What must it have felt like for Gertrude Von Petzold when she trained for ministry at Manchester College Oxford over a hundred years ago?
Unitarian women of my generation have taken it for granted that they are professionally acceptable, that is that nothing whatsoever about being female should act as an obstacle disallowing us from the office of ministry.
That is not the case for women in other denominations who are still fighting hard to be recognised. Some of them may feel more like Gertrude Von Petzold - more like pioneers with all the excitement and a nxiety that might bring with it.
Unlike me, Getrude Von Petzold had few models to look to when she chose her vocation. Surely there must have been something about her of exceptional quality to venture forward at a time, and in a climate, conditioned into believing that ministry was an utterly inappropriate calling for the female sex. At her induction at Leicester in 1904, Joseph Wood said : “ We recognise the courage of her who tonight breaks a perverse and mischievous tradition.” I didn`t need to find the courage to break that `perverse and mischievous tradition`. Thanks to Gertrude Von Petzold and many women ministers who came after her, the thought has never arisen that I did not have the right to train and become a minister.
So what of ministry for me? I have a hunch that Gertrude Von Petzold never thought of herself as being any different from her male colleagues, that she knew she had a right to be there, had things to say that mattered and would have been impatient with the idea that women`s ministry is different.
It may be that for those receiving ministry from a woman there is something qualitatively different about the experience. I couldn`t begin to explore that possibility. If it`s worth exploring then others can do it! Each ministry is different but what I relish about the ministerial role is the opportunity for creativeness and for service to others.
Not all ministry offers both those things. The Unitarian ministry offers a place where a whole spectrum of ideas can be explored; it offers a place for the richest combination of ideas - ethical, literary, scientific, religious, philosophical. It offers that place in the belief that its ministers will not abuse that freedom but put it to the service of the perennial values of love and truth and peace with justice.
That freedom is the most precious gift that I as a minister have so that when I think of the shackles placed upon the creativity of men and women by terrified religious institutions and states, the `principalities and powers` of both past and present, I feel enormously humbled.
Having been a teacher before a minister, I believe in the power of teaching at its finest to transform both the teacher and the taught: a creative process which liberates people and leads them forth. Teaching is service. Ministry like teaching is also service. At the most commonly understood level, it is service in all the ways of caring for which good ministers are renowned: listening, comforting, supporting, being with members of a congregation through those life events of birth, growth, decline and death. But at another level it employs the creative process of worship and fellowship to bring forth what is there in each one of us that is spiritual, imaginative and reflective. It is the way of transformation.
Women as well as men have that gift, despite the best attempts of the Christian church in earlier times to deny and suppress it and as Joseph Wood asserted at Gertrude Von Petzold`s induction in 1904, it was and is, where it still exists today, `a perverse and mischievous tradition`.
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