More than a preacher…
A conviction that women should not have pastoral charge of a Baptist church is still held in some places. It's why we need to celebrate and reflect upon the stories of those who have navigated this terrain, and support those who seek to follow, writes Gale Richards
It is encouraging that history shows that black women have spoken at international Baptist gatherings from their inception. Nannie Helen Burroughs, an African-American woman, was one of the invited speakers at the first Baptist World Congress held in 1905 in London. It would prove to be a significant gathering that led to the establishment of what we now know as the Baptist World Alliance.
By 1905 British Baptists had already been responsible for calling what is believed to be the first black pastor to lead a church in Britain, George Cosens in 1837, and the second known black pastor of a British Baptist church, Peter Stanford in 1889.
It might seem surprising, then, that even though the leaders of the very first Baptist church formed on English soil in 1612 believed women should be permitted to preach, British Baptists did not recognise a woman as having pastoral charge of a church until 1918, when Edith Gates began a pastorate at Little Tew and Cleveley in Oxfordshire. We did not recognise a black woman in that capacity until the 1990s, when Kate Coleman became the first black woman to be an accredited Baptist minister.
It seems that the conviction that women should not have pastoral charge of a church, but may in certain circumstances be permitted to preach (evident in the very first Baptist church in 17th century England), is still held in some of our 21st century Baptist churches today.
It is that kind of conviction that many women with a sense of call to be pastors have had to navigate in the past, and continue to have to navigate today. Like many others, Violet Hedger (the first woman to enter a Baptist college for ministerial training in 1919) and Kate Coleman found themselves seeking to live out a sense of call in a context where many did not seemingly believe women should have pastoral charge of a church.
The available statistics for British Baptists on the number of women entering ministerial training, on the newly accredited and fully accredited lists, suggests significant numbers of women find the task of navigating this terrain too much to bear. The statistics are even more telling for women from black and minority ethnic (BME) backgrounds. BME women potentially have the added challenge of seeking to live out their sense of call in a context where significant numbers of people may feel, subconsciously or consciously, they will have neither the competence or character to have pastoral charge of a church, not simply because of their gender but additionally or alternatively because of cultural stereotypes associated with their ethnicity.
The stories of women of all backgrounds who have to and have had to navigate this terrain as pastors need to be heard and earnestly reflected upon. The stories of how, as they read the Bible, they came to see for themselves that God calls women not simply to be preachers but to be pastors too, need to be told and learnt from.
The stories of those who found themselves surrounded by men who recognised and affirmed their sense of call and even championed them, need to be heard and multiplied. The stories of women who had female trailblazers who went ahead and paved the way for those who followed need to be recognised.
Finally, the stories of how the ministries of female pastors over the last 100 years have blessed many men and women, boys and girls, near and far, need to be heard and celebrated as our shared Baptists Together history.
It's why we are gathering 28-29 June 2018 for the 24-hour conference ‘Celebrating, surviving and thriving - Women in Baptist Ministry’ – for Baptist women ministers, non-ordained women in qualifying office, ministers in training, and those exploring a call to ministry. If this is you, please consider joining us.
Gale Richards is a Baptist minister in Cambridge. She co-ordinates the BME Women Ministers’ Network, which provides support and encouragement to Baptist women from black and minority ethnic groups (BME) in leadership positions.
She is one of the organisers of the ‘Celebrating, surviving and thriving - Women in Baptist Ministry’ conference on 28-29 June - register here.
Gale is also delivering an annual lecture at the Baptist Historical Society on 10 May entitled: “Journeying to justice: Where do we go from here?”