A Dialogue Between
Deborah A. Block, Pastor,
Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Milwaukee,
and Margaret E. Towner, Honorably Retired
Covenant Conference 2006
Broad Street Presbyterian Church, Columbus, OH
Friday, November 10, 2006
Deborah Block is pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Milwaukee, WI, where she has been on staff since 1978. A graduate of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary and McCormick Seminary, she is on the Board of Directors of the Presbyterian Publishing Corp. and is Vice Chair of the McCormick Seminary Board of Trustees. She has served as Moderator of the Presbytery of Milwaukee and as Co-Moderator of the Covenant Network. Margaret Towner was the first woman ordained as pastor in what is now the PC(USA). She became pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Syracuse, NY in 1956. She has served congregations in six presbyteries. In 1981, Dr. Towner was vice-moderator of the 193rd General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church (USA).
(Note: More of Margaret Towner’s story can be found in Deborah Block’s chapter in the new book Celebrating Our Call, from Geneva Press.)
Several years ago, as we anticipated a theme for this year’s conference, we committed ourselves to incorporating the celebrations of women’s ordination that we would be marking this, year because we knew that there is much to celebrate about those anniversaries. And we also have come to know that there is much to learn about earlier struggles for ordination and earlier stories that inform and inspire our own. We knew that there were things to learn from that early story about passion, about perseverance, and about patience.
We remember that it was in 1920 that an overture went to the General Assembly that would allow the ordination of women as elders and ministers of the word, and it failed resoundingly – the very same year that women in this United States were granted the right, at long last, to vote. In 1930, the overture to ordain women to the office of elder passed; but it was not until the 1960s that many churches actually took action on that opportunity and invited women to serve in that office. It was in 1956, at long last, prompted by an elder from Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, Lilian Hert Alexander, that an overture was passed by the General Assembly and the presbyteries that opened the ordination of Ministry of Word and Sacraments to women.
In 1978, I was at the San Diego General Assembly, having been at every General Assembly since 1971, when I went as a Youth Advisory Delegate. And all along that way, both in college and in seminary, I both observed and participated in that struggle as a woman called to be ordained in the Presbyterian Church. 1978 was the first assembly I attended as a clergywoman, newly ordained. I felt that I had arrived.
It was at that assembly, on the floor of that assembly, that one of the most contentious, uncivilized debates about homosexuality occurred. And as I sat in the bleachers and listened to what was being said about brothers and sisters in the faith, it was the same thing that had been said about all of my sisters in the faith – things about cultural norms and Biblical principles – and I realized so suddenly and so clearly that this was all one thing. You know they say women don’t have good spatial ability. Whatever. What we do know is that women are very good at connecting the dots, making the connections and seeing this big picture. I recently saw a statistic that 85% of clergywomen in the PC (USA) support the ordination of called and gifted gay and lesbian persons.
Now, in my neck of the woods, which is Milwaukee, Wisconsin, we live among the Roman Catholics, who recently added four saints to their long list of saints. One of their criteria is that a saint work miracles. Presbyterians have a bit different understanding. We are more egalitarian about who we regard as saints, and we like to celebrate our living saints who are passionate, persevering, and patient – like Saint Margaret.
Margaret Towner is my spiritual mother, truly. I have called her that for many years. In November 1977, the hand that pushed open the door was laid on my head. That’s what we Presbyterians call apostolic succession. Margaret has mothered me, mentored me, and befriended me. She is part of Milwaukee Presbytery’s great and proud story of women’s ordination in the Presbyterian church. The first woman elder in a Presbyterian church was at the Wauwatosa Presbyterian Church, near Milwaukee, and the pastor of that church is here today. Lois Stair from our presbytery was elected the first woman moderator of the General Assembly in 1971. Margaret Towner ministered in the Presbytery of Milwaukee for 17-1/2 years until her retirement. She was our presbytery’s candidate for moderator in 1981, when we were marking the 25th anniversary of women’s ordination, and that year served the church as its vice-moderator.
Margaret is one plucky woman. She continues to be actively involved in her presbytery. She is Honorably Retired, and honorably untiring. Please welcome warmly the Rev. Dr. Margaret Towner.
I suffer from dry eyes, or I’d be crying.
