Who was the first British woman ordained as a church minister?

CONSTANCE COLTMAN 1889 – 1969

On the day before her marriage to Claud Coltman in September 1917, Constance Todd was ordained as a minister in the Congregational Church, now part of the United Reformed Church.

After studying History at Oxford and also gaining a degree in Divinity, Constance was the first British woman ordained into a mainstream church. The newly-weds were appointed as assistant ministers at Kingsweigh House, the main Congregationalist church at the time in London, working particularly at the Derby Street Mission in the East End where Constance was the preferred minister for christening babies. Acknowledging that there was prejudice against women Constance was adamant that there was nothing that couldn’t be overcome and that the joint ministry between her and her husband facilitated this.

On January 1st 1922, the couple were appointed jointly as ministers of the Greville Place Congregational Church in Maida Vale. This was the first joint ministry within the church and described in a newspaper as a “conjugal cure of souls”. A few months into their new ministry, Constance re-wrote the marriage service. She excluded the word “obey” and had both bride and groom exchanging rings and using the same form of words to each other. Some of the family of the first couple to be wed with the new service were concerned that it wasn’t legal and consulted the Registrar General whose assistant reassured them that as long as the minister was licensed to conduct marriages and the service included the words “I take thee to be my lawful wedded wife (or husband)” all was in order.

In 1924 Constance and Claud became joint ministers at the Cowley Road Congregational Church in Oxford. Claud told a “Daily Chronicle” newspaper reporter that he and his wife were the only married couple who were ministers but that one other, unmarried, woman had been ordained into the Congregational Church and was in charge of her own church.

Constance was very supportive of other women joining the ministry and spoke to meetings and conferences on the subject. In 1928, at her own church in Oxford, she organised a conference for women ministers of the Unitarian, Baptist and Congregational churches, the only churches which accepted women ministers. Even so, the report in the newspaper couldn’t resist pointing out that the majority of the women wore, along with their academic dress, light stockings and short skirts and had their hair shingled.

Although she encouraged women to become ministers, Constance herself held joint ministries with Claud for the whole of her working life.

Photo credit: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons