How Constance Coltman ‘opened the door’ to ordination for women

Tessa 554x415Tessa Henry-Robinson has known disappointment and joy in her ministry with the United Reformed Church but it’s a journey through which she traces parallels with that of Constance Coltman, the first woman to be ordained in a British mainstream tradition 100 years ago.

Now training to be a Minister of Word and Sacraments, Tessa has a wide range of interests and commitments as part of the URC’s BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) community. However, on first candidating for ordained ministry eight years ago, she was not successful and her sense of loss was deep: ‘It wasn’t easy but Constance, too, had issues to deal with when she decided that she wanted to be allowed to train for ministry. This led her down a path of finding the courage, spiritually, to fight for the chance to be heard. That was something I had to learn too.’

Tessa, one of 10 children, was baptised a Methodist in freshly post-colonial Trinidad and Tobago – even though her Church context was a largely Roman Catholic (RC) one: ‘My mother really felt that the Roman Catholic system offered better schooling so that’s how I ended up with both Methodism and Catholicism in my life. Pentecostalism was also an influence from my maternal grandmother and it was through her that I heard lots of stories and songs about Jesus when I was quite young.’

The family went to church fairly regularly – also attending a Methodist church for Easter and Christmas and a Roman Catholic church for special services. ‘I had already decided that I was not going to be a practising Roman Catholic but a turning point in my faith came during the confirmation service for my two younger sisters. I remember sitting next to my father while it was going on and I was so caught up in the service.

‘I said: “Do you feel that daddy?” He said: “No, not really but if it is something you want to talk about, let’s do that later.” He understood what I was experiencing but he wasn’t keen for that experience to be in the Roman Catholic tradition, perhaps he thought I would be pulled away into a nunnery! But from that point on, I did need to attend to this “thing” I was feeling.’

After marriage to Mark at the age of 20, Tessa continued to go to church and explore what God was saying while working in various countries and starting a family. She had previously been involved in community education and development, with teaching and hands-on work in Brazil, Ghana, Liberia and London. As a couple, she and Mark lived in Trinidad and Tobago, England, the US and Brazil where Tessa returned to her search. ‘I don’t know if it was about “church” at all for me; it was more about connecting with God in many ways in my life. “Church” for me was about baptising the children. My life was centred on prayerfulness and spirituality, not about finding a church. It was only when we moved to Brazil that I became acutely aware of needing something constant, a God I could call on myself – not through a priest or anyone else.’

On returning to the UK, through God’s guidance, the family ended up worshipping in two places in South East London – St Andrew’s United Reformed Church in Brockley, where Mark attended while Tessa attended Christ Church in Bellingham. So a relationship between both churches developed. At these congregations, the welcome was very different but we were “home”. My move into the Reformed tradition, via the URC, allowed me the freedom to believe in a God with whom I could have a direct relationship rather than a God who was not readily accessible to me.’

Personal and professional challenges along the way spurred Tessa on to new ventures: ‘I began to realise that God is not necessarily to be found in every situation, decision and encounter. The reality is that some situations are simply unjust, oppressive and prejudicial, and God is none of these things. Therefore, those types of situations ought to be challenged, and I believe this is what Constance Coltman did very well. Being a woman seeking training for ordained ministry at a time when only men were doing so, was certainly a turning point not only in Constance’s life, but also in the life of the Reformed tradition.’

Tessa is a gifted academic and, after completing a Master of Arts in Professional Community Education and Development, she was later awarded a Postgraduate Diploma in Pastoral Theology and a Postgraduate Diploma in Professional Research. Professional Doctoral studies in Practical Theology were to follow. But her calling to ordained ministry stems back to a much earlier time and how she felt when her grandmother read and talked to her about the Bible and Jesus’ ministry. It was a call that re-emerged when Tessa worked with young people in Liberia. ‘I had a strong sense that I had that call,’ says Tessa, ‘but I didn’t know how to articulate that.’

A major challenge came when she candidated for ministry in 2008 and was turned down at the assessment conference a year later. ‘Westminster College proved to be a saving grace for me, John Proctor was my tutor then and he provided great care, pastoral space and a listening ear which was very, very helpful. It was also a difficult and sad time personally because my mother had become very ill and I returned to Trinidad and Tobago to be with her for the last three months of her life.’

As a member of the United Reformed Church’s Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic (BAME) community, Tessa was one of a small core of women invited by the Revd Michael Jagessar, Secretary for Racial Justice and Multicultural Ministry (RJMM) – now Global and Intercultural Ministries - to form a group to empower and encourage other BAME women in the URC.

Tessa, by then studying for her doctorate in Practical Theology, was ready for the task and, from this, Cascades of Grace (COG) was formed. ‘Constance Coltman recognised the need to confront and change the existing mindset of her day; this is something that denominations are still grappling with in 2017. Cascades of Grace is also attempting to change mindsets and – by actively working with Global and Intercultural Ministries – we aim to become more visible and audible in the life of the denomination. Like Constance, we actively re-negotiate for a space “around the table”.

‘In challenging the system all those years ago, Constance directly changed things for women. She might not have realised it, but she started an all-out fight against oppressive and stereotypical hindrances to women’s ministry. Cascades of Grace needs to continue this with a difference emphasis today.’

Looking ahead, Tessa is hoping for a future where women will not be up against different processes and possibilities from men and that BAME women will have a place at the URC’s “table” of leadership and decision making. ‘As black, Asian and ethnic minority women, I also hope we don’t forget why we want to make ourselves audible and visible. We should always be bringing our differences, who we really are, and – when we get to the table – we shouldn’t just morph into being the same as everyone else.

‘If “daughters of dissent” are to hold true to that name, we have truly got to be persistent dissenters until what we are fighting for just becomes the norm’. To be a dissenter for me, today, centres on inclusivity and embracing difference – and to call people back to that. Constance came from such a background of privilege that she is an unlikely “saviour” for women fighting for ordination and within the BAME community we have people from all walks of life; though they may be perceived as underdogs. Some of us – like Constance – have not lived disadvantaged lives and, even though we have been up against the traditional systems and ways of working, we have navigated them quite well!

‘All of us should celebrate Constance’s determination in forging ahead, despite the obstacles put in front of her. She is an integral part of the tradition’s enabling legacy and while I am not sure that this was her intention, the fact is that her actions slowly began to make waves. It is not up to anyone to suggest that the world is not ready “for the likes of us”. If Constance had thought like that, ordination for women would have been further delayed in the Reformed tradition in the UK. She opened the door for the rest of us.’