The Times They Are A-Changing

November 4, 2007
Rev. Janet H. Bowering, Guest Minister

A class in homiletics at Seminary rarely offers much in the way of rules for titles of sermons and I confess I sometimes wish I had the nerve (as do some colleagues) to refuse to provide one.

But it seems only fair when a topic is suggested, to create – or frame – one.

I discussed this with my granddaughter (a 25 year old teacher of special needs children) and she said, "Gram, ‘the times they are a changing'.  That covers you pretty well no matter what direction you take."

In my former parish, I'd established the custom of celebrating All Souls Sunday (the one nearest November 2nd) with a biographical sermon – one about a Great Soul.  After a time I decided that people heard enough about Channing, Parker, Murray, Ballou at other times.  I'd take the opportunity to tell the stories of Great Souls who had been all but forgotten.  It was a bit like my earlier story for all ages, "the glazier points people", mostly invisible and all but forgotten.  I've noticed even the pros need to be reminded.  Last Wednesday at a meeting of our UU Historical Society Board we were discussing the Annual Harvard Square Lecture – particularly how to increase attendance to hear a very fine lecturer.  In addition to special fliers someone suggested refreshments and we all agreed --  food and beverages would make it more of a social event – less formal and academic.  And, someone added;  If the topic was – Transcendentalism, add some background – orientation a bit about Theodore Parker for example – and I chimed in with "Yes, but not only that; how about a bit of bio on Fannie Farmer?" a second of puzzled silence and on e after the other board members laughed.  Of course, if we're adding food to make it more enjoyable – then credit the food lady.  After all at some of our church gatherings the food and drink are as enjoyable – and perhaps as memorable as the words!

This is probably the time to mention that I would like to find a way to credit the people – often but not always – women who do so much to inform, improve, stimulate, and direct some of our best service projects:  For example, some of you may know of Abby Peterson from a church here on the south shore,  Jamaica Plain.  She was active in the Alliance of Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Women ("The Alliance").  As an officer she was especially interested in a school established after the Civil War to educate white children in an isolated area north of Wilmington, North Carolina.  It was commonly known as Shelter Neck and the site of the first Unitarian church in the state.  It was a boarding school and provided not only practical – "home ec type " courses but (thanks to a refugee teacher from Europe) it offered more in academics including French and "fine Arts" preparing girls (who could manage it) for further schooling.  After she was widowed, Ms. Peterson moved down to Watha, NC and lived at the school, managing and teaching.  During the summer she returned to Massachusetts to raise money and recruit teachers.  She died following routine surgery in 1919 and the school closed soon after.

Here is a forgotten heroine!

And in the same vein let me mention another in the same state.  This time it's a Universalist project – a tiny congregation without a building in the western mountains.  Reverend Quillen Shinn helped construct a building in 1902 but the group languished until the Women's National Missionary Association of the Universalist Church stepped in to support it and find professional leadership for both a religious and social service project.  The representative to that remote region was Reverend Hannah Jewett Powell.  She had been born in a Maine logging camp, educated at Colby College and Crane Theological School.  She taught and did preaching along the Maine coast until recruited by the Women's National group to go to Inman's Chapel (yes there is a connection with the Inman of "Cold Mountain")

Here she made the church the center of community up and down the valley, weekly health clinics in a small dispensary, and evening classes in subjects from home canning to those needed for a high school equivalent diploma.  The local people built a parsonage/school known as Friendly House.  Here there were activities from square dances to local theater productions AND even movies in the thirties when electricity came to the valley.  Hanna – like Abby Peterson took time in the summer to round up help, money and teachers.  I talked to women in my congregation who recalled "Miz Hanna coming to visit in April or May and describing the pleasures of spending summers in the cool of the mountains and teaching grateful children and adults during their own summer vacations.

Here are two leaders – (and their helpers) that I see as neglected heroines and role models for the kind of social service that still needs to be done.

Now I've also heard a request to mention some differences as a woman in the ministry compared to 50 plus years ago.  I was ordained with my husband in January 1955 in the Outlaws' Bridge, North Carolina Universalist Church.  My husband had the full time church with salary including parsonage and "payment in kind" e.g., a cord or two of wood, garden produce, and hog meat.  The parsonage was built by the congregation (except for hiring a mason to do the chimneys).  It was wired for electricity – an act of faith for it took 7 more years of lobbying until the REA came through and the whole area finally had electricity.  For us it was telephones and after 4 ½ years we were a part of the system – very reassuring especially when the four corners were deserted.

I've been asked about problems in ministry.  I took the part-time pastorate at the Universalist Church 22 miles away in Kinston, a city of about 20-30 thousand – a small loyal congregation.  However, when I attended the clergy association meetings, I had three special problems.  One, I was a Universalist in a city of strong conservative churches.  Two, I was Yankee (and the Supreme Court decision on integration came just as we moved there – May of 1954).  Most of our people in both churches were pro-integration.  Three, I was a woman – and though there were women ministers in some Methodist and a few independent churches there were no others in the Kinston Clergy Association.

