Women of Faith: A Christian Perspective

With the recent passing of International Women’s Day and the International Women’s day of Prayer, I have found myself taking stock of the role of women in my own denomination, the United Church of Canada.

“I’ve never experienced a woman minister/priest/pastor before!”
Lydia Gruchy

Lydia Gruchy

When I first came to Oakville 25 years ago, I heard this all the time.  After all, I was the first.  When I was installed as the minister of Maple Grove United Church, every minister in Oakville attended out of curiosity.  The robing room smelled like a men’s locker room and there were many comments made about my office, newly painted pink (not my choice, by the way).

As the years have passed, women have taken more visible leadership roles in all aspects of Canadian life and the faith community has been no exception.  It’s important to look back to those who have come before to recognize the blessings of those who have made our journeys possible.

When the United Church of Canada was formed in 1925, there were no women ministers, though one of the founding denominations, the Congregationalists, had ordained a few women in the US starting in 1845.  But soon women were taking on the leadership of new churches — particularly in Saskatchewan, where communities were far flung and often couldn’t attract a minister.  As the Famous Five, a group of Christian women based in Saskatchewan, began their campaign to have women declared legally persons, they also began to promote the ordination of women.  In 1931, their good friend Lydia Gruchy became the first woman ordained in Canada.  She had served churches in rural Saskatchewan before ordination and she served the church long after.  I met her in White Rock BC when she was almost 100 years old.  What an honour to preach in her presence!

But it wasn’t until 1954 that a married woman with children was ordained, and there was a lot of resistance.  However, Eleanor Leard was a spectacular candidate.  In university by the time she was 16, educated at Columbia Theological Seminary, a prestigious school in the US, married to the Rev. Earl Leard and mother to four children, she had the support of all who knew her.

Ministry was difficult for her.  All the church leaders working under her were men — often hostile to her leadership.  Eventually she specialized in educational ministry, starting and running a school in India and then teaching the classics in high school.  She never stopped learning and was so supportive to the ministers of Maple Grove United, where she attended for 30 years.

Now many churches in our denomination are ministered to by women.  All positions of leadership are open to women in our denomination.  It is only by the blessings of spirit-filled women who have gone before that we are able to freely respond to the call of God to share our gifts.

I passionately love what I do as a minister, and who I do ministry with.  I can’t imagine my life in any other way.  I pray for all those women who have been called by God to ministry, but have not been able to respond in their traditions.  May they find ways to fulfill God’s call to share their gifts.

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