Edith Gates: A Baptist pioneer
A century ago, Edith Gates was the first woman to be recognised as being in pastoral charge of an English Baptist church. What do we know about her? By Mary Taylor
A hundred years ago Blyth Spartans Ladies FC won the Munitionettes Cup at Ayresome Park in front of a crowd of 22,000.
In 1918 women workers on the London bus and tram systems went on strike for equal pay. In 1918, the Representation of the People Act enfranchised 8.5 million women over 30.
After the upheaval of the Great War, doors to change were opened that impacted every area of life, including women’s calling and ministry to Baptist churches.
Edith Gates was the first woman to be recognised as being in pastoral charge of an English Baptist church: Baptist Union handbooks record her pastorate as starting in 1918, at the close of the war. Even then she was first described as the church secretary, then as the pastor – somehow she did not fit into existing categories.
Her pastorate at Little Tew and Cleveley, Oxfordshire began when she was 35. (She was born on 22 March 1883.) We know nothing about the start of that ministry or through what process the church called her to the role of minister, but having passed the First Examination of the Baptist Union and being recommended by the Oxfordshire Association, she was enrolled as a probationer in 1922 along with another woman, Maria Living-Taylor.
She then studied for her Second Examination at Havelock Hall, the Baptist Women’s Training College. Little Tew and Cleveley was her only pastorate, lasting from 1918-1950.
At this time the church received a grant from the Sustentation Fund, the forerunner to Home Mission. This became a point of contention. In the early 1920s a Baptist Union committee was charged with considering the matter of women in ministry, after the first three names has already been added to the accredited list.
But they gave with one hand and took away with the other. Whilst affirming ‘that it would be contrary to Baptist belief and practice to make sex a bar to any kind of Christian service’ the committee and then Baptist Union Council bowed to a number of practical issues. Matters of finance, expediency and embarrassment were cited and a separate list of women ministers, with different and lesser conditions and benefits, was adopted in 1926. It could be argued that this action slowed down the recognition of women’s ministry in Baptist churches by many decades.
Records from local historians report that ‘after the First World War the services at the (Little Tew) Baptist chapel were conducted by the two Miss Gates, who lived in the Manse. The Revd Edith Gates became the minister in 1918, with her sister acting as organist’. Her ministry was so active that a school-room was built … in 1925, replacing two derelict cottages adjacent to the chapel. A study of Oxfordshire Baptist chapels in 1977 recorded a conversation with a 95 year old lady remembering the 300-400 strong congregations who gathered to listen to the Revd Edith Gates on Sundays.
The chapels celebrated the 21st anniversary of Edith Gates' ministry in 1939; it was to continue for another 11 years, after which Edith retired in 1950 to live in Weston-super-Mare. She died on 19 January 1962.
Little Tew and Cleveley chapels are both closed now with the nearest Baptist church being Chipping Norton. I hope there are historians of Oxfordshire Baptist history who can shed more light on Edith Gates ministry: when she was inducted, when ordained and perhaps most interesting of all, her own reflections on ministry, church and faith. There is very little information from which to imagine her understanding of her calling, what opposition she faced or what it was like to be a pioneer into uncharted territory for women.
The chapel at Little Tew, now a private house. Photo used with permission | Oxfordshire Churches and Chapels
But for her place as the first woman in our modern denominational history whose pastorate was recognised, leading to her accreditation as a Baptist minister, she should surely be remembered and celebrated in this centenary year.
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Mary Taylor is a regional minister with the Yorkshire Baptist Association.
This is the third article written by members of the Baptist Historical Society, highlighting people and events from our past.