Past, Present & Future

The idea bubbled up over a breakfast shared by women ministers in communities west of Toronto. Rev. Gale Macdonald was planning a service at her church, Clarkson Road in Mississauga, Ont., to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The other ministers soon got on board, and the resulting service proved to be more than any of them anticipated.

“God completely transformed it from what we imagined it would be,” said Rev. Jacqui Foxall, minister at Knox, Oakville, Ont. “I felt called and sent through that service. It wasn’t just, let’s pat ourselves on the back and remember and give thanks. It was, right now lace up your boots, you have work to do and a legacy to participate in leaving.”

The plans for the service were spurred in part by disappointment that this year’s General Assembly didn’t include a mention of the anniversary of women’s ordination. It was on June 7, 1966, that the highest court of the church voted to allow women to be ordained both as elders and as ministers. The vote on opening the door to women ministers was conducted by secret ballot: 133 of the all-male commissioners voted in favour, with 72 opposing it.

Rev. Dr. Dorcas Gordon, who preached the sermon, started classes at Knox College in 1969. She now serves there as principal.

“We have to be careful we don’t take this gift for granted and become complacent,” she told the Record.

The worship service, which was held on Nov. 9 at Clarkson Road, drew participants from six area congregations, and attendees travelled from as far as Kingston, Ont. Worship leaders included a mass choir, seven ministers, the moderator of the Presbytery of Brampton, and several elders and laypeople. One prayer was led by three generations of female elders from Trafalgar, Oakville.

And the benediction was given by nine-year-old Claire Samwell, a member of Knox, Oakville, who feels she might be called to ministry.

Macdonald said one of the ministers who had a great impact on her faith journey had also sensed a call to ministry as a young girl, but in those days women couldn’t be ordained.

Samwell “doesn’t grow up with ‘you can’t do that because of your gender,'” Macdonald said. “For me that was the most poignant and powerful way to end the service.”

Those leading the service expressed gratitude for the trailblazing women and men who worked hard to remove barriers for future generations. But the theme of continuing to look for those who are excluded, and to work for a better future, ran throughout.

“I think there’s still a fair bit to do in church and society in terms of where women are at,” Gordon said. “And that was what the sermon hoped to do—was to say, yes, when we have an anniversary we celebrate the past, we think about what has been achieved, but we also have to look to see where we’re being called to continue to act in the present.”

Women are active and visible in congregations and presbyteries, she suggested, but they’re less visible or their voices tend to be muted in higher courts and leadership positions.

Even at the congregational level there’s work to be done, Foxall said, especially when it comes to assumptions about motherhood affecting a woman’s fitness for ministry.

She recalled being asked by a member if she was done having children or if she could be an effective minister if her children got sick—questions rarely if ever asked of ministers who are fathers.

Gordon concluded her sermon with Dorothee Söllee’s paraphrase of Augustine of Hippo: Hope has two lovely daughters; their names are Anger and Courage, she said. “Anger so that what cannot be, may not be, and courage so that what must be, will be.”


About Connie Wardle

Connie Wardle is the Presbyterian Record's senior writer and online editor.