Courtesy The Baptist Times
The Council takes stock, writes Mark Woods - and acknowledges the Union must do better
AFTER a powerful presentation by the Union's faith and unity department, the Council passed a resolution affirming the full inclusion of women in all areas of leadership in the Union's life - and recognising that much still needed to be done to turn resolution into reality.
As well as the presentation tracing progress since 1966, when a Council report saying that 'the theological basis of our faith does not warrant distinction between the sexes in the ministry of the church', a substantial piece of work - Women in Leadership among the churches of the BUGB - looking at how the issue had been dealt with since the 1920s, was also considered. And there were, too, first-hand stories of women who shared their own experiences of life in ministry.
Some of the historical material was known to very few of those present. Violet Hedger, for instance, trained at Regent's and became the minister of Littleover in Derby in 1926. Her name is remembered very well, but not her subsequent career and the faithful wartime pastoral service which left her disabled. And most of us did not know of Sister Lizzie Hodgson, a deaconess at West End, Hammersmith, who according to a Baptist Times article of 1911 filled the 1,400-seat Lyric Theatre with her preaching.
One thing Women in Leadership revealed was how the ministry of women had been accepted from very early on, with very little question, on the basis of the competency of the local church. What was more difficult was their admission to the Accredited List, as that conveyed particular privileges and might lead to problems regarding pensions. So in a fudge that now seems astonishing but was entirely in keeping with the customs of 1926, it was decided that only widows and unmarried women should be admitted. (After all, if the wife of a layman in secular employment should qualify, 'situations might be created of very considerable embarrassment'.)
So the situation largely rested until 1966, with women serving as deaconesses - de facto ministers, very often - but with ordained ministry a very largely male preserve.
In 1966 there were only three women ministers, including Violet Hedger. There were three probationers, and 46 active deaconesses. The March Council of that year passed a resolution declaring that ' the theological basis of our faith does not warrant distinction between the sexes in the ministry of the Church'.
Progress since then, it seems, has been slow and uneven. Deaconesses became ministers in 1975, but systemic, cultural and theological issues have provided much material for reflection in the years since then. There have so far been only only four Union presidents; the first woman college principal has only recently been appointed; there are only two woman regional minister team leaders out of 13.
There are 252 woman ministers in the Directory, including those who have retired; only 11.6 per cent of serving ministers in 2008 were women, though it is worth noting that 25 per cent of ministerial students were women. What was made clear at this Council meeting was the extent to which many women have been hurt by the attitude of many men towards them. Indeed in one resounding phrase, a (male) delegate said that problems arose not so much from women's leadership as from men's followership.
Obviously, the reasons why women are less likely to sense a call to ministry or to be encouraged to pursue it, find it harder to settle in churches when they have concluded their training, tend to minister in small churches or as junior team partners in larger ones, are under-represented in senior roles across the board, and almost all have stories to tell about being sidelined, denigrated or insulted, are very varied.
And even when we have tried to answer those, there are other issues around the nature of masculine and feminine ministry, which perhaps begin with whether there is such a thing anyway - and perhaps even with whether it is permissible to ask the question.
So, what should the Union do? Should Home Mission grants be denied to churches which won't consider a woman as minister, or should churches be expelled? Categorically not, was the answer - but the question was asked, by both men and women.
Should there be all-women lists sent to churches in pastoral vacancies? Should there at least be a woman on every list? The sense of the meeting was generally against anything which might be seen as heavy-handed, and there was a full acceptance of the importance of congregational independence - but there was a strong sense that an injustice was being perpetrated, and that something ought to be done.
One of the last voices was that of Graham Sparkes, head of the faith and unity department. 'Commitment to the full inclusion of women in leadership is our norm,' he said. 'Those who disagree and want to be part of the family have to reckon with that.'
He concluded, 'I don’t believe we should allow dissent to be a cover for prejudice and discrimination that inflicts pain and hurt on the women amongst us.'
a) affirms the historic commitment of the Baptist Union of Great Britain to
b) celebrates the increasing number of women who are now exercising leadership within BUGB, both as ministers and in other capacities.
c) recognises with concern the continuing struggle for full acceptance faced by many women in all areas of leadership, and in particular the difficulties many face in having their own call validated and in receiving a call from a church.
d) calls upon the Faith and Unity Department and the Ministry Department to work with Associations, Colleges and churches to identify
e) commits to hearing further from the Faith and Unity Executive at its meeting in March 2011, and so to discern ways of addressing barriers to the full participation of women in all forms of leadership within BUGB.