Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. DeeAnne Lowman, Associate Pastor




Courageous Past, Bold Future

Sunday, December 3, 2006
Celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Full Clergy Rights for Women in the UMC



Isaiah 42: 5-9
Luke 1:26-38, 46-49




As a teenager, I stood in the pulpit of Wesley Chapel in London.  I have a picture of it right here.  Our family joined a number of others from my home church in London for a mission on the East End, and some sightseeing in the historically Methodist part of town. As I stood in that pulpit pretending to preach, I remember my dad saying in jest something about being concerned for the future of the church.  Our pastor, Adriel, who was with us on the trip, said just the opposite.  “On the contrary,” he said, “I think it is the great hope.”  Now Adriel knew me pretty well, and I was (I think) a pretty loose cannon in those days, for 16 year olds aren’t always known for their even temperaments.  But his reaction to seeing me “preach” was something I’ve never forgotten.  And while it took another 10 years or so before I got serious about drawing out whatever he saw in me on that day, I will always be grateful for that moment of truth that he spoke to me.  There were others who spoke the truth to me and about me along the way, but he was the first.  I sometimes wonder if there were the other young people he inspired and encouraged to go into ministry.


At the time, I didn’t know much about the history of clergywomen in the Methodist tradition in the US.  I knew of some women clergy, but had never had one for a pastor. During the International Clergywomen’s Consultation I heard personal stories from the first class of women receiving full clergy rights back in 1956.  They were humorous, painful, hopeful, and at times, unbelievable. I enjoyed hearing portions of the minutes of the debate from the floor of the General Conference of 1956.  One in particular was from a woman listed in the General Conference Journal only as “Mrs. Henry Ebner”. She was speaking against a change in the Discipline to allow women to apply as candidates for what was called then “the traveling ministry,” essentially granting women all the rights and privileges given to men called into ministry at that time.  Here is some of her speech:


"First of all, if I voted yes, I would be able to say to my District Superintendent, 'Yes, send me a woman pastor.'


"Secondly, the ministers as well as the laymen would have to say, 'I am willing to serve under a woman district superintendent,' for if this goes through, we are not going to discriminate.


"I do not like even to use the word 'discrimination' because in my mind it has always been connected with unhappiness and discontent. I have never felt that I needed as a woman to fight for equal rights with men. I feel I have far more rights than the men will ever have.


"Furthermore, Bishop, my last question that I believe the delegates of this Conference would have to answer in the affirmative if they vote yes, would be this: We are willing to elect a woman bishop. Now, you may think that is rather exaggerated, but, believe me, it is not. You have had reference to the power of womanhood. I leave that to your own thinking.


"I would urge that this be considered very seriously, that no more joking about it be passed around, and that you vote no when it comes to the majority report and that you support the minority report for the sake of the women of our Church."


Dr. Georgia Harkness was one of the women who worked for the change.  She grew up in upstate New York, in the town of Harkness, NY – named for her grandfather.  This little town is within the boundaries of what is now Troy Conference of the UMC, my home conference.  She was the first woman to teach theology, first at Garrett in Chicago, then at Pacific School of Religion in Berkley, CA.  Her tireless theologizing on this subject was not for her own benefit, but for those whom she would teach who she believed were not only called into ministry, but also possessed the necessary gifts and graces for such work.  Many, many men were also significant players, both behind the scenes and on the floor in the debate. One such man, addressing what he had heard other men say about the matter, said this:


“Some 50 years ago, there goes a story, a friend went to a village on a hunting expedition. There by the side of a river stood a master boatman. He asked, 'Do the crocodiles in the river cause any harm to human life?’


“The master boatman smiled and casually replied, ‘No harm to human life. They occasionally carry away goats and women.’


“I have not yet stated my case. This is just an introduction.


“Mr. Chairman, I can trace this splendid sentiment of masculine men back to England. Samuel Johnson, the famous English writer, was told that a certain woman preached remarkably. He replied, ‘It may be remarkable preaching, sir, but it is not natural. Like a dog walking on his hind legs, you do not ask whether it is well done, but you are surprised that it is done at all.’


“I was wondering whether such is the sentiment that you express here.


“I should support full clergy rights for women.”


