A sermon by the Revd Dr Susan Durber:
Today we are celebrating two of the saints in particular while we gather among all the saints. We are celebrating a woman called Constance who was the first woman to be ordained in a British Christian church, 100 years ago today. And we are celebrating a little boy called Leo, who has been baptised today, which is even more important, more fundamental, than being ordained. In these two stories we see how God welcomes and renews people of all kinds, bringing us into his service for the sake of the world.
Constance, like Leo, was once baptised. I wonder what those who brought her for baptism were thinking on that day. Did they wonder how her life would turn out, what she would do with this most precious gift of life? They could hardly have imagined that, against the odds, she would be ordained as a minister in 1917 and serve the church in places as different as Mayfair and the Cowley Road in Oxford, and secure a place in history. Did they think carefully about her name and hope that she would be given the gifts associated with it? She was, in some ways, a lion among women, so might have suited a name like Leo. And who knows what Leo’s life will bring and whether he might be constant, faithful, and good – or whether one day he might, like Constance be ordained or be a pioneer in his own way – who knows? But what Leo and Constance have in common is that they are both ‘firsts’; the first woman to be ordained, and a first child… both bringing radical new beginnings for a family and for the church, both unique creations of God, the first one like themselves in the whole of humanity. What a gift to us!
I suspect that, if Constance was the kind of woman I want her to have been, she wasn’t reflecting all day on that day in 1917, that she was ‘the first woman’. I hope she was preparing herself for a life of service within the church. But there must have been so many times, even on quite ordinary days, and out of the blue, when someone reminded her that she was ‘the first’.
For all of us as for Constance and Leo, our own story, the story of what our lives becomes, does not entirely belong to us, that we all of us ‘mean’ more than we think we do to others. We honour Constance today in a way that, I imagine, she would never have expected. We name and celebrate the extraordinary significance of her life and we discover how our own lives might be signficant too. I suspect that sometimes the whole being ‘the first’ thing, being a pioneer, became a burden for her as much as it was a joy, because it doesn’t end, it’s never finished, there are always more people who have not heard the story yet, who do not know, who haven’t yet experienced what you bring. There are always people for whom you are – in whatever way – ‘the first’.
In my own ministry, as I’m sure in many of your lives, there have been times when I was a kind of ‘first’. I can remember times when I was the only woman at an ecumenical gathering, or the ‘first’ to occupy a partiuclar place or role. I was the first woman to be a Principal of Westminster College, though of course the story of that college is founded on two magnificant lay women much more remarkable than me. When a group of women wanted to take my photo to ‘take home’ as proof that a woman could be a college Principal, I knew that I had to overcome my shyness of the camera – that it was important to be brave and bold and proud. But the most significant kinds of ‘firsts’ are not perhaps always the most obvious.
But, I think that whoever we are, and whether or not we are ministers, there will be those moments when we can be a first. When someone says, ‘You know, this is the first time anyone has really listened to me.’ Or, ‘I now know that God loves me, as I didn’t know it before.’ Or ‘This is the first time I’ve really known what it means to follow Jesus Christ’. Or, ’So this is what it’s like to be alive and to know that God is real.’ There are moments in all our lives when we are given the gift of being ‘the first’ for someone, the gift of breaking through the layers of doubt and pain or just dull every day plodding to find that gift of life that waits to greet us with a new day, the first day of a new kind of life.
Rowan Williams once said, stating the kind of obvious thing that is also life-changing, that ‘we are the early Church’. There is something inevitably ‘early’ about being a Christian, something that says you are ‘first up’ at the moment when light dawns (metaphorically at least!). Being a Christian is about returning again and again to the beginning and being renewed. It’s not about being late (in the sense of dead), but about being early (in the sense of belonging to the light and living as though new born). Being a Christian, the life and hope for which we minister, is about being there at the first, as the new light of life breaks. The moments when that can happen in your life, or when you can be with people as that happens in their lives, whether that’s at a birth or a baptism or the first day of school, or at a death or on an Easter Sunday celebration, those moments are truly what it means to be ‘first’. And this is a great and beautiful privilege. I am sure that this is something that Constance knew as she ministered in different places and churches – and I’m sure that it is something that Leo’s parents will know as he grows up and shares his life with them. Being ‘the first’ in this sense is the fabric of our lives. Finding for the first time the healing and hope we need, or being able to offer it to others. Welcoming those moments of renewed life that God brings to us. Holding hands with people as they wake up for the first time, or for the second first time, to new life.
I can remember deeply moving moments in my own life when I knew someone had found something for the ‘first’ time. When I went to India with Christian Aid and shared a family home for a few days, I met a woman who could not read, who had not ever travelled more than a few miles from her home and who endured a violent marriage. For her it was a first time to meet women who could travel without husbands, who could ask questions, eat at the same time as the men and had the freedom to take action in the world. She told me of her ambitions for her grandchildren, that they should be the first generation, especially the girls, to have a fuller life. She wanted them to be the ‘first’ in her family. She and her family changed my understanding for ever, and our visit changed hers too. I can think of people I know now who are taking first steps to finding their own worth after a bruised childhood and a traumatic beginning. There are so many ways in which, even 100 years on, from the ordination of a woman in a British church, our churches and our communities are still shaped by the distorted view of humankind that leaves many people feeling that they are ‘second’ or even ‘last’. We need to tell Constance’s story to inspire us all to put those people ‘first’ and to transform a church and world that still today has this so wrong. Fighting for the ordination of women, for women who can preach the word and break the bread, only really makes sense if its part of fighting for a world in which all God’s people can eat fresh bread, treasure their own bodies, cast their votes, learn skills and make their own decisions. Constance used her privilege as an educated and ordained woman, as a minister of the Gospel, to work in poor communities, where people needed to be lifted from the last place, or the second place, to be first..
In the story of God’s good news that we tell, women have often been ‘first’. It was a woman who welcomed the presence of God into her flesh to be born among us. It was women who challenged Jesus to take God’s love out to the Gentiles, because we also are children of God’s creating and love. It was women who were the first to be given the Gospel to proclaim, in fear and in joy. Constance Coltman was one of these ‘first’ women. As well as beginning something new, she stands in a great line of tradition, of those who learned and dared to be ‘first’, a line which we can join too, even a hundred years on.
Constance’s Presbyterian parents didn’t know what their baby would do with her life, or that so many years ahead she would be feted as she is being today. Today, you can buy mugs with a quotation from her, and T-shirts and pens! I do think they chose a great name for a pioneer, a great name for a Christian. To be constant, to be faithful, to endure, is what many of us will need if we are to go on being ‘firsts’. Following Christ is not just for the one day, but is a lifetime’s journey, a journey full of first and second and third days.. The great African American poet, Maya Anglou, when someone told her they were a Christian said ‘Already?’. For her, being a Christian isn’t a one day party, but a commitment for life and a promise for life of God’s constant accompaniment and love. Constance was a first, but she endured through decades of ministry. Constance was a first, but she gave her energy and commitment to mentoring those who would come next. Constance was a first, but she drew on the best of the past to create something new for the future. And this is the first day of Leo’s baptism into the love of God, into the community of faith. Today there will be a party for him, as for Constance, and who knows what people will celebrate in him over the years to come, and what he will bring to the world?
So thanks be to God for Constance Coltman, servant of the Christ who was the first one of a new humanity and who continues to renew his people, his sisters and his brothers. And thanks be to God for Leo, first child, first baptised, first day of a new life. And praise be to God for all of you, for everyone here, because I believe that you are all first in God’s heart. And I believe that God has the heart of a Leo and a love that is constant. Thanks be to God. Amen.