Rev. Margaret Ellen Towner
The first woman ordained as a Minister of Word & Sacrament in the PC(USA)
In October, 1955, fifty plus years ago, the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A voted in General Assembly to ordain women to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. In 1956, the Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery in New York ordained Margaret Towner, the first women clergyman of the denomination. In 1965, the Hanover Presbytery in Virginia ordained Rachel Henderlite the first woman to be so recognized in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. These ordinations marked a climax in the history of Presbyterians among whom the role of women in the church had been growing for well over a century.
First female minister ordained in the PCUSA, Towner spends 50 years bucking the odds
Towner, who will be the speaker for the National Association of Clergywomen luncheon on Monday, was raised in the Presbyterian church and was active in her congregation, but ordination was not a goal to which she aspired. When she was ordained in 1956, it was months before she even realized the historical implications of that act.
A couple of years earlier, she had graduated from Union Seminary in New York and was serving as a Christian educator in Tacoma Park, MD. Women could work in a church in the early 1950s, but they could not be ordained to the ministry.
Members of her home presbytery in Syracuse, NY, encouraged her to seek ordination. So she completed her exams, and her ordination service was planned. Towner readily admits she was naive about “what I was getting into.”
She quietly returned to her Maryland congregation intending to continue her previous routine. But when the Office of the General Assembly confirmed that she was indeed the first female ordained to the ministry in the then PCUSA, the media had other ideas. Her photo was featured in Life magazine and other publications.
Despite the attention, Towner said she “chose to avoid the limelight and continue my work in the local congregation.”
Following her historic ordination, she served congregations in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. During her 17 years in Milwaukee, she began the shift from Christian education to pastoral ministry. As one of three co-pastors in a six-church parish, her administrative gifts began to flourish.
Towner’s ordination did not bring her equality with males. At the presbytery meeting following her official entrance into ministry, one man asked, “What do we do now, address everyone as brethren and sisteren?” This comment illustrates the problems she faced in dealing with language, along with performance of responsibilities, equal pay, and marriage. Her call for “real pastoring” came with the call to the First Church, Kalamazoo, Michigan, where she was installed in 1961.
On the silver anniversary of her ordination in 1981, Towner reflected on her experiences. Discrimination was polite but heavy, she recalled. Salaries were low, since it was said women did not need large salaries. When they got married they would be “taken care of” by husbands. All this meant for arguments with budget committees over such things as low pension credits. But she considered even negative experiences as helpful “stepping stones” to new challenges. These included membership on the Advisory Council on Discipleship and Worship of the General Assembly Mission Council. Eventually she was nominated as a candidate for moderator for that year. As she looked back on her experiences she concluded that while women had made progress, they still suffered from discrimination, especially the feeling that people were more critical of women than they were of male pastors.
In reflecting on her years of ministry, Towner said it is ironic that our denomination struggles with its diversity, while Christ embraced the differences he saw.
She also concluded:
We have come a long way, but I still sense a falling backward. It is my vision that someday we will realize full equality as human beings called by God to the ministry of Word and Sacrament based upon our talent and ability, regardless of what gender one happens to be. It is my vision that the day soon will come when we will not be debating ordination of women, nor rejecting the use of inclusive language…
Let us remember that God created human beings, male and female with distinction, to be equal in partnership with God in creating a world of peace and love. We are called to free the oppressed, feed the hungry, bring water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, heal the sick and proclaim the day has come when God has saved the people. But until we all see ourselves as those imperfect human beings who are weak and in need of forgiveness, we still will set ourselves up as the programmers of God’s agenda and we will experience discrimination against women, minorities, and age.
“Let’s get on with being the Whole People of God.” She said.
(Women are still doing so, numbering as of December, 2004, 4,430 ordained women out of a total of 21,287 Presbyterian ministers.)
Her compassionate and passionate courage contributed, and continues to contribute today, to the ways in which we hunger and search for the coming of God’s reign in our world. She acted out of conviction, theological reflection and faith commitment. Her ground-breaking journey was accomplished because of those who had gone before her, and blessed those who have come after (not just women, but men too). In Advent we slow down (or at least try to) in the objective of looking, listening and gleaning where God is breaking into our world to make all things new. It’s a movement that happens not just in the manger of long ago Bethlehem, or that will happen on that last apocalyptic day. It happens every day. So let’s get on with being the whole people of a God who is wholly and holy present in our world today.
Created by adapting several articles: