Constance Coltman: Called to Serve
The Revd Dr Kirsty Thorpe marks 100th anniversary of the ordination of Constance Coltman, one of the first British women to be ordained, by exploring her life and her legacy.
On 17th September 1917 Constance Coltman took a radical step; she was ordained as a Christian minister. She was one of the first women in Britain to serve as a minister in a mainstream Church and to mark the 100th anniversary of her ordination, the Revd Dr Kirsty Thorpe explores her life and her legacy. The preacher is the Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin who reflects on the nature of vocation, ministry and her own career.
KIRSTY Crossing the threshold in the chapel at Mansfield College, Oxford, is an impressive experience. Its ornate woodwork, statues of the great reformers, and stained glass windows of great Christian thinkers and writers create an imposing atmosphere. When I first stepped into this chapel, many years ago, I thought I must have come to the wrong place. This kind of setting is more associated with High Church worship than the part of the Reformed tradition I come from. So how did it feel for a young history graduate, Constance Todd, over a hundred years ago as she began her life here studying to be a minister? She had felt a strong call to ordained ministry from an early age. Although it was not unheard of for women to become ministers in North America or on the radical edges of the Church all that was a world away from the idea of a woman training for ministry alongside men in a traditional place like this. Women were only just establishing their right to higher education and starting to enter the professions against deep seated opposition.It was an act of great courage for Constance to take a risk and apply to the college. She must have drawn her quiet, inner strength from God – the God of scripture and of our experience who encourages us to challenge expectations and use our gifts in new and surprising ways. And here in the quiet stillness of this nineteenth century chapel we pray:God of grace and encouragement we give you thanks and praise for all those who have answered your call and entered unknown futures in response to you.May we be open to your prompting,and receptive to the new things your Holy Spirit is doing in the world and within your Church here and now. Amen
Constance always gave a special place to Mary the mother of Jesus in her spiritual life. We hear Timothy Dudley Smith’s hymn ‘Tell out my soul’, based on the Song of Mary.
HYMN Tell out my soul - Seaford College Chapel
KIRSTY I’ve come up a steep winding staircase to a book lined study overlooking Mansfield College quad. It’s likely that Constance’s interview with college principal Dr. Selbie took place in a room not dissimilar to this. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall for that occasion! We know nothing about what was said but years later Dr Selbie said that what convinced him to admit Constance was her strong sense of call. God wanted her to do this. She was in no doubt about it. Then began her three long years of training, a woman in a man’s world but she soon won the respect and affection of her fellow students. They even voted to allow her to join the junior common room. She did well in her studies, particularly in Hebrew and Church History, and it was here that she met fellow student, Claud Coltman. But where would she find a church prepared to welcome a woman in the pulpit and presiding at communion? What other thresholds lay ahead of her that would need to be crossed? Constance would later write:
CELIA ‘Protestantism in its spiritual essence enshrines a conception of the dignity and sacredness of the individual soul, born from its direct and immediate relation to God, which involves the complete spiritual emancipation of womankind. The right of private judgement, the freedom to discover and to declare the mind of God, which the Reformers claimed, could not be confined to one sex alone. Woman has a value altogether independent of her sexual functions, which is derived not from her relationship to man, as wife or mother, but from her relation to God. She is His child, equally dear to His Father’s heart, equally capable of understanding and declaring His will. She shares with man the right and duty of passing on to others any vision or revelation that may be granted to her. ...... Protestantism holds in trust, for the rest of Christendom, the Christian principle of the priesthood of all believers. If the Free Churches stand fast by the ministry of women they will explicate and strengthen their own position; they may also reveal to others the mind of Christ as concerns the place and function of women in His Church. [Constance M. Coltman – writing in Mansfield College Magazine 1924]
HYMN O God, you search me and you know me - Choir of the Diocese of Leeds
KIRSTY Christians don’t all agree about women’s role in the Church. Our responses are shaped by our understanding of theology and tradition, and our personal experiences. Talking to one another about these things may be a cause of further pain and harm. We need God’s mercy and grace:
PRAYER Gracious God, breathe your forgiveness into the damaged places of our lives, your Church, your world. Give us grace to live with our differences and to respect one another. May your Holy Spirit open us to new possibilities, and renew us as followers of Jesus, who calls on us to love one another, as God in Christ loves us. AMEN.