We’re going to do an interview as a way of Margaret telling her story today and do this on a question-answer basis. If we have time, some of you may have a question afterwards; and if we don’t have time, there’s workshop this afternoon and we can continue the conversation there.
Margaret, I think the obvious question is, when and how did you first sense a call to ministry?
I think a real sense of call to the ministry came probably most strongly just before I went to seminary. I’d been to college and majored in pre-med and was working at the Mayo Clinic, and then went back to Syracuse to do some work in audiovisual education and thinking about medicine, and got to working in the churches. I’d grown up in the Presbyterian Church, so it wasn’t new to me; but I had a rather grade-school faith, and it wasn’t terribly strong. And other things in my family life had turned me off a little bit for awhile.
I got involved in the churches in Syracuse, and gradually assisting at one of the churches, East Genesee. The pastor there happened to be chair of the Candidates Committee for the Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery. And then my home pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Syracuse, where I also gave a hand and helped them in the summertime, even doing secretarial work when the secretary was ill, said, “Why don’t you explore ministry?” I really hadn’t thought about it. They said, “You know we have a Scattergood Fellowship at First Presbyterian Church in Syracuse, for the exploration of ministry at Union Theological Seminary, New York. Wouldn’t you like to take advantage of that?” So I thought, Well, maybe that is where I should go.
I went to Union Seminary, and that first semester I really had some epiphany experiences through the students that I met and some of my professors, and reading some rather thoughtful books, Bob Brown’s [Robert McAfee Brown’s] book on P.T. Forsyth especially. And the call really began to deepen, and I said, This is where I belong. And that’s really how I received my call, and I’m continually receiving the call.
Margaret, what was it like to be a woman in seminary in the 1950s?
I think that my experience as a woman in seminary, being in New York at an ecumenical seminary, was probably quite different from what I’ve heard it would have been like at Pittsburgh, or even Louisville or at Union in Richmond or Princeton. We had an ecumenical seminary, and some of my women classmates were women of the United Church of Christ, the Congregational Christian Church; there were American Baptists, who were ordaining women not long before we did; there were United Methodist Church women who were right on the verge of being ordained; they were also the Congregational Christian UCC women.
It was a mixed bag. It depended on the community that the students and the faculty came from. Now the Episcopalians were rather cold to the idea, and the faculty were rather cool to my being there. They tolerated us. There were about four of us Presbyterians who were aspiring to become clergypersons. My committee in Syracuse, under which I went under call, urged me to take the Bachelor of Divinity course. They had a vision that it was going to happen, and they were more visionary than some of the other clergy in the presbytery and some of the other clergy in the Presbyterian Church. They urged me to take the full Bachelor of Divinity which has been committed down to M.Div.
There were a number of faculty members who were terribly encouraging and supportive of me. When I became confused, I went in to my professor, Dr. John Bennett, who was my adviser. He was of the UCC, Congregational Christian. I said, “You know, Dr. Bennett, maybe I don’t belong here. I’m really confused by the way some of my classmates, mostly the male classmates – the questions they were asking and some of the ways they were debating.” He simply said to me, “Margaret, maybe it’s not you that’s confused.” That was an encouragement to me, and he was a great support, as well as Bob Brown.
I would say for the most part there was great support in the seminary for me, including Dr. Van Dusen, who I learned had a great deal of respect for me because I went in and told him a few things that I felt were not right at the seminary, including bringing in “tall steeple” pastors to talk to us in the President’s Class about ministry. We’d hear McCracken and we’d hear Buttrick and we’d hear Sockman and so on; and finally I went in and said, “Dr. Van Dusen, how many of my classmates are going to go into a Christ Church or a Riverside Church or a Madison Avenue Church right out of seminary?” – Sockman being the exception. I said, “You know, I can’t be ordained yet; but most of them are going to be going out into smaller communities, and the experience will be different.” Well, lo and behold, two months later, he brought a young pastor in from the middle of rural Ohio to speak to the class. And then when I couldn’t be ordained, I could be commissioned; and I was commissioned as a church worker. I invited Dr. Van Dusen to preach the sermon, which he gladly agreed to do, and came to Syracuse.
As we become newly familiar with the ordination process, tell us how the ordination process for you started. I know that one of the figures involved was a saint whose name has been raised up here this particular week, Eugene Carson Blake.