There were a few other questions such as the one from the UU Department of the Ministry:  "Do you wear a robe and if so why?"  I suppose there were some good arguments on either side but mine was obvious – I was seven months pregnant with our 2nd child and in those days most maternity clothes were rather cutesy.  I preached until three weeks before Diana was born and no one seemed disturbed.

Back in Massachusetts several years later I had another experience with appearance.  I'd performed a wedding in the Haverhill Church and many of the guests were not UU's.  While photos were being taken, an older gentleman with three, pre-teen children in tow came into my office and said.  "I just wanted my grandchildren to see a real lady preacher close up."  This was in the 1980's and I was no great novelty in the Haverhill area but I smiled, held out my arms like black wings and did a pirouette.  The kids seemed interested and I asked if this was the first time "up close".  They hesitantly said yes and the Grandfather admitted that there was an in-law who felt the marriage might not be valid.

I smiled remembering that Olympia Brown had faced this problem in the 1860's when she was minister in Weymouth and that the Reverends Mr. Leon and Mrs. Martha Jones had taken the same problem up with the Ontario provincial government when someone challenged her right to do weddings.

I am aware that clergy couples may be the best qualified to take on such challenges especially when they have much the same preparation and have been ordained together.

Quite often in the 19th Century women – often minister's wives did something similar to our Independent Study program and qualified for ordination and fellowshipping.  To anyone who might question such preparation I would remind them of the practical experience and the demanding routine of being a minister's spouse.  The job demands diplomacy, gracious PR skills, the ability to keep a confidence, the use of appropriate language, housekeeping skills, frugality, counseling skills, occasional judicious fibbing, good taste and on and on not forgetting kindness, patience and love even for the somewhat un-loveable.

I remember a jolly joker and hard worker – a man in the Exeter Church asking with a chuckle, "Hey Vin, when are you going to put your wife in the pulpit so we can hear a good sermon?"  I winced because I knew my husband had not been satisfied with his last sermon, AND, I didn't like the idea of my being "put in the pulpit" rather like a substitute in a horse race.

Not long after, a woman who had stopped at the parsonage to see my husband, had upon learning he was away, left a message with me adorned with a lot of caveats.  She remarked that she trusted me to deliver the message BUT wanted me to remember that I was "playing second fiddle and always would."

It was this attitude echoed by a number of respected male educators that began an attempt at a specialized category of parish administrators/assistants back in the late Twenties and Thirties.  I know St. Lawrence offered this and I'm sure several other schools of different denominations did as well.  I honor it as an important profession and the mainstay of many a church and minister.  BUT I think it was too gender specific and rarely received fair compensation (or perhaps I should say comparable).  In those days clergy rarely were paid commensurate with their education and responsibilities.  However there were a lot of women who settled quite happily in this administrative position and not only "kept things going" but saw the church/congregation through crises, improved (even salvaged) its reputation in bad times.  They sorted things out, soothed feelings and in short contributed pastoral care.

I speak from experience for during many parts of my married life – as an ordained minister without salary I did this and I know other spouses who did as well.  Most were not ordained though some had had Theological school training.  Some were especially good at music, at secretarial skills and of course Religious Education.  A few – a very few – held paid jobs using these skills in the church.  Most were volunteers – as are so many of you both male and female.  There are un-numbered jobs from receptionist to cook.  My point is, being able to put Reverend in front of your name – Reverend Doctor – to wear a robe or clerical collar – doesn't say it all.

The contributions of our early predecessors, women in the ministry, were distinct from the pastoral work of lay women in a few notable ways.  They projected an image that the church chose leadership without regard to gender (or, I hope, race, ethnic background, etc.).  They made scholarly presentations often on topics men did not choose (or feel qualified) to undertake.  They spoke on issues where lay women were rarely invited and on things like, suffrage they had the experience and voice and training (before the days of good PA systems) to be heard clearly by 500 people.  That is no small gift!

And so, in conclusion I honor my women colleagues, Olympia Brown, 1863 and those before as well as after her who bore the title Reverend and struggled for an education and acceptance and the sometimes grudging recognition of a difficult and complex task/job.  I mention the Reverend Edna Bruner, my inspiration and mentor who gave her entire life to this work.

And finally the unnamed women who did the work of ministry, assisting their spouses, holding up the church in bad times as well as good and loving not only the liberal ideals we support but loving the people as well.


The Rev. Janet Bowering is the retired minister and minister emerita of the Universalist Unitarian Church of Haverhill, MA. A graduate of St. Lawrence University and its Universalist School of Theology, she was ordained in 1955, six years before the merger of the Universalist Church of American and the American Unitarian Association. She received a degree of Doctor of Divinity in 1998 from Meadville Lombard. She celebrated fifty years in ministry at the General Assembly in Fort Worth. TX in 2005.