Constance Coltman – a pioneer in ministry

The centenary of the ordination of Constance Coltman is marked on 17 September 2017. Laurence Wareing remembers Constance and asks where the hymns are about women in ministry.

Though not the first woman to be ordained as a minister in Britain, Constance Coltman was the first woman to be ordained into the presbyteral ministry of a mainstream British denomination: the Congregational Union of England and Wales. Formal discussion about the ordination of women had been ongoing in the denomination since 1909.

Constance Todd (her family name) was born in 1889. She was admitted for training at Mansfield College, Oxford, in 1913. Four years later, Constance was ordained alongside Claud Coltman; they married the next day. They began ministry together in London Docklands. A committed pacifist and suffragist, Constance was also an early supporter of birth control. In later years, she did much to promote women’s ordination across the churches, at home and abroad. In 1929 she helped to found the interdenominational Society for the Ministry of Women in the Church. Constance died in 1969.

The Centenary is being marked by a number events, including a thanksgiving service to be held on Sunday 17 September 2017 at 3pm at the American International Church in London. Find out more about the Constance Coltman Centenary celebrations.

Constance, a short 2015 film by Kevin Snyman, recounts Constance’s journey towards training for the ministry and is available to download. It has been released on a Creative Commons Licence, allowing it to be shared on a not-for-profit basis. A FAQ sheet, which includes further biographical information about Constance and the circumstances surrounding her ordination, has been produced to accompany the film.

Women in ministry – where are the hymns?

Few hymns in Singing the Faith address in particular the role of women in ministry or as disciples. Should there be more? There is an argument that in speaking about our response to God’s call, our hymns and prayers should focus on all instances of exclusion rather than pointing up only gender inequality. But maybe in arguing that case we are in danger of keeping the voices of women under wraps. Should we have more hymns that raise more clearly the profile of women in ministry and discipleship, such as There’s a quiet understanding (StF 36) – with its (admittedly light) allusion to Galatians 3:28?

Revd Michaela Youngson, elected President of the Methodist Conference 2018/19

In 2014, the Methodist Church in Britain marked the 40th anniversary of the ordination of women into its own presbyteral ministry. For that occasion, the Revds Michaela Youngson and Nicola Morrison wrote Gracious God, you call your people, available on the StF+ website.

Another hymn on StF+ that reflects gently on what we all have to offer to the making of God’s kingdom is Oyster Shells by Andrew Pratt and Barbara Honeyball Young:

And so with hands like open shell
we offer pearls of greatest price.

You call us, as you called the Twelve (website only) by Sue McCoan and Matthew Prevett was written to sing in a valedictory service that marked the end of student training for the United Reformed Church ministry. It draws a biblical example of discipleship into the here and now.

Mary, the mother of Jesus - old Persian miniature (Creative Commons)

Other hymns, both on the StF+ website and in the hymn book, touch on the importance of woman amongst the earliest followers of Jesus – most particularly, his own mother, Mary. Gillian Collins (Remembering Mary, website only) concludes her hymn with the words:

Mary, new disciple, in the upper room,
Waiting, watching, praying – Spirit’s coming soon.
Mother of the Christ-child, suffering, faithful, true,
We have now a Saviour. God be praised for you!

Mary’s own voice shines through in paraphrases of her song of praise and justice (Luke 1: 46-55): Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord! (StF 186); My soul rejoices in God my Saviour (StF 60). She is there, too, on Easter Day in Richard Leach’s ‘At early dawn the rise and come’, available via Lent and Easter: more hymns.

Where else in our hymns is Mary, and the great company of women that followed her?

(See Tony Jasper’s response to this article, Why so few women writers?)

Categories: Alstott, Owen (auth), Articles, Collins, Gillian, Dudley-Smith, Timothy, Exploring themes, Honeyball Young, Barbara (comp), McCoan, Sue, Morrison, Nicola, People of faith, Pratt, Andrew, Prevett, Matthew, Worship Resources, Youngson, Michaela.

7 Responses to Constance Coltman – a pioneer in ministry

  1. ANDREW PRATT says:

    Janet Wootton’s ‘This Is Our Song: Women’s Hymn-Writing’ – 2013 published by Epworth and now reprinted by Wipf and Stock begins with essays related to women’s hymn writing and contains a series of biographical “stories” by living women hymn-writers. Well worth a read. Women by women and over 300 pages.

  2. Editor says:

    The Revd Andrew Pratt is of course quite right to point out that hymn writing is a ministry in itself. He is also correct to say that women are under-represented in Singing the Faith. Just 22 per cent of named writers in Singing the Faith are women. (Does it help to add that this compares with approxaimtely 12.5 per cent in Hymns & Psalms? Probably not.) Many have written about women writers, including Tony Jasper.

    On this occasion, our focus was particularly on those women who have been ordained into presbyteral ministry, and to celebrate Constance Coltman’s achievement. (We were also clear that though Constance was surely a pioneer, she was not by any means the first woman to be ordained into this form of ministry.)

    My slightly cheeky question concerning hymns about women is, arguably, a bit beside the point. Should we worry that women themselves are not commemorated in hymns but be more concerned about sharing the hymn writing of women? (And maybe there are better ways of marking the impact and ministries of women – as of men – than simply by singing about them. Something to chew over.)

    • ANDREW PRATT says:

      Thank you for this response. It was the writing of women to which I was particularly pointing rather than hymns about women. The last paragraph of the editor’s comment makes the point.
      Can I suggest we might use texts and/or tunes by Jan Berry, June Boyce-Tillman, Mary Louise Bringle, Elizabeth Cosnett, Marjorie Dobson, Shirley Erena Murray, Sue Gilmurray, Valerie Ruddle, Claire Stainsby, and Janet Wootton in celebration – all of these being living authors.

  3. Alan Gaunt has written a hymn in respect Constance Coltman – ‘The woman whom Jesus met by the well’. This has been published in Reform (September 2017)

    Hymn writing is, in itself, a ministry and it is a sadness that less acknowledgment of this was offered by Singing the Faith than might have been. One report to Conference stated ‘the MRG has expressed concern that there is some evidence that female authors’ work is being rejected because [of] the type of imagery they use’ (conf10a-29-singing-the-faith-160211 – 5.1.4.1. – accessed 6/12/2015). This was at a time when a number of women’s hymns had been removed from a draft originally presented, ironically some hymns by the Rev Dr Janet Wootton who is in direct succession to Constance Coleman as a Congregational Minister and now President of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland.

  4. TONY JASPER says:

    In my book NEXT WE SHALL SING (2008: Highland Books) I have 6 pages on women hymn writers.

  5. Judy Ford says:

    I recently had it drawn to my attention that, in John’s Gospel (john 11:27), it is Martha who appears to be the first person to recognise Jesus as the Messiah.

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