Yes, he got involved. Well, it all started I think because the Committee on Ministry, or the Committee on Candidates in Cayuga-Syracuse felt that the ordination of women was imminent, so they wanted me to think about ordination during the ‘55-‘56 year. They had kind of an interesting time. There were several of the pastors in the Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery who felt that ordination was right, and they wanted to invite me to come home to be ordained. There were a good number of pastors who were against the ordination of women. And so during the year, my home pastor and a few others invited the other pastors who were doubtful to come and play golf. They said, “Let’s invite them to play a round or two of golf, and let’s let them win, and then we’ll talk about ordaining Marg.”
It’s all about power.
It’s all about power. The overture on ordination was passed in May in 1956 and in June, my home pastor invited me to come home to be ordained. I had been examined, most of the ordination examination at commissioning; so all I had to do was go back in September, preach a sermon, and get voted in. So that’s how it happened.
And they needed to make it sure everything was done decently and in order.
Oh yes, decently and in order. And then events began to happen. When October came, I came back up about the 23rd and I was greeted at home by my mother who said, “You know, you’re having an awful lot of phone calls here, wondering if you’re the first.” And I said, “I have no idea and I doubt if I am, because there are a number of women who are prepared.” So the news media began to call my home pastor, Bill McConaghy, and Bill said, I don’t know, so they called Eugene Carson Blake [then the Stated Clerk]. Well, Gene Blake did all of the research that he could, and I think he lost most of his hair over this. He did the research and found out that no presbytery had recorded the ordination of any women. So of course then it hit the fan of media and went on from there.
But it was all orderly, so no one could challenge.
It was orderly, and all of the questions were extremely orderly, out of the old, old Book of Common Worship.
Margaret, we’ve been celebrating this 50th anniversary all year through 2006. The actual date was October 24, 1956, just a few weeks ago. What do you remember about that day?
Well, I remember of course the confusion that surrounded whether or not I was to be the first – that was number one. And then when all of the excitement began to gather, I remember sort of being in a fog – Is this happening to me? what’s going on? I just followed what people told me to do, and I got to the church on time. My mother borrowed a robe from a pastor in Syracuse that was reasonably short, and some of the other women hemmed it up, and we went through the service. And I was just awed at all of the attention that was given to me. The pastors and the choir that I was working with in Allentown, Pennsylvania, all came up to Cayuga-Syracuse and participated in the service, which was great.
One of the big things that surprised me was that Life magazine sent Alfred Eisenstadt, who was one of the lead photographers for Life, up to cover my ordination. He came up to my mother’s apartment and asked her, “Where’s the banquet?” And she said, “Right here.” “Right here?” He was very gracious and you hardly knew he was around.
A story I’ve told everybody is that the Methodists stole the show that night, because a fire destroyed the sanctuary of the First Methodist Church that night just before I was to be ordained. Eisenstadt said he knew the Presbyterians were all fired up about this event, but they thought that was going a little too far. But he thought it was nice to have such a warm welcome. As I look back on it, I think that I was over-awed and overwhelmed at that point because of all that attention.
The United Methodists are marking the same anniversary this year, 1956. Fifty years ago this week, that edition of Life magazine was on the newsstand. Unfortunately, Margaret didn’t make the cover; Rosalind Russell was on the cover in a feather boa, starring in Mame. And on the inside pages was Margaret Towner in her robe being ordained. One more thing about that ordination service –Margaret discovered the tape and you now have it, right?
Yes, taped by the radio station. I had it. It was a reel tape, plastic, and we weren’t sure that it wouldn’t fall apart. My mother had kept it and it had been up in the storeroom among all the papers and magazine that she had saved and I still had stored. I found it this year, and nobody would touch it down in Sarasota. But the clerk of session in Syracuse said that she would try to find a company that would take the tape and put it on disc. She did and it is now on disc.
I’m eager to listen to it. The three hymns that were sung that night were “Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation,” “Now Thank We All our God,” and it ended with “Come Labor On.”
And the sermon title has always intrigued me, because it was called “The Business of Preaching.” And that was not to be your business as an ordained minister.
Nor was the pastor that preached it really convinced that women should be ordained. But that was another power thing, I think, that I discovered I must have done rather innocently, inviting those two pastors to come and participate in the service.
