won the battle to be Church of Scotland ministers

margaret forrester
Image caption Margaret Forrester was one of six women who petitioned the Kirk in 1967

Fifty years ago Margaret Forrester was one of a small group who succeeded in forcing the Church of Scotland to allow women to be ordained as ministers, decades before the Church of England.

"We were up against 400 years of tradition in the Church of Scotland and more than that in the church universal," she says.

"We were up against tradition and we were up against prejudice, some of which was unthinking and not terribly intelligent to be honest."

Dr Forrester along with five other women - Claude Barbour, Elizabeth Hewat, Mary Levison (then Mary Lusk), Mary Weir and Sheila White (now the Reverend Sheila Spence) - wrote an open letter campaigning for a change to the Kirk's rules on women ministers.

She was in her mid-20s and had graduated in divinity from New College at the University of Edinburgh a few years before the women petitioned the Church of Scotland's governing body in 1967.

Image caption The women organised a press conference that ignited the issue

Their campaign met fierce resistance and anger but on 22 May 1968, the Kirk's General Assembly finally voted to allow women to be ordained.

Dr Forrester told BBC Scotland some objectors had tried to present Biblical evidence against women being allowed to minister.

"For every text that says women can't there are texts that say women can," she says.

Other people agreed with her campaign but told her the time was not right for it - but she politely disagreed.

The arguments put forward by some were just "absurd", Dr Forrester says.

Image caption Dr Forrester was one of two women to study divinity at New College but they could not be ministers

"I remember somebody saying in all seriousness that women could not be ministers because their voices don't carry.

"Somebody else said that women's brains can't manage Hebrew.

"I thought 'what an extraordinary thing to say'. How do the women in Israel manage?

"People said really strange and thoughtless things."

A vocation

Dr Forrester had known she could not be a minister but there was no barrier to her taking the divinity course because it was run by the university, which had accepted women since the 19th Century.

However, she says she felt the ministry "was a vocation" and during her time at university she thought "hang on, maybe women can be ordained".

She adds: "When I went to New College I was quite clear that God was calling me to be a minister."

Image caption Margaret Forrester says she had a "vocation" to be a minister

While she was a student, in 1963, Mary Lusk petitioned the General Assembly and Dr Forrester was present in the gallery to witness the debate.

She says: "It was tremendously exciting. We felt like we were in a movement that was part of God's renewal of the church.

"Although there was struggle and prejudice, there was a lot of joy and fun.

"There was resistance but from 1963 when Mary Lusk petitioned the Kirk, it was like a tide."

The issue refused to go away and was raised at the General Assembly every year after that.

"The big year was 67," Dr Forrester said.

"We just felt they were not taking it seriously."

'In every paper'

The six women got together and wrote an open letter, which they wanted to present to the Kirk commissioners, but the church refused.

The women then organised a press conference with little hope that it would attract much attention.

Dr Forrester said: "We went into the room and it was crammed. We presented the letter and the next day it was in every paper in Scotland.

"That triggered a really great debate in 1967. In 68, it was just a rubber stamp."

Image caption Margaret was India when she received a telegram from her mother-in-law telling about the "sweeping victory"

After the vote, Mary Levison said: "The Church no longer regards women as second-class citizens.

"I hope this decision will have a liberating effect right through the Church."

By the time of the General Assembly vote, Dr Forrester had returned to India with her missionary husband.

She received news of the "sweeping victory" in a telegram from her mother-in-law.

By the following year, the Reverend Catherine McConnachie was ordained and served as assistant minister at St George's Tillydrone, in Aberdeen.

The Reverend Effie Irvine, who died in February, was the first to be ordained as a parish minister in 1972 at Milton of Campsie Parish Church.

'Always going to win'

Dr Forrester was ordained in the United Reformed Church in England in 1974.

She was inducted by the Church of Scotland in 1980 to St Michael's Church in west Edinburgh.

Today, more than a quarter of Church of Scotland ministers (194 in total) are women.

And despite the delay and the fight, the Kirk was decades ahead of the Church of England which only ordained women priests in 1994.

Women still cannot be ordained in the Roman Catholic Church.

Image copyright Andrew O'Brien
Image caption The Right Rev Susan Brown was installed as moderator in a ceremony at the beginning of the General Assembly

This year the Moderator of the General Assembly is female.

The Reverend Susan Brown, the minister at Dornoch Cathedral, is only the fourth woman ever to hold that post.

In 2000 she was the minister who conducted the marriage of pop star Madonna and film director Guy Ritchie.

She also baptised their son Rocco.

Dr Forrester says she always knew she was going to win the battle for women ministers.

She says: "We knew that it might take time.

"We hoped to persuade people. We weren't going to be nasty or difficult about it.

"But yes, we were always going to win. Absolutely."

More on this story