In 1 Timothy 5:22, Paul urges Timothy “Do not ordain anyone hastily . . .” The church certainly took this advice to heart in the matter of the ordination of women.
Among Christians in the Presbyterian tradition, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church was first to ordain a woman: Louisa Woosley, in 1889, in Nolin Presbytery, Kentucky. The ordination did not go smoothly. The 1890 General Assembly challenge the Presbytery’s action and a motion was made to remove her name from the presbytery’s rolls — which died for lack of a second. The Presbytery stood by its decision. To make their position unmistakably clear, Nolin Presbytery elected her as a delegate to the 1894 General Assembly — where her credentials were debated. Woosley herself wrote a book, “Shall Woman Preach? The Question Answered” (still in print, available from the Cumberland Presbyterian Church) which seemed to contain her entire, definite, response to the controversy — i.e., “of course.” Nolin Presbytery finally resolved the problem by granting Woosley the status of a “minister in transitu,” a technicality which allowed her to preach and retain her ministerial position, and also allow the Presbytery to remove her name from the rolls to comply with the Synod’s order. Woosley’s ministry spanned the decades until her death, in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1952.
In the United Presbyterian Church (the “northern” church), the first woman to be ordained as Minister of Word and Sacrament was Margaret Towner, in 1956. Towner, a graduate of Union Theological Seminary, held the position of Director of Christian Education at First Presbyterian Church of Allentown, Pennsylvania prior to her ordination, and continued to direct religious education after ordination and being made assistant pastor. Her ordination was national news in the climate of mid-50s US culture, which is on unselfconscious display in the Life Magazine article about the first “Lady Minister” in a nationally-organized church. Towner’s own comments in the article minimized the threat of her ordination — she was not expecting to preach much, she was part of a “team” of several ministers, she would be running the church school. In a retrospective interview with Presbyterian Outlook, she regretted some of her early comments — perhaps because her experiences with the profound but subtle prejudices and discrimination directed against her as a solitary woman in ministerial work in her presbytery, and as a minority for much of her career, taught her the wisdom of Woosley’s approach of stalwart conviction.
It would be another 20 years before an African American woman — Katie Geneva Cannon, also (later) a graduate of Union Theological Seminary (Ph.D., 1983) — would be, in 1974, ordained a Minister of the Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church. Cannon, noted ethicist, professor, and author of works including Katie’s Cannon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community and Black Womanist Ethics, is the acknowledged inspiration of many — including the Women’s Center’s, which named its annual Katie Geneva Cannon lecture after her in recognition of her lifelong, public prophetic ministry that names and challenges structures of oppression with intellectual power and rhetorical grace. The lecture series itself was officially inauguraged by Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon at Wind and Flame – a conference celebrating the anniversaries of the ordination of women to office in the Presbyterian Church: 1906 (deacons), 1930 (elders — with Sarah E. Dickson of Wauwautosa Presbyterian Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin the first woman to hold that office), and 1956 (Minister of Word and Sacrament)
An alternative translation of “ordain” in 1 Timothy 5:22 is “lay hands on” — that is, in effect, “give spiritual and ecclesial power to.” In the end, it is power that is at stake in the question of ordination: who may or may not, shall or shall not, be trusted with the exercise of power. Only recently has our tradition begun to answer that question with women’s names.
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