On Tuesday morning a few of us gathered for morning prayer.
We read from the Psalms, from 2 Kings and from 1 Timothy.
The 1 Timothy reading included the verses we have read this morning:
‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man’ (1 Tim
and elsewhere in 1 Corinthians it says,
‘women should remain silent in churches’ (1 Cor. 14.34).
What do we do about these verses?
Violet Hedger was the first woman to be accepted for training as a Baptist minister.
The year was 1922.
She trained at Regent’s Park College, although the principal,
Henry Wheeler Robinson, (who had became principal after she was accepted,)
did his best to pretend she wasn’t there.
In fact, where as all the other male ministerial students had their examination
fees paid for by the Principal, which was the custom,
Violet had to pay her own.
It was only in 1990 Paul Fiddes, who was the then current Principal at Regent’s
Park, wrote Violet a cheque to cover those fees.
The cheque was for £5!
Following her training,
Violet went on to be a Baptist minister in Derby, Halifax, Chatham, and Chalk
It was during the war that she was minister at Chatham in Kent.
And her church there, Zion Baptist, was bombed three times.
On the final occasion it was bombed,
she was buried in the rubble and knocked unconscious,
she was rescued but left permanently disabled.
Not that this stopped her. Her final pastorate at Chalk Farm,
saw her rebuild – both physically and spiritually – the bombed-out church.
It was said of Violet that she was:
‘a pioneer in women’s ministry
she battled against family opposition
and physical disability
to fulfil the ministry to which the Lord called her.’ [i]
She died in 1992.
In 1941 she wrote an article for the Baptist Quarterly reflecting on her ministry. [ii]
She begins by saying
‘a newspaper placard asserted to me as I walked through Oxford Street, that “War gives woman her chance.” If that be true, then it s tragic that only in this awful failure of man’s control of the civilisation he devised is a chance given to half of humanity … It should be ‘the Church gives woman her chance.”
She goes on to tell several stories, like:
- I was delighted when, leaving after I had taken a service, I was bidden “Goodnight” at the door by a short-sighted but loyal deacon, who said, “You should come next Sunday and hear our own minister.”
- At one Yorkshire anniversary, I crawled under a scaffolding to the pulpit, and then, forgetting, that I was standing on a small box, I stepped back, and disappeared in the middle of the sermon!
- There are many who doubt if it be safe to be buried by a woman. A family – members of my own church – asked the Vicar to take the graveside service, and I that in the house!
- I am very cheered that my deacons’ wives say that their husbands have never been home so early from deacons’ meetings before!
- Of course, there are some whose main concern is the kind of frocks a woman will wear, or her hats. Having seen some minister’s ties, I think there is little need for worry!
- At a town in Surrey, where I was taking an anniversary, my hostess came to meet me. She expected someone tall, elderly, with glasses, wearing a widow’s weeds. As no such person appeared, she went home and left me on the platform!
- So many churches think of women in terms of washing-up and tea-making – estimable occupations in themselves, and I think highly of those men who undertake such duties at home, and wish they would do them sometimes for the church.
- The Call to a spiritual vocation comes in the same way to a woman as it does to man; brooding over the week that has to be done to evangelise and rebuild the world, there comes a clear to this Christian ministry …
Why tell the story of Violet Hedger?
Why remember her life?
I think one reason is it tells us something about how Baptists read the Bible,
and verses like the ones from 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians.
As Baptists we take the Bible seriously.
We believe Scripture to be trustworthy and authoritative
and yet we have ordained Violet and many other women.
Many Baptists (but not all) have said that women should teach,
that they should have authority over men,
that they should be the opposite of silent in church.
In my 6 years at Belle Vue we have welcomed the ministry
of Ruth, Myra, Sheila, Emma – all ordained ministers of the gospel
and that is not forgetting the ministry of Sue, Brenda, Kalbi and Liejse.
My own life is grateful to many women who have taught me the gospel:
Maggi, Fleming, Carol, Beverly, Sally, Beth, Paula, the list could go on …
This appears in direct contradiction to the teaching of
1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians.
Let me offer some suggestions on how Baptists have tended to read the Bible. [iii]
- We have said the most important place to read the Bible is not by ourselves at home, but to read it together as a congregation.
- We have said we know Jesus through the Bible, we discover and encounter him within the Bible, but we know Jesus beyond and before the Bible and that he has authority above the Bible
- We read the Bible to discern the mind of Christ for our life and mission, that is, we read it intentionally and expectantly, not casually or occasionally.
- We read the Bible believing that there is more light and truth that God will reveal to us, which means:
- We read the Bible in the present tense – addressed to us today, here, now.
- We read the Bible as part of an on-going conversation within the church to what being a Christian looks like
- We accept that there will be sometimes a diversity of interpretation and the strong likelihood of disagreement, but we are bound together in friendship and in trust.
- We read the Bible with modesty, we do not claim to have the final word
- We read the Bible with the Holy Spirit, who guides us into truth.
What this means is that when we come to the ministry of women in the church,
we have looked to Galatians 3.28:
‘there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free,
neither male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’
We have looked to Acts 2:
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy …
We have looked to Acts 10 and how the Holy Spirit fell upon Gentiles without
them becoming Jewish …
and to which Peter said has ‘God has shown me …’ something new
and later defending his actions to baptise by saying that
God has given the Holy Spirit to both Jew and Gentile and so who was he
to hinder God.
We ordained Violet and many other women,
because we came to see that the Spirit was leading us to read the Bible in
new ways, just as he led Peter.
because we came to see that baptism is the great leveller,
it removes any sense of hierarchy or restriction.
One person has suggested we ordain women, because we baptise girls. [iv]
In so doing we have overlooked the verses in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians, [v]
We have discerned that they are not binding on us,
but that rather they were words written for particular problems in
particular churches. [vi]
We have said the Bible is not a text book or an encyclopaedia,
in which ever verse carries the same weight.
Instead the authority and leading of the Spirit
and the witness of other parts of the Bible have lead us and continue to
lead us to affirm, recognise, receive, the ministry of women.
We continue to ordain those like Violet because we continue to discern a call in
the lives of women to ministry.
We remember Violet Hedger
because was among the first whose call to ministry was recognized.
We remember Violet Hedger
because without her and others like Edith Gates,
many other women’s call to ministry might have been denied.
We remember Violet Hedger
in a world of “locker room” talk,
in which women can still be seen as subject to the power of men,
to which we say the gospel says different.
We remember Violet Hedger
because she is evidence of the way we read the Bible as Baptists.
We are not literalists or liberals,
instead we seek to read carefully and be open to the inspiration of Holy Spirit
to lead us into truth as we discern it.
As we continue to consider issues of sexuality, abortion, euthanasia, war, immigration,
money, Europe, Islam, and many more,
It is this way of reading the Bible we have learned,
looking to Jesus,
dependent on the Holy Spirit
holding our interpretations lightly,
but our convictions strongly
that will see the church be faithful to her Lord.
[ii] Violet Hedger, ‘Some experiences of a women minister’, Baptist Quarterly 10.5 (1941)
[iii] I’ve been helped here by Curtis Freeman, Contesting Catholicity (2014), 273-309.
[v] For some suggestions on how to read these verses see Tom Wright, ‘Women’s Service in the Church: The Biblical Basis’ http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/07/12/womens-service-in-the-church-the-biblical-basis/ and in the case of 1 Cor 14, see Lucy Peppiatt, Women and Worship at Corinth (Wipf & Stock, 2015)
[vi] Leonard Champion, ‘The Ministerial Service of Women’, Baptist Quarterly 20.5 (1964), 202.