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Interview: Margaret Towner, the First Woman Pastor in the PC(USA)

Interview: Margaret Towner, the First Woman Pastor in the PC(USA)

For the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the largest reformed denomination in America, 2005 and 2006 mark special anniversaries for women in leadership, including the 100th anniversary of women as deacons, the 75th anniversary of women as ruling elders and the 50th anniversary of women as ministers of Word and Sacrament.

In celebrating such landmarks, the PC(USA) hosted a two-day conference on women’s ministry at the McCormick Theological Seminary in downtown Chicago last week.

The Nov. 5-7 Women’s Ordination Celebration, one of four events being held for the occasion, featured workshops, Bible Studies, banquets and seminars led by some of the best-known Presbyterian women leaders.

The following are excerpts from an interview with the Rev. Dr. Margaret Towner, the first woman to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church and one of the featured speakers during the Celebration Ordination event.

What was the hardest part about being the first woman minister to be ordained?

First of all there were many people that weren’t really sure that a woman could do the job of a pastor. They would ask, “Could women handle it? Are they going to rob the jobs from the men?” They would also quote scriptures – and there was a lot of that – and overall they really weren’t sure a woman could do the job right.

During the first couple of years of my ordination, I was never invited to preach in larger churches. I preached mostly in smaller churches, and I was the assistant pastor and primarily worked in Christian education.

Has it changed much since then?

I think a lot of it has. There is still a long way to go, of course, and there are still the occasional people who feel only a man can do a particular wedding or memorial service, but I think as the people get to know the individual women who are ordained as clergy, those barriers break down. It really depends on the individual and how much she is able to break down the stereotypes and barriers.

When did you first realize that was your calling?

It was after I was out of college and working in some churches in New York. The people there sent me to explore ministry and that’s where I totally realized where I should be. But all along I felt God was pushing me in that direction, though I went in the opposite direction for a while.

What direction was that?

I was in medical photography for a while and I was a professional photographer doing some education work in audio-video. I had a pre-med degree, and that’s what I studied for 3 years.

What fears did you have when you were first ordained?

I can’t frame it in terms of fear. There was caution, and I felt I needed to be aggressive but patient and gentle in terms of helping people get to know me and accept the idea of an ordained woman.

The United Church of Christ, the American Baptists and the United Church of Christ had been ordaining women for quite a few years, and I felt we needed to do it, but slowly.

When there were comments made that might have been a little demeaning or insulting, I would let them slide down my back because I thought if I struck back, people would say, “Aha! That’s what you get from angry females.”

Did you have to go through that in recent years?

I haven’t had that experience for a good number of years. But when I was in Wisconsin, I had been calling on one of my parishioners through illness and in death, but when he had died, they said only a man is up to handle such service. This happens, but not very often.

Have you ever regretted your ordination?

No. Never.

Was it lonely – this path as the first female to be ordained?

Yes and no. But not really because there were a lot of wonderful and supportive people around me.

Do you have any suggestions or words for women in the ministry who feel lonely?

Number one would be of course to keep strengthening their spiritual roots and foundations. The other would be to build as strong a support community as they can. This can be a community of other clergy, parishioners or friends. The human supportive community is very important.

You’re retired, but do you speak often at events?

We’ve had events like the one in Chicago and I will speak at a similar gathering in Atlanta next March. I’m also speaking at congregations that invite me both large and small. I’m preaching and I’m on call for a church nearby, and I do occasional teaching and some Bible study work.

Not everyone has warmed up to the idea of a woman minister, though.

Yes, for instance in the Presbyterian Church in America and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, women are not allowed to be ordained as elders, deacons or clergy. That was one of the reason those churches broke away from mainstream Presbyterianism. In 1983 as the Southern and Northern Presbyterian united to form the PC(USA), the PCA broke away over the ownership of property, race, and gender.

What do you say to people who still question your credentials as a minister?

If they want to get into a Biblical discussion, I will go into the misrepresentation of Paul’s letters. But basically I’ll tell them they really need to get to know some of us and realize that times have changed. This is the 21st century and not the first century A.D.

In his letters, Paul said what he did because women were illiterate at that time and began talking amongst themselves, so it was very destructive. But that is certainly not the case in the 21st century. Not all women are literate now, but we are working to obliterate that.

Some people take scripture literally and think God actually wrote each letter rather than it being a human being inspired by God in the situation.

Plus the first person to testify Christ’s resurrection was Mary Magdalene, right?

Yes, she was the very first witness to Christ’s resurrection. But sometimes people don’t see that aspect of it. Also, there was a woman who was close to Paul by the name of Junia. It is recorded that Junia was notable among the Apostles, and while the King James Version translates the name into the masculine form, the correct translation is feminine.

Do you feel that you will be remembered as Junia, or as a prophet that brings change to the church?

I guess I’d be a prophet if I knew that. I really don’t know how people will remember me. I just know we have to keep working on changing the church. It’s going to take the efforts of all people willing to get rid of the discrimination between sexes and gender and to see what it means to be partners and colleagues working together. When we see men and women working together as colleagues instead of voicing on them stereotypes of gender or sex, we can see more of the glass-ceiling broken. But it will take all the people in the congregation and clergy, as well as members, in order to feel comfortable for that kind of working relationship. Then, hopefully we will get away from the fear that women will be taking over the roles of men.

Have women been supportive of your ministry?

In some conservative branches, many women feel strongly that their place is to be subservient to their husbands and to men, and they believe whatever their husbands say they should believe. This is often the case where we have a backlash of conservatism and extreme fundamentalism, where people go back to the very literal interpretation of the Bible. A lot of times this comes out of male chauvinism.

What is one of the most memorable moments of your ministry?

It’s hard to cite just one. I think my ordination service was a memorable occasion, but I also remember the times I was able to minister to people in my parish and in the hospital to help them through grief. There were many times where I would just run over to the hospital, and arrive there just the moment a family was very disparate. It seems that happens often, where I happen to be at the right place at the right time.

How do you feel when you celebrate with hundreds of others 50 years of your ministry and the ordination of women pastors in general?

It has been gratifying to go around to different places like Chicago. Many people spoke to me and said, “I remember when you did this or that and I just want to let you know that I’m a daughter in law of a certain pastor who spoke highly of you.” Reconnecting with longtime friends and colleagues – those are the things that keep you pumped up.

What is your hope for your ministry and for the women in the Presbyterian church?

I just hope that my ministry has been meaningful and helpful and encouraging. Some women clergy were angry at me because I wasn’t more aggressive, but I felt that’s the way to approach it at the time. I didn’t want to be aggressive so I wouldn’t be so much of a threat to the males or to the wives of many of the clergy who were afraid. Some people predicted that there would not be many women seeking ministry, but we can see now that is not true.

I think we need to learn to be patient, to break down, and to work together. Part of what causes the glass ceiling is the stereotypes.

We have a long way to go for women to be accepted as heads of staff (senior pastors), and there are still women who are saying we are not there yet. However, we are making progress, and it was gratifying to see so many at the Chicago celebration.

The Rev. Dr. Margaret E. Towner is the first woman ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. The Presbytery of Syracuse ordained her on Oct. 24, 1956 at First Presbyterian Church. Towner has served congregations in six presbyteries, and in 1981 served as the vice-moderator of the 193rd General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church USA (a predecessor denomination of the current-day PC(USA)). Towner also served on the Advisory Committee on Discipleship and Worship, chaired the General Assembly Committee on Language about God, and was a member of the Nature and Practice of Governance Study. She is currently retired.

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