The children rode the bicycle over 100 miles to the nearest port and addressing it to Miss Ella Gordon, Liverpool, shipped it off.
It was 1956 before the Presbyterian Church of England ordained its first woman minister. Methodists and the Church of Scotland were some years behind and the Churches of Christ and the Church of England at least two decades later. We still wait for Rome and Constantinople.
It took the record and the qualities of a very special person to raise the issue in a way that compelled decision. Annie Isabella Gordon, Ella as we came to know her, was such. Born in Aberdeen in 1909, she spoke with the soft cultured accent that has been described as the best example of spoken English. Ella took two degrees, a B.Sc. in 1933 and the M.A. in 1934, both from Aberdeen University. However, whatever her gifts or attainments there was no road into the ministry in the Church of Scotland. She offered herself for service under the Women’s Foreign Mission of the Church and was appointed to Manchuria where she arrived in 1936. There followed five years in a country in political turmoil. Ella was sent packing in 1941 when the turmoil ended in Japanese occupation.
Back in Scotland in the midst of the World War, she did various work for the Church of Scotland and took a course at St Colm’s Missionary College. Her first class degree, with a distinction in Systematic Theology came in 1945. Still cherishing her sense of call she made sure that the course included all the elements required for entry into the ministry. In 1946 she was appointed to a teaching job in Nagpur University. A year later she was able to return to Manchuria. But then there was Mao and the communist takeover. She and her colleagues were expelled in 1946.
A story from that period speaks volumes of the kind of affection she evoked. She had a beloved bicycle which the children with whom she was always at work dismantled, distributing the parts for safe keeping, to prevent them being requisitioned. When things eased and Ella was back in Britain, the children gathered the parts and assembled them. They then rode the bicycle over 100 miles to the nearest port and addressing it to Miss Ella Gordon, Liverpool, they shipped it off. The reunion was somehow achieved, and the bicycle remained Ella’s only vehicle in all that followed.
Ella had been in touch with leaders of the Women’s Home Church Committee of the Presbyterian Church of England and with the significant work of the Church Sisters, who had been an important part of the Church’s life for many years. She was recruited in 1952 and appointed in North Shields, where the newly united congregation of St Columba’s was trying to establish work in a large new estate on the west of the town.
Going to meet this person with her three degrees and her wonderful experience, I had my worries as to whether it would work. Could this woman with her academic achievements and interests minister with understanding and without frustration in a community whose concerns had to be more deeply engaged in the struggle to meet basic needs? I need not have worried. The face that looked out of the train window was encouraging. As we travelled down to Shields on the local train and then walked to the Manse, I told her she had arrived on the day of our annual sale, so she would be left for the afternoon to get sorted. She must have popped into a shop on the way, for by the time of the sale there were a number of newly embroidered handkerchiefs which she brought to the sale herself. Ella had arrived.
Quickly she won the affection and warm support of the church and of the still tiny community of West Chirton. There, her care and industry moved mountains. Nine baptisms one Sunday afternoon were only one sign of her influence. My real worry was that I might let her down by baptising them with the wrong names. It registered with me that she was already the real pastor and that I was a fifth wheel to the coach, present only because I was a minister and she was not. If she ever felt that it was never evident.
One day she arrived at the manse with a sheet of paper. It was her application to be received into the ordained ministry of the Presbyterian Church of England. That church had gone on record in 1921 as authorising the ordination of women to the eldership and declaring that there was no theological bar to their entrance into the ministry. No doubt the First World War, with its immense casualty list had left all the churches wondering where their men had gone. Women in many cases carried the life of the churches during that awful time. Women elders began to appear and by 1956 had become a natural and accepted part of the life of nearly all our congregations. But in the 35 years that had passed, several gifted women had tested the waters with regard to the ministry. For one reason or another the time was never right.
Warning her that she might very well suffer the same disappointment that had come to previous applicants I took her application to the appropriate Presbytery Committee. She had of course become known and esteemed, and when her record was set out I recall that the Chairman of the Committee commented to the male ministers present that we had better not lay ourselves open to comparison. When put to the vote the decision to forward her application was carried by 56 votes to 1, with 5 abstentions.
The Assembly proved more cautious. Two well-known and respected ministers moved that the 1921 decision should be re-examined and the principle reviewed. They had substantial support but when their amendment was put to the vote it was lost by 123 votes to 229. The original resolution was then put and carried, 253 voting for and only 25 against. Ella Gordon was thus declared eligible for a call. It was clear that if we were to ordain a woman we would never have a better candidate. She was outstanding in ability, experience and personal grace of character. She was obviously delighted but responded without any triumphalism.
A call followed very speedily to the nearby church at High Howdon. She was ordained there in November 1956. Her service there for the next five years was beyond praise and she was held in high regard in the whole community.
In 1961 she was called to Norris Green in Liverpool. Largely through her influence the Liverpool Presbytery took on responsibility for an inner city youth project, purchasing a disused public house to run the project from.
Ill health, due in part to the demands she put on herself, led her from the pastoral ministry to teach at the Selly Oak Colleges in 1966 and to retirement in 1968. This she spent in Edinburgh, Comrie and finally in Muthill, where she died, 31 March 1999.
A bald record does not do justice to the ability and dedication of this gracious woman. As a pioneer of women’s ministry she knew that she was watched and that makes for loneliness. She came to the ministry in spite of the prejudices of the time and raised it to new levels of respect by her vision and the mature and often mischievous humour with which she met disappointments and frustrations. She waited for companions, but ten years later only three other women had become ministers of the Presbyterian Church. Perhaps she had set too high a standard.