KIRSTY By the end of her training Constance was engaged to fellow ministerial student Claud Coltman. They moved to London and began worshiping at the King’s Weigh House, a Congregational Church just off Oxford Street. The charismatic and controversial minister there, W.E. Orchard, saw a possibility for the young couple to serve as joint ministers of the church’s mission in the East End. I have here a copy of ‘The Coming Day’, which was the journal of the Free Church Suffrage movement, from October 1917. And here there’s a report entitled: A Significant Event. Ordination of a Woman Minister
VOICE On Monday evening, September 17th, there took place in King’s Weigh House Church what may well prove an historic ceremony, the ordination of a woman to the full office of the ministry. The ministry to which Miss Constance Mary Todd, B.D., and Mr Claude Coltman, M.A., were called is not merely that of a preacher and pastor, but includes the administration of the Sacraments in the fullest sense consonant with congregational teaching. The views of the present minister of King’s Weigh House, Dr. W. E. Orchard, with regard to the sacraments are well known, and this makes the admission of a woman to their administration all the more significant.Miss Todd and Mr Coltman, both in academic costume, knelt before the four ministers whose hands were laid upon their heads, the sponsors also, in the name of the congregation, each putting a hand on the head of the ordinand, while the congregation sand the ‘Veni, Creator,’ and Dr Orchard spoke the solemn words of consecration. The Rev. Stanley Russell delivered a striking address in which he referred to the present passing away of the old order in which woman was man’s subordinate, and the beginning it was hoped, of a happier age in which man and woman together should build up a nobler world. These words were peculiarly applicable from the fact the ordinands, fellow-students at Mansfield College, Oxford, were to be married on the following morning. Mr and Mrs Claude Coltman are called to be assistant-ministers of the King’s Weigh House Church and appointed to labour at Darby Street Mission, near the Tower.’ [The Coming Day – journal of the Free Church Suffrage movement – October 1917]
HYMN Come Holy Ghost - Choir of St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral
KIRSTY I’m now sitting not far from the Tower of London, in the East End - as near as you can get today to the site of Darby Street mission where Constance and Claud began their shared ministry. The church closed in the 1930s and the street itself no longer exists. In 1917 this was a densely populated area with a lot of poverty and deprivation. Not an easy place for a first church. It must have been a shock for the small mission congregation to receive a husband and wife as ministers. In the past they’d had male missioners supported by deaconesses and lady visitors. How would this cultured young lady forge a relationship with the lives and experiences of the East Enders she would be ministering to? After less than two years here Constance would take time out, with the blessing of Dr Orchard at the King’s Weigh House. We don’t exactly know why but ministry on the margins is never easy.All ministry begins with an encounter with Jesus. In the gospels Jesus interacts closely with women as well as men, as we hear in the gospel of Matthew, chapter 26, verses six to thirteen.
VOICE Now while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table. But when the disciples saw it, they were angry and said, ‘Why this waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.’ But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, ‘Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. By pouring this ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’ And from John’s gospel: ‘Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples: ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
KIRSTY Our preacher today, the Reverend Rose Hudson Wilkin, has her own experiences of pioneering ministry. ROSE On the 11th of November 1992 there was a significant gathering of women and men in the grounds of Deans Yard Westminster praying and singing while the General Synod of the Church of England met in session, debating the subject of women becoming ordained as priest within the church. I was amongst that crowd on that day, having travelled down by coach from the diocese of Lichfield. I had a special placard made up with the words, “Women, beautifully and wonderfully made in the image of God” and on the other side was written, “Women, called to represent Christ.” I remember feeling that this was a momentous moment in the life of the Church and that, the church was on the brink of something special. Well, it was certainly special for my lifetime. From the age of 14 years, I had had an overwhelming sense of being called to a ministry in a church that had doubts that such a call could be possible, why? Because it did not fit in with some people’s interpretation of scripture; or for others, it did not fit in with the tradition of the church. As a young girl growing up in the Caribbean, I remember asking my bishop, ‘How come you tell us that the sacrament is important and yet we rarely receive it because we have no priest to give it to us?’ Although I was young, I was fully aware that there were women (and a few men) who faithfully kept the church open and cared for the congregants in between the sparing visits of the priest. My bishop’s response which I regarded as unsatisfactory was, ‘We are Anglicans, we only have men as priest’. In spite of his response, it did not quell that which I felt deep inside, that God was calling me. Today, we mark the centenary of the first woman ordained to a mainstream Christian denomination - Constance Coltman nee Todd. That she should at a time of great unrest in Europe, recognise herself as called by God and to proceed to approach those who were the gatekeepers of the church, can only be recognised as pretty remarkable. Remarkable because she lived at a time when women were clearly expected to be content in their given role within the home as homemakers. It would have taken great courage and conviction to allow oneself to harbour such thoughts, never mind expressing it to others.
