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British Baptists: No Stained-Glass Ceiling for Women

The General Synod, the governing body of the Church of England, failed to secure the necessary majority in the House of Laity to move to the possibility of appointing women to the episcopate.
The recent upset has set off a round of newspaper articles, Facebook, Twitter and blog site discussion on the attitude of the different Christian traditions to the ministry of women in all spheres of the life of the church.

Some traditions, such as the Salvation Army, are noted for having appointed women to every level of their hierarchical structure, including their top position of general.

The Methodists and the United Reformed Church are clear in their positive stance.

We Baptists in Great Britain, who claim to be non-hierarchical, still have positions of leadership at the “more than local.” While our record is far from perfect, we are much removed from the position the Anglicans, Orthodox and Roman Catholics find themselves in.

I don’t intend to address the issue of the use and misuse of Scripture here.

(Derek and Dianne Tidball, N.T. Wright, Toivo Pilli and many others have done that in books and learned journals. The consensus result of quality Scriptural exegesis seems to declare that in our common humanity any true believer can be called and have a vocation to any office in the church if the ecclesial body itself recognizes the call of Christ on the life of that person. It also seems clear that leadership positions were exercised in New Testament churches by women.)

This is our British Baptist denominational position, affirmed in our experience with local churches from the 1920s onward and by the Baptist Assembly, Baptist Union Council and Associations from the 1960s onward in the appointments that have been affirmed and made.

The roots of this belief, of course, go further back than the 1920s to our Anabaptist foreparents, where many women fulfilled vocations in leadership in the Anabaptist communities.

Today, we rejoice that the leadership ministries among Anabaptists exercised by people such as Magadelena von Pappenheim, Helena von Freyburg, Margarethe PrĂ¼ss of Strassbourg and others led Anabaptist communities to flourish and grow, even while under persecution from the Magisterial Reformers.

In the United Kingdom, we find women such as Dorothy Hazzard, Mrs. Attaway of the Bell Alley Church and Anna Trapnel exercising ministry in the 1600s.

Since 1889, women have been exercising leadership and speaking at our Baptist Assembly.

Women have been ordained and in pastoral charge since Edith Gates (ordained 1922), Maria Living-Taylor (ordained 1922) and Violet Hedger (in pastorate from 1924).

In the 1970s, Nell Alexander served as a lay president of the union and in 1987 Rev. Margaret Jarman.

More recently, Rev. Kate Coleman (the first black female president) and Rev. Pat Took have held this key officer role in the life of the union.

We Baptists in England and Wales have had a woman deputy general secretary, Rev. Myra Blyth, and women have moderated most of the key committees of the union.

Rev. Ruth Bottoms has occupied a key place in leadership of the union for well over a decade in a ministry that many have admired (Council, Trustees, General Purposes and Finance, Faith and Unity). Rev. Ruth Matthew, Rev. Kathryn Morgan and Rev. Lynn Green have all moderated executive committees of the union.

In the regions, associations have appointed regional ministers and regional team leaders, among whom we note Pat Took, Dianne Tidball, Jane Day, Kathryn Morgan, Lynn Green, Sheila Martin, Helen Wordsworth, Sandra Crawford and Jacky Story.

The colleges, forming the next generation of ministers, have all had women on the lecturing staff. Anne Phillips serves as co-principal of the Northern Baptist Learning Community.

These examples don’t even include the leading ministry of Baptist women in Georgia, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Lithuania, Estonia and Bulgaria, or focus on major achievements in the life of our English and Welsh Baptist community, which have been brought about under the inspiring leadership of women.

For now, let me be clear. We British Baptists affirm the ministry of women in every aspect of our life together and have done so for a very long time. Women have been at the heart of our communities, our associations and our union in leadership and in gifting.

I, for one, hope that the Church of England will soon realize that the ministry of women in every aspect of the life of the church enhances our gospel mission, and the General Synod will vote afresh to allow women into the episcopate.

We British Baptists may not yet be awake enough to the Holy Spirit to use all the gifts of women in our churches, but we have no “stained glass ceiling.” Nor should we.

Keith G. Jones is the rector of the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague, Czech Republic.