Service Date: 24 September, 2017
Worship was led by The Revd. Fleur Houston and celebrated the centenary of the Ordination to Christian ministry of Constance Mary Coltman (nee Todd) (1889 – 1969).
Rejoice and Sing 41 For the beauty of the earth
Rejoice and Sing 353 There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Rejoice and Sing 581 Sing, one and all
Rejoice and Sing 403 Laudate omnes gentes
Rejoice and Sing 740 Tell out my soul
Jonah chapter 3 verse 7 to chapter 4 verse 11 (A translation by Constance Coltman)
Corinthians 2 chapter 5 verses 16 – 21
Luke chapter 1 verses 46 – 55
It is 24 years ago this month that I was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in this church. I remember it as a very happy occasion. John Carter, Church Secretary, made it clear in his speech that the church was breaking new ground – this was the first time in your history that you had called a woman minister. So I am doubly honoured to be invited back today to mark the ordination 100 years ago of the first woman to be ordained to Christian ministry in the UK – Constance Coltman.
“God reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” In Christ, Paul says, God has chosen to ignore the hostile ways in which human beings behave; he has actively taken steps to achieve reconciliation. In Christ’s life, death, resurrection, a new age has begun. There is no going back. Distinctions that mattered before, Paul tells the Christians at Corinth, distinctions of gender, sex, status, do not matter now; for in Christ God has reconciled all people to himself. But just in case the message has not got through – and evidence suggests that it frequently doesn’t- Paul reminds them that he is an ambassador on Christ’s behalf. The message eh brings has authority. For he knew that he was sent by God to minister reconciliation, sent as God’s ambassador so that men and women who had fallen away from grace might yet know God’s blessing. This is of course a duty laid on all ministers. When a duly ordained minister declares God’s grace in the Gospel, she may be seen as God’s ambassador, carrying out her public duty as God’s representative, and with authority.
This was how Constance Todd, as she was then, saw her calling; it was a bold, brave decision in 1913 to train for ordination. She was breaking new ground. There had of course been women preachers in England for many years before that, but it was unheard of for a woman to train for the ministry. Many people still thought that the ministry should be open only to men and that a woman, especially a married woman, should stay at home, mind the house and look after her husband and family. The preacher at her service of ordination on 17th September 1917, at the King’s Weigh House Church, London, was quite clear that this was “a new thing.” He spoke eloquently of “the passing away of the old order in which woman was man’s subordinate and the beginning…of a happier age in which man and woman together should build up a nobler world”.
This new age would be marked by reconciliation between men and women. Equality in educational opportunity was very much in the air. Constance, her sister and two brothers grew up in a “scholarly, literary atmosphere” – and this was at a time when people were still asking if women had brains worth using! Her father was First Assistant Secretary of the Scotch Education Department in Whitehall; he taught Consie as she was known in the family, to love poetry. Her mother was one of the first women to study medicine and qualify as a doctor. She enthused her daughter with female role models. She went to a school “where women are treated like sensible creatures” and won an exhibition award to that hot-bed of feminism, Somerville College, Oxford. When she left in July 1911 with a good second class honours degree in history, she was unable to receive the degree to which she would have been entitled had she been a man – that had to wait until 1920 when women were made full members of Oxford University. But London University was more enlightened and in 1915 she was awarded the BD, following that up in 1918 with an hons BD.
Then there was women’s suffrage – Constance was clearly not one of the “shrieking sisterhood” as the militant suffragettes were described; “she believed women should persuade men to give them the vote and not chain themselves to the railings”. In 1918 following the successful passage of the Representation of the People Act through the House of Lords, she was elated. “It is no longer a question of women as women being disqualified; the disqualification of sex, as sex, is removed. Therefore we can say that the principle is won”.