In 1994 beginning in the April of that year, up and down the country in the various cathedrals, beginning in Bristol, women began to be ordained as priests in the Church of England. That was 23 years ago. Once the Church of England (regarded by some as the mother church) had stepped out in faith to ordain women as priests, other provinces in the church also began to do the same. I was invited to Jamaica to speak at their 10th anniversary celebration of women as priests, and was deeply moved when being briefed by the diocesan bishop and hearing him describe the difference that the ordained women had made to the life of the church. He spoke of revival in some places; of areas who for the first time had a priest allocated to them and then he said something else that moved me and has stayed with me ever since. He said, the women were offering themselves to serve in areas, where former priests would not go. It is interesting too that Constance Coltman offered to serve in an area of great need the East end of London. I believe she made a great difference. I too was very fortunate to have been called to serve in a similar place: a community where many people were struggling; I had 2 churches, in one of them, only a handful of people worshipped; the grounds was overgrown; the windows broken; indoors the plastering was off the wall at the east end and to top it all off, the people were told that no priest worth anything, would want to serve in a place like that! I served there, because I believe that God was calling me to that place. I had no expensive ointment but like the woman in the gospel story, I visited the people sat and listened to their stories and found different ways of affirming them as the people of God; spoke on their behalf; journeyed alongside them and washed their feet when it was needed. What they heard and experienced was God’s good news. The congregation grew and they in turn became messengers of the Good News of Jesus Christ. As women, we are not women priests, we are just priests who happen to be women. Like the woman who anointed our Lord Jesus at Simon the Leper’s house, her offering of herself for this ministry was borne out of a deep sense of compassion and devotion to Christ. It was this same compassion that led Constance to leave behind the comforts of an upper-middle-class lifestyle and seek to work in a part of London which was visibly in need. This was the kind of devotion to Christ that I saw in the eyes of the women who had laboured in the church but in 1994 were deemed too old to be ordained. They knew that God had called them to a life of service, even though those as gatekeepers in the church told them otherwise. Their confidence in God’s call allowed them to remain faithful.As women who are priests, we recognise that there are still many obstacles to overcome. We recognise that instead of focusing on the words of our Lord – “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few,” that there are many who still devote money, time and energy into restricting the labourers for the harvest. Our role is to remain faithful to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ; our role is to serve Christ in one another. We should never be distracted by the obstacles that are put in our way. I recall at the height of the debate around women priest, a Pentecostal pastor said to me, “Sister, I want you to remember that God entrusted us with the living Word.” “Wow”, I thought, “That can never be taken away from us”.As women who are called to serve the Church as priests, we are the Mary Magdalene of today, not only were we entrusted with the ‘Living Word’, but Christ himself, entrusted us with the message, “Go and tell”. Let us not waste another moment embroiled in debates about our very existence in the church. As women we are priests, mothers, daughters, wives, lovers, aunts and grandmothers, even bishops; we are beautifully and wonderfully made in the image of God and we are called to represent Christ.
MUSIC I waited for the Lord - The Hogan Ensemble
KIRSTY Thanks be to God for people of courage who resist oppression and refuse to be silenced, who hold onto their vision when hope is in short supply.
Thanks be to God for champions of justice, defenders of the poor, sharers of joy and builders of community.
Thanks be to God for those who share their faith and help to build up God’s people so that all can receive resurrection life.
KIRSTY This week in London a group of women and men from across the world have met to share experiences of gender and faith. We hear Ellen Nachali Mulenga, from Zambia, Patricia Sheerattan-Bisnauth from Guyana, and Asea Railean from Moldova. (Comments from Ellen Nachali Mulenga, Patricia Sheerattan-Bisnauth and Asea Railean)
HYMN With Miriam we will dance – Manchester Chamber Choir
KIRSTY We turn to you, God of every time and place and person, holding before you our needs and the needs of our world. We remember victims of violence in wars, civil unrest and terrorist attacks, and those whose lives have been changed for ever by natural disasters and horrific accidents.
We remember victims of ethnic cleansing, refugees and the homeless, seeking your strength and energy for rescuers, relief workers, peace makers and those who bring us news we need to hear.
We pray for the leaders of the nations for politicians, civil servants and diplomats, and for those whose decisions can limit or expand the horizons of countless others.
We pray for the needs closest to our own hearts and bring our prayers together in the Lord’s Prayer Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be your name Your kingdom come, Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our sins As we forgive those who sin against us. Save us from the time of trial And deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours Now and for ever. Amen.
HYMN Praise to the Lord - Choir of Westminster Abbey