Eventually, after extensive debating the Methodist Church affirmed the equality of God's creation and call, one Lord, one faith, one birth. By a vote of 389 to 297, the Methodist Church joined the tradition of the Evangelical United Brethren in offering full clergy rights to women. At the conclusion of the vote, Dr. Harkness was asked to stand and the conference saluted her. Her response, “There is a time to speak and a time to be silent. I thought we would do better if we let the rest of you speak.” Incidentally, Dr. Harkness didn’t remain silent forever.  She continued to be a beacon for women who would be clergy, and there is a United Methodist Scholarship for second career women entering ministry named for her.  She also wrote the text for our final hymn, Hope of the World. This is our courageous past.


It seems fitting as we begin our trek into this season of Advent that we acknowledge another time and place when God called and a woman responded.  In this morning’s Gospel lesson, we heard the tale of a young woman, called by God in a pretty unmistakable way.  At least the scriptures would have us believe that her call was clear.  At the risk of eliciting a charge of heresy, I wonder aloud just how many women Gabriel visited in that “sixth month”.  Were there others, or did this angel know how to pick ‘em?  I have always lived with the assurance that God has a backup plan for the times that I say no. Maybe there were others who were asked and declined the invitation.  But Mary didn’t say no.  She said yes.  It may have been courageous or crazy, but she agreed to let this happen to her. She agreed, unknowingly, I suspect, to this convoluted story of angels and shepherds and heavenly hosts and unwelcoming innkeepers and dirty stables and arduous and difficult travel. 


These decisions on the part of both God and Mary were problematic for most of society. Certainly this scenario wasn’t part of Joseph’s plan, and we hear nothing about Mary’s immediate family and their life experiences around the events that we celebrate.  My guess is that there wasn’t much celebrating at the time. Along the way, God provided glimpses of hope to Mary and Joseph – glimpses of a future that would turn the world upside down and begin to lift up the lowly and bring down the powerful from their thrones.


I don’t think I’m too bold in saying that those in the fight against full clergy rights for women had their bodies securely fastened to seats of power and authority in the church.  I find it fascinating that the biggest concern about full rights for clergywomen wasn’t about their ability to preach or even lead a church.  It had to do with power, and the possibility that women clergy might – MIGHT – be elected to General Conference or even to the position of bishop within the church. 


The progress that we have made as a denomination regarding the full acceptance of women within the leadership of the denomination has been slow.  The first woman bishop, as Mrs. Ebner had feared, was elected in 1980, almost a ¼ of a century after the change to the discipline – Marjorie Matthews, a 4’11” grandmother. The Episcopal stole that was hung around her neck at her consecration as bishop was designed for a six-foot man; it hung down her robe and continued along the floor.   I can relate.  She, like Mary, was an unlikely choice for such a high and important position.  But Marjorie, like Mary, lived her call and chosen well, bringing forth the Word to the people of God.


Some across our denomination are still opposed if not in word than in deed to clergywomen serving.  During my first interview for a full-time appointment in the church, one of the men at the table asked if I was still called pastor, or should it be “pastorette?”  I couldn’t bring myself to even fake a laugh; instead I just smiled and told him that he could simply call me Dee.  For me, it wasn’t even a thought that I couldn’t be ordained and wouldn’t be allowed and even encouraged to serve. That appointment reminded me just how far we as a denomination have to go.  This was in 1995.


Within our denomination there are still those who advocate exclusion when it comes to gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans-gendered persons in the full life and ministry of the church.  Of particularly concern to many is the deliberate restriction of ordination of GLBT persons who choose to live out their God-gifted sexuality in committed, monogamous relationships while desiring to serve God and God’s people.


The vision that Mary had of an angel choosing her – of God choosing her to serve such an important role in the history of the world is one we can ponder without a great deal of trouble.  She was however, as unlikely a choice as any.  She was young, engaged to be married, and a virgin.  And yet, Jesus would be born to her.  She would bring forth a child who could change to world.  How many parents of children have had no greater hope for their children then this:  that they could change the world?  How many children baptized in the United Methodist Church were brought up to believe that, as the prophet Isaiah heard, they were to be “a light to the nations,” but are now told that it isn’t appropriate for their light to shine simply because of who they love? 


Yes, my friends.  Women were just the start of it, and I am proud to be in the line of Mary, Marjorie, and Maud Jenson, the first women to be ordained in 1956.  Perhaps, like Mary, we will see the world differently when we see the new things that God will declare.  May our children’s children look back at our debate during this time in history and be just as amused by the voices and transcripts from our time as we are by Mrs. Henry Ebner’s comments of 50 years ago. This can be our bold future.


Mary, the first woman to bring the Word to the world; may God continue to bless us through this story of hope during this Advent season and beyond.