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'She has always stood for openness' - an interview with the Revd Dr Marie Isaacs

A significant moment in the life of the Baptist Union of Great Britain took place just before Christmas when the Revd Dr Marie Isaacs, until very recently the minister of Heath Street Baptist Church in Hampstead, celebrated 50 years of ordination. Although many deaconesses were in effect functioning as pastors of Baptist churches, Marie was a rarity: just the fourth woman to be ordained in our Union. By Paul Hobson

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Marie IsaacsThough the first female ordination had taken place in 1922, there had been a 20-year gap come Marie's own in 1962. Not that she set out to be a pioneer. 'I wasn't a particularly religious person,' she says. 'I was brought up a Roman Catholic - my mother was an Irish Catholic, and my father was a Polish Jew. It was a splendid mix. We were encouraged to debate everything. I was brought up very firmly to believe in God, and occasionally we went to mass.'

Things began to change when Marie attended her first Christening in her teens. She recalls being 'profoundly shocked' at an infant baptism. 'I thought "You can't do that - they have to commit themselves".'

When she later brought this up with the priest, he steered her in the direction of the Baptist church. She liked what she saw, and began attending on a regular basis. Still, at the time she wasn't considered particularly "religious", she says, and had been planning to read history at university.

But once while thinking of what she might later do, the thought 'it's either politics or the pulpit' entered her head. It was the first time she had considered entering the ministry, and it proved to be a defining moment.

'My being stopped,' she recalls, 'I thought "oh gosh. Oh no."' She spoke to a teacher, who encouraged her to test the call. She applied to a do a theology degree, and was subsequently awarded a place at King's College in London. She enjoyed the course and the call to the pulpit was still strong on graduating.

Belonging to a Baptist church, she was encouraged to see Gwenyth Hubble, the last female Baptist minister to have been ordained. Gwenyth invited Marie up to Birmingham for the weekend - and gave her a seal of approval. ('As far as I can see you are ok,' Marie remembers her saying.) But she also told Marie that she didn't think ministers should be 'callow', and encouraged her to get more experience in the wider world. Marie took the advice and spent two years teaching Religious Education in a school. Following this she trained for ministry at Regent's Park College in Oxford.

At that stage the Oxford colleges were either male or female. Marie was the first female to apply at Regent's, which led to a number of interesting challenges. She couldn't live there. This conundrum was navigated by Marie living and becoming a scholar of St Hugh's. All the ministerial training - such as sermon preparation - took place at Regent's, with everything else at St Hugh's. 'But as far as the denomination was concerned, I was at Regent's.'

Not only wasn't she allowed to live in; she couldn't dine there. She also had to leave by 7pm. There were times when she was working late, and her means of exit was through the toilet window. But she looks back fondly. 'The chaps were terrific,' she remembers. 'Most of them were married and very supportive.'

She was at Regent's between 1960 and 62, and upon leaving she went to Birmingham University as an ecumenical chaplain. 'I just felt the call. It was wonderful. I learnt a lot about different liturgies, different styles of worship, different people.' Her next stop was as a tutor at Heythrop College, the specialist Philosophy and Theology College at the University of London. Founded in 1614, by the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) Heythrop joined the University of London in 1971, whilst retaining a modern Catholic ethos. Marie would teach here for 30 years, becoming a specialist in the books of Hebrews and James, and served as college vice principal.

On moving back to London she also became an ordinary member of the fellowship at Heath Street Baptist Church in Hampstead. She became the associate minister in 1987, working alongside Edwin Robertson. When Edwin Robertson retired in 2001, she became the full-time minister, only retiring in 2011. She remains an active member of the church, and still preaches regularly.

Formidable in both spirit and intellect, she merely hints at the kind of challenges one might assume a female minister from that era would have faced. At Regent's for instance, she was sent out to a church 20 miles north of Oxford. 'I think they were surprised, but I thought I would get more trouble for being a student. But they had been without a minister for 20 years and were ok. '

She reveals she would always wear a cassock while preaching, and a clerical collar while teaching, as if to underline her calling. And though she says things have improved, there remains prejudice. 'Even today, there is an automatic assumption that if you are a Revd, you are a man. I had a phone call just the other week, asking for the Revd Dr Isaacs. He didn't believe that was me. There is an awful lot of prejudice. I think it's sad. The prejudice has got much less, but in religion it hasn't gone at the same pace as society.'

She is pleased that many more women are coming forward for ordination, but makes the point that there are far more female Anglican clergy than female Baptist ministers. 'Given our system, the church has to call you. It means that sort of prejudice is still at ground level.'

In the sense that she has not occupied a prominent role in the structures of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, Marie has been on the fringes of denominational life. However her influence has been keenly felt by many.

The Revd Dr Ruth Gouldbourne was among several unofficially mentored by Marie during the 1980s when she was a student minister at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church (and the church to which she returned in 2006). 'I think it was very deliberate for her to mentor us, though I don't think she had a worked out agenda,' Ruth recalls. 'It was mainly social gatherings. The themes were not to be intimidated, don't let people talk down on you, have the confidence to be present.

'She was also keen on academic excellence. If you are going to do it, do it well. If you could think, you should think.'

Marie's experiences as a female minister were a particular source of value. 'Hearing her tell her stories made us realise that however bad it might, we never had it that badly,' says Ruth. 'We never had to climb out of a toilet window.

'It was good to know that someone had been through what we had or were going through, often much worse, and that what we were going through was normal.'

There is also a sense that while it cannot be measured, Marie's influence and teachings have impacted many, says Ruth.

'I recently met with a former Jesuit, who had been taught by Marie - he said how surprised he had been that there were female Baptist ministers - so I imagine her influence spread far.

'Most folk knew about her - and once met, never forgot.'

In writing to Marie to mark the 50th anniversary the Revd Jonathan Edwards, general secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, spoke of how her ministry 'has had a profound effect on hundreds of students and others who have been privileged to study under you'.
He added, 'Your pastoral ministry has also impacted the lives of countless people and, as a denomination, we are truly grateful to God for your faithful service.'

And members at Heath Street talk of her 'huge contribution', emphasising her openness to wide range of backgrounds and traditions. The church marked the 50th anniversary of her ordination with a special service and invited some of her friends and former colleagues, followed by a celebratory lunch. The church also commissioned a painting of Heath Street Baptist Church for Marie, by local painter Bill Aldridge.

'The Revd Dr Marie Isaacs has made a huge contribution to the life of Heath Street Baptist Church,' said Gaynor Humphreys, Heath Street secretary, 'first as a member from the mid-1970s, then as our assistant minister and minister. She has achieved a huge amount in that time, and in the 50 years she has been ordained - so far.

'Marie has always stood for openness. She made sure we were a diverse church here by welcoming members and friends from a wide range of backgrounds, countries and traditions. Values that Marie helps us live up to as a church every day.

'We are very proud that Marie is part of Heath Street's history, tradition and future. She is a member, a friend and our former minister - but most important of all she is, and always will be, part of the Heath Street family.'

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