It’s like that golf game strategy.
I never preached in that pulpit, incidentally.
Where did your support and encouragement come from in those days, and where else did some of the opposition come from?
The support came, first of all, my mother always asked me, “Are you sure this is what you want to do?” She kept jabbing and saying, “Now, be sure this is what you want to do.” Support came from family. Support came from the pastors in Syracuse that I had worked with. Herb Schroeder, East Genesee Presbyterian, for whom I had done some youth work before I went to seminary, was extremely supportive and has always been supportive all over the years. And Bill McConaghy, Jim Harris, all of those pastors, and Dr. Walter Cavert of the Synod of New York, and a good many people that I can’t think of. Of course, there were a goodly number of people at the Board of Christian Education who were supportive at that time. And other members of the family and some of my friends were really very encouraging and supportive. I think the greatest support at that time came from the pastors that had nurtured me in Syracuse and the friends there.
Probably the opposition came still from some pastors that really were not sure. I don’t know whether they weren’t sure because they were feeling threatened. I tried in the early years not to push the idea that we were going to push them out of the pulpit. That’s why I stayed with the education ministry for a number of years. I know some of my clergy sisters were not happy with me, with my rather gentle approach, because they thought I should be more aggressive. But I felt that the slow gentle approach was the best way to help build bridges and let people get to know me. I did that through education, and gradually became less of a threat to pastors. And then when I moved to Michigan, I had lots of opportunities for sharing in the pulpit and preaching, and finally did some changing in terms of my orientation and feeling of call.
When Jesus sent out his disciples in that wonderful gospel story, there’s the certain equipment in the bag. Your home church gave you a set of encyclopedias for your ordination, and your mom gave you a robe. Once you knew you were the first, and you were ordained, did you have a sense that you were doing pioneering work?
Yes, I think so. I had a real sense of needing to try to forge a way for others. That’s why I did it in a gentler way, because I felt once people got to know us, got to know me, and then got to know other women who were following, and see their skills…. I’ll tell you this, those of you that are following me are far smarter than I am. You’re brilliant, and I think it’s wonderful to see that in our seminaries we have so many women, and so many of them are taking the prizes in preaching and theology and history. It’s really exciting to see that kind of interest and skill, but more especially the beginning of real partnerships, rather than saying, “Well, she’s a woman and we don’t have women do certain things.” It still happens, but now we’re seeing that people are forgetting whether we’re men or women. We’re pastors, and we’re beginning to relate to that.
Opposition still comes from women, and it is still a struggle. I recently had a letter from a daughter of one of my church school teachers, for whom I had sent a memorial gift to the church when their mother passed away. She wrote me a letter. She said, “I’ve waited several weeks to do this, but I needed to do this for forgiveness, and for my feeling.” She said, “You know, I was always embarrassed and hurt by the way my other treated you so badly, and how jealous she was of you as a woman pastor; she didn’t accept women pastors.” She said, “Thank you for sending the gift, because you have shown me forgiveness.” That gal said, “Finally a few years ago, mother changed her mind and endorsed me as I became a pastor in the United Church of Christ.”
Margaret, you stood for moderator in 1981 and served as vice-moderator that year when we were marking the 25th anniversary of women’s ordination. What were some of the special things that you were asked to do that year?
Well, it was a wonderful year. I think I traveled as much as my seminary classmate Bob Davidson did. The particular thing was that the General Assembly decided that since the two major Korean Presbyterian General Assemblies were considering the ordination of women, I should go to Korea to represent the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church (USA), along with Dotty Barnard of the Southern Presbyterian Church. So we had the “Dotty and Marg” act, she as an elder and I as a clergy person. We spoke at Church Women United, we spoke at seminaries, and we spoke at the two General Assemblies that year. It was exciting, because I got a chance to tour some of the mission work and some of the churches, and preach in some of the churches in Korea. My dear friend Syngman Rhee was my mentor, and In Sik Kim was Dotty Barnard’s guide and mentor. I had to give Syngman my sermons and talks, and he said, “Margaret, you’ve gotten to shorten these. They’re not going to understand this, and besides they won’t understand your jokes.” So he helped me and I had a great time. They did not vote to ordain women that year, but they did just a few years later.
