In recent understandable Anglican excitement about female priests and bishops, it can be forgotten that other Christian traditions had ‘made a track’. Inspiration and lessons can still be learned from them…
Constance Coltman (nee Todd) (1889-1969) was one of the first women ordained to mainstream Christian ministry in Britain, through the Congregational Union of England and Wales, at the King’s Weigh House on 17 September 1917. She also followed other pioneers. A decade earlier for instance, Gertrude von Petzold became minister at Narborough Road Free Christian (Unitarian) church in Leicester, after studying at Manchester College, Oxford. A generation earlier still, in 1880, Caroline Soule had been ordained by Glasgow Universalists.
Constance Todd’s story highlights various aspects of the Christian feminist struggle. Firstly, for example, her background was a source of both strength and challenge. Born in Putney, London, she was thus encouraged by her family to learn and use her gifts, particularly by her parents: George Todd headmaster and educational administrator, and Emily Ellerman, one of the first generation of women to study medicine. Her family’s love of travel also nurtured early and strong international outlook. On the other hand, whilst brought up as a Presbyterian, as she became conscious of her call to ministry, she began to realise that her own Church was not sympathetic, despite beginning to discuss female deacons and elders. When that door closed, she visited the principal of (the then Congregational Church’s) Mansfield College, Oxford, W. B. Selbie, and convinced him that her vocation was genuine. This clash between divine call and denominational loyalty was, and still is, common. Of the 18 other women ordained in the Congregational Union of England and Wales before 1939 for example, 11 were from Anglican, Presbyterian or Methodist backgrounds, where the path to ordained ministry was not yet possible.
Secondly, Constance’s ministerial career both broke new ground but also exposed the continuing restrictions which exist even for those who do ‘break through the sacred ordained ceiling’. After her ordination, presided over by William E. Orchard (a Presbyterian, who later became a Roman Catholic priest) and assisted by four Congregationalist ministers, she still had to receive full acceptance. Her candidacy for the Ministry of Word and Sacraments had been happily tested and accepted by the King’s Weigh House congregation in Mayfair. Yet this was in many other ways a pioneer ministry, shared with her husband Claud, not at the King’s Weigh House itself but with its East End mission outpost in Darby Street, Wapping. Moreover her ordination had not received prior recognition (this had to wait another couple of months with the Congregational Union more widely) and the minister at Darby Street had stayed away from that occasion, uneasy that her call was irregular. As such, Constance’s story reflects the way in which, as URC minister Kirsty Thorpe has put it, ‘new developments in women’s ministry often happen on the edge of irregularity’. Nor was the sacrificial ministry at Darby Street, which took a toll on Constance’s health, the end of the ministry in the edges of church and life which she exercised. In 1922 she and her husband Claud started another trying ministry, seeking to revive the declining church at Greville Place, Kilburn, before moving within three years to Cowley Road, Oxford. It was part of trend which has been demonstrated ever since, where ordained females are often asked to take on, or only able to find ministries in difficult settings. Indeed a 1936 report on the ministry of women by the Congregational Union noted that several ordained women had received calls from churches in financial difficulties that could not offer an adequate salary for a man. Constance was not alone in taking on difficult ministries in mission settings. She is not alone today.
Thirdly, in a more positive way, Constance also helped model the ministry of mutuality which Hatty Baker had earlier espoused. Her husband, Claud Coltman, was ordained alongside her, the day before their marriage. Thereby they were pioneers together as an ordained married couple in ministry. For at this time women were typically expected to give up paid employment on their marriage, Active ministry, marriage and motherhood was not something her female ministerial contemporaries achieved. Again however, it came at a cost. Constance managed this partly because she and Claud operated a ministerial job-share, living on one ministerial stipend, whilst she used her private money to subsidise the household. Even today, many married couples in ministry struggle with similar practical and spiritual issues.
Fourthly, whilst not a campaigner, Constance’s ministry was not simply based in her own church, but engaged with the major issues of the day. Whilst she was not an active suffragist, she supported the suffrage movement, and was particularly supportive of younger women who felt called to exercise leadership. Generations of women ordinands were helped by her in their academic preparation and in 1927 Coltman was elected president of the new Fellowship of Women Ministers, and in 1930, she helped to found the interdenominational Society for the Ministry of Women. In the 1950s she even learned Swedish so as to support women seeking ordination in the Church of Sweden. A lifelong pacifist, throughout her active life Constance was also involved in peace movements, particularly as a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, as a vice-president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and as one of the founders of the Christian Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Finally, and again as a pioneer of developments which would take much wider and deeper form in a later era, Constance Coltman contributed to Christian feminist thought. A good friend of the leading Anglican Christian feminist pioneer Maud Royden, she notably contributed a chapter to Royden’s book The Church and Women, published in 1924. Writing a Free Church contribution, she rightly identified the Reformation as a ‘two-edged sword in the cause of the ministry of women.’ For Constance, with her ecumenical outlook, the Reformation’s ending of Mariolatry had weakened the status of Protestant women. Contemporary Nonconformist ministers were vulnerable to opposition by one or two ‘protesting church members’, she declared with cool realism, so a woman could nearly always be prevented from receiving a call. Constance believed that women had a distinctive contribution to bring to the interpretation and commendation of Christian theology. As in other elements of her life and ministry, she thus opened up the door through which later generations would walk.
God of new beginnings,
we give thanks for Constance Coltman,
and for all who have been female pioneers in ordained ministry.
Help us to honour and be encouraged by their good examples,
that we may continue to grow and develop
in the power of the Holy Spirit,
who calls us to use all our gifts ever more deeply
in the service of love and re-creation, Amen.