The Revd Dr Marie Isaacs: 1936-2016
Scholar and minister who was the first female applicant to Regent's Park College and became only the fourth woman ordained in our union
Marie Isaacs was born on 13 March 1936 in London, one of four children of Albert Edward Isaacs and Elizabeth Isaacs. The former was a Polish Jew, the latter an Irish Catholic and this cominbation, which Marie thought of as a “splendid mix”, accustomed her to vigorous debate on religious matters from girlhood up.
Although she had been raised a Catholic, a teenaged Marie was “profoundly shocked” when, for the first time since early childhood, she attended a christening. After the ceremony Marie characteristically went straight to the officiating priest and complained of what she felt was a violation of the infant candidate’s religious liberty. This was how a Roman Catholic priest came to steer Marie in the direction of her local Baptist church – something typical of her very ecumenical way of being a Baptist, and her very Baptist way of being ecumenical!
Liking what she saw among the Baptists, Marie began attending on a regular basis. She went on to become only the fourth woman to be ordained in our union. The first ordination of a woman had taken place in 1922, and there had been a 20-year gap come Marie’s own in 1962. Marie was the first female applicant to Regent’s Park College in Oxford. Although accepted as a candidate for ministry, she could neither live nor dine on the college premises. Required to be off-site by 7pm, when she was forced to work late, Marie made the window of the (gents’) toilets her means of exit.
The story was also told of the memorable day of Marie’s “assessed service”: after the blessing and dismissal Marie was bundled by her ministerial colleagues into the male-only preserve of Helwys Hall. There they defiantly dined together under the disapproving – but silent – gaze of the college president, who apparently judged discretion the better part of valour in this particular case. Such incidents typified the support of “the chaps”, whom Marie warmly remembered as “terrific”.
Marie had what would nowadays be called a bi-vocational call to pastoral ministry and theological scholarship. In the latter sphere, a doctoral thesis on concepts of spirit in the period of the New Testament church led to a special focus on the letters Hebrews and James. At Heythrop, the Jesuit training college in London, Marie eventually rose to become head of the department of New Testament studies, a remarkable position for any one who happened to be female, working-class, or of Baptist subscription, let alone for Marie, who combined the three.
For Marie, the call to ministry was bound up with the duty to play one’s part in society. “It’s either politics or the church” was how Marie recalled the feeling that eventually led to a lifelong career in the latter. Early years in ministry were spent as chaplain at Birmingham University, where Marie was treasured for her effors to make Christian faith relevant to contemporary world issues, for her uninhibited participation in lively and serious discussion, and for her availabilty and sincerity as a pastoral counsellor.
Marie’s later decades in ministry were asssociated above all with Heath Street Baptist Church in Hampstead, London. Over the course of four decades Marie was successively a member, an assistant pastor, then sole minister of Heath Street, and finally after her retirement again a member of the congregation. The congregation valued Marie for her great gift in creating a sense of worship, and for a preaching ministry characterised by her strong faith in the goodness and the love of God.
The various ailments that dogged Marie’s final years made not only weekly attendance at Sunday worship but also independent life at home challenging. Until her last weeks Marie rose to both challenges with the courageous stubborness that was her trademark. Marie died peacefully at University College Hopsital on 9 August 2016. Her funeral was held at Heath Street, followed by a committal at Hampstead Garden Suburb Crematorium. Her ashes were buried early in 2017 in the parish churchyard in the heart of Hampstead village.
As was suggested in the headline of a 2013 article in The Baptist Times celebrating 50 years of ordination, Marie Isaacs ‘stood for openness’. She will be sadly missed by many friends, and will not be forgotten by the denomination in which, as faithful member and faithful minister, that long stand was made.
By Ewan King, minister of Heath Street Baptist Church