You’ve been a mentor and a spiritual mother to many clergywomen. Why has that been important to you? And I hope in your answer that you’ll include that wonderful story about Lilian Hert Alexander’s words to you.
Twenty-five years ago at Syracuse, Lilian Hert Alexander came to that [anniversary] celebration. I had met her when I was ordained, but it had been twenty-five years and I hadn’t quite remembered.
Let’s remind people who she is.
Lilian Hert Alexander is the overture lady of the Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, New York, who became incensed that the daughter of a friend of hers could not be ordained to preach the gospel. She is the one that started the overture from the Presbytery of Rochester, and then the presbytery, after a long debate, sent it along to the General Assembly in 1954, and it had quite a long term of debates. Lilian Hert was – I think she was the mother of all of us. She told me in Syracuse, “You know I am your mother, and I want you to consider all of the clergywomen subsequently as your daughters.” So you are all my spiritual daughters. That is one of the great celebrations of the 25th anniversary, thanks to Lilian.
She gave me that charge, that was number one. But also because I am committed to the fact that men and women both need to partner and work together, and wherever there is a young person that is even thinking about ministry, I like to talk with them. The latest person that I’ve had a chance to sort of mentor came about because when I’d go back to Michigan for a month in the summer time, one of my former senior high’s said, “You’ve got to meet Katie; Katie is thinking about going to seminary.” For several years I would have lunch with Katie, and Katie would be questioning: “Well, I know I want to go to seminary, but where shall I go?” Her pastor at that time was trying to get her to get to Yale. I said, “You know, you ought to visit all of them. Visit Princeton, visit McCormick, visit Union Seminary in New York. Because of your interest in outreach in inner-city ministries, I think you might find Union New York to your liking.” So Katie went to Union and was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament last year, and in March I preached the charge to her at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. Katie Givens Kime. I think you might remember her mother came to McCormick.
How many daughters do you have now?
I don’t know, there’s over 4,500-4,600.
It’s become obvious to many that this story of ordination and the church looking at ordination standards – who shall be ordained? what are the gifts? who qualifies? – is a long and difficult story. What do you see are some of the insights for the place where the church finds itself today? What do you think we can learn from your story as we go forward?
I thought about this a little bit, and I think one of the things that I would really say is patience. Patience and caring and love and showing people who we are as persons, that we are servants of Jesus Christ. That’s the most important thing, whether we’re male or female or whatever we are. I think patience and helping people get to know our skills and our faith is what I feel is important. I do feel that several years ago, well, I personally was rather turned off by some of the demonstrations that happened at General Assemblies. I think that that did not help us to build good bridges in the church. That’s my personal opinion; I know of people that disagree with me, but I really feel as I listen to people at General Assemblies and saw some of the marches and things and the way some of the people dressed, I heard the church being turned off, and I think that’s too bad.
What are your hopes for the Presbyterian Church (USA)?
Well, my hope particularly is peace. Right now we really need peace. And I tell you, I really am excited by the PUP Report and I’m excited by the Trinity Report. And I’m also excited by a book that Jack Haberer wrote, GodViews. In that book, I think Jack, who was a member of the PUP Task Force, shared how his vision changed and how the vision of a good many people change. And he brought up what I have always thought: we aren’t all left, we aren’t all right, we aren’t all middle. We need all of us. In his book he explains that the church, to be healthy – and this is my interpretation and Jack will forgive me if I’ve misinterpreted it – but there are five different ways by which we all come to view God or are called by God. One is the Confessionalist, who wants to make sure that we do things decently and in order and really study the scriptures and read it. Then the Devotionalist who is hungry to go out in prayer and devotion and so on, then the Ecclesiast, those of us who are elders and deacons and church school teachers and workers in the church and community. Then there are the Altruists, those who would go out and work in soup kitchens or help us get food pantries going, or go down to help with Katrina and so on; and then there are the Activists. Those are the ones who walked with Martin Luther King or who go out and demonstrate. No one alone is really making for a whole church, but all of us together make for the wholeness of the church. Let’s not say “they” and “us,” but let’s try to learn to talk to one another. I know this is real hard, but let’s try to do it.
Margaret, at your ordination it was said that the hope was expressed that you would be the shepherd of the flock and not their pet lamb. We thank you for being a shepherd and a guide.