The final hurdle was woman’s ordination which Constance was to describe as “the crown and consummation of the woman’s movement.” She herself was a member of Putney Presbyterian Church but her own church did not yet recognise women’s ordination. But the Congregational churches had, at least in principle, so she approached Dr Selbie, principal of Mansfield College, Oxford. On the basis of her sense of calling and her proven academic ability, she was accepted for training. Well liked and respected, she enjoyed three happy years, during which she became engaged to a fellow ordinand, a Baptist, Claud Marshall Coltman.
They were married the day after their ordination and so began a life-time of shared ministry. Their first charge was at Darby Street Mission in the East End of London, a dilapidated, underfunded, struggling outpost of the King’s Weigh House, in an area riven by war and social unrest. Even though Constance had done some nursing training after leaving Mansfield College, she scarcely fitted in which conventional expectations of a Bible Woman. But despite that, her work with children prospered and the Sunday School grew in numbers both of pupils and teachers. She came to realise that she had a special ministry to women and children.
But this was never going to be a settled ministry and on 1st January 1922, the young couple moved to a new pastorate in Kilburn. Within the year a storm erupted when Constance’s conduct of a wedding embroiled her in gender controversy. This is how it was reported: “The Rev Miss Coltman introduced a new marriage ritual which she said was not ‘an insult to women.’ This ritual, of course, omitted the word ‘obey.’ Instead, both bride and groom vowed to ‘love, comfort, honour and keep’ and each fixed a ring on the other’s finger, saying: ‘As this ring now encircles this finger, so let my love surround thee all the days of thy life.’” She was described dismissively as a “thoroughly modern woman” who had “smashed a precedent.” Nervous guests consulted the Registrar General, who confirmed that there were no legal problems with her service and she continued to be in demand for weddings.
The ministry in Kilburn was short-lived; endowed generously throughout the years by the Callard sweetie company, the church collapsed and had to close when the last member of the family left in 1923. But Constance’s next three pastorates were happy and settled: Cowley Road Oxford, Wolverton and Haverhill, with a final two years before retirement, at the King’s Weigh House. The birth of children brought a new dimension to her home and ministry. She was a popular preacher, in demand for Baptisms and Weddings, and threw herself into Sunday School word and girls’ Bible class. She also significantly supported women who did an immense amount of work, sincerely and inconspicuously, to raise money for the church. So unusually for a minister, she helped out with innumerable jumble sales, had a stall at bazaars, held a service to welcome Britain’s Railway Queen to Wolverton; and even more unusually, she visited women outside the church in their homes, offering advice about child care and birth control. That was especially daring at a time when the government was encouraging women to have as many babies as possible as part of the war effort.
In 1938 Constance preached a sermon on Esther 4:14 to the Interdenominational Society for the Ministry of Women where she reflected on that ministry. “Our Society,” she said, “both in its interdenominational constitution and still more in its supradenominational spirit, is a living example of women’s passionate desire for Reunion… but even Reunion is only the prelude to a still higher end, the conversion of the world…Would the fuller ministry of women hasten revival? Yes, because we are standing for the ultimate spiritual truth about humanity. We stand for the spiritual equality, not merely of women alongside men, but of all human souls in the sight of God… our faith in the supreme worth of every individual soul, in the supremacy of the spiritual over the material, in the superiority of the whole armour of God over the arm of flesh – here lies not only the justification for the ministry of women, but also the eternal foundations of democracy, the true guarantee of freedom, and the only avenue to lasting peace. God,” she continues, “has called our generation to the raising of a loftier and more justly balanced social fabric, to the forging of a stronger and more peaceful international order, perhaps even to the shaping of a wider and worthier Church organisation.”
To the end of her life, she was an ambassador for Christ, a minister of reconciliation between heaven and earth, between man and woman. It is a task laid upon us all, especially so to those who are ordained. God still empowers us today to proclaim the power of God’s grace in a ministry of reconciliation. For a world held captive to fear, anxiety, social injustice, war, starvation, exploitation, this is good news indeed.