The Revd Carol McCarthy: 1940-2021
Carol was one of the pioneering women called into Baptist ministry early in the 1960s
The denomination has noted the first three women to become ministers in the early 1920s, with Violet Hedger going to Regent’s Park College in 1919, and now honoured in the naming of Project Violet. Over the ensuing quarter century, however, only one more woman, Gwenyth Hubble, entered the English ministry, as did Annie Davies Lodwick in Wales. Gwenyth’s ministry did not include a local church pastorate, usually the primary focus for Baptists. The 1960s saw a fresh beginning, leading to slow but steady growth in numbers of women ministers.
Carol’s childhood was overshadowed by polio: critically ill, she was for a time in an iron lung. She eventually recovered, though with a permanently weakened leg and marked limp. By the time she returned to school she had learned about the sustained determination and effort needed to get back on her feet. She became a school teacher and her second post took her to Bristol where she joined Horfield Baptist Church, under the ministry of the Revd Arthur Liston.
Soon Liston and other leaders in that church saw the young woman’s potential and urged her to consider training for ministry. Carol was surprised, their perception ran ahead of her own sense of calling, yet she ‘knew perfectly well that I could not say no’.
Bristol Baptist College was then responsible for training deaconesses and was more warmly open to women than Regent’s Park. Carol knew her calling was not to the role of deaconess. The ministerial vocation might seem weird and so was church-based training in those days. Carol continued to undertake pastoral and youth work at Horfield, running a huge Youth Club three nights a week, ‘packed with rival skinhead gangs’. She reckoned that her busy life, balancing these responsibilities with the rush to and from the college, developed a certain ‘tensile strength - a resilient strength necessary in ministry’. The dual focus limited her to a diploma course rather than a degree.
It was a hectic time, but Carol had a kinder welcome at Bristol than the two women at Regent’s Park College. Marie Isaacs trained there and was ordained in 1962, with Ruth Vinson (later Matthews) following immediately after her. They both had an uncomfortable time on the fringe, having to belong to a women’s college while taking Regent’s ministerial course. Their memories included being smuggled out of the locked college by fellow students after working too late in the library. Both faced the difficulty of finding placements at the end of the course.
Carol did not have that problem as Horfield wanted her. She ministered there 1966-75. Talking to me in October 2010, she remembered with affection the church’s support. There were always some who left if she entered the pulpit to preach. She chuckled over the memory of a visiting stranger clearly wanting to go but held in his pew by some mischievous old ladies who would not budge to let him out. She could cope with lay reservations but was hurt when rejection came from male clergy. Despite protective supporters, she did not find fraternals easy.
Her next post was with the Baptist Union as Home Mission Organiser. She promoted that cause with zeal for five years, then was called to the ministry of Upper Holloway Baptist Church. Founded in 1868 to serve a new suburban housing area, this was the first chapel to be built by the London Baptist Association and had soon become the largest with nearly a thousand members and an even larger congregation. There Carol remained until retirement, the long ministry including a major redevelopment when the church under her leadership took the bold decision to demolish the old premises and build afresh, providing for both the church’s needs and for affordable housing for the elderly and frail.
The early women ministers put up with much that was demeaning and painful to follow their vocation; only as the role gained acceptance could later entrants feel free to air their protests. Carol tolerated harsh treatment for many years before a younger male assistant minister at Upper Holloway made her more conscious of how unfair this was. Irritated at seeing her sidelined, he encouraged her to feel anger. She could allow herself to become more impatient and active in drawing attention to this.
Some outlet had been needed for hurt feelings. For many years Marie, Ruth and Carol met regularly, along with Barbara Stanford, a former deaconess recognised as a minister in 1975, when the Order of Deaconesses closed. These ‘Holy Mothers’, as they called themselves, provided for one another the sympathy and support that helped them keep going. They usually met at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, and when Ruth Gouldbourne became minister there she was invited to join them. I knew them all and talked with them about their experience. Once I was privileged to be invited to attend a meeting. This group provided a safety valve, allowing them to share ideas and experience as well as the pain and frustration of not feeling free to do the work to which God had called them.
As more women became ministers it became apparent that most were going to struggling small churches, often in tough and unsavoury districts. Some were new plants, others like Upper Holloway needed release from memories of past glory. As a laywoman I could make sarcastic comments about the Holy Spirit only calling men to thriving churches, but women ministers had to put a good face on it, grateful that some churches were ready to accept them.
Their faithful commitment and achievements in those churches slowly commanded respect. I recall a senior male minister admitting to the LBA Council that he had changed his mind about women ministers because he saw how their efforts in tough situations were clearly blessed. Not least among those examples were the long ministry of Carol at Upper Holloway and what was to be the even longer one of Jane Hassell in Bethnal Green.
One of the challenges of the vocation for those early women was the assumption that it was a call to celibacy. Baptist men were not so tested. I remember Ruth Vinson sadly accepting this. In the end, God did not require that of her: I thought this was akin to Abraham’s obedience being tested over sacrificing Isaac. For Carol marriage came late in life.
In retirement Carol joined the Bloomsbury church, which was used to supporting ministerial members who would not be in the pews every Sunday. I assume she was often called to help churchess until dementia intervened. Wth her husband, Carol moved to St Albans, where she often worshipped at the Abbey.
My work made me aware of the daily extra effort any disability demands, often unnoticed by those around. Carol tackled life and work with vigour, in spite of lameness which could have been an excuse to do less than others. She had learned early to cope when life is tough.
One of my favourite memories of Carol is how Michael Taylor told me of her sensitivity over the baptism of his daughter, who has a learning disability. Coming to London for Christian Aid, the Taylors joined Upper Holloway. He was grateful to have an experienced minister assess the young woman’s faith, assure her parents that baptism was appropriate, and find ways to make the service meaningful and joyous for candidate and congregation alike.
Carol deserves to be remembered with honour. A faithful servant, she herself would doubtless proclaim: to God be the glory.
A celebration of Carol's life is being held Upper Holloway Baptist Church on 5 February at 3pm