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Set apart, then set aside

50 years later, an apology

By Donna Sinclair

When Ina Cavers graduated from Winnipeg's Knox College in 1929, she already knew she was getting married, so she never went through the ceremony that "set apart" many of her classmates as deaconesses. The 97-year-old, now in London, Ont., looks back on it without a tinge of regret. She "just accepted" the rule that you could not be both married and a deaconess. "If I had married someone other than a minister," she says, "I would have felt badly. But I felt I was still carrying on the work. They needed both of us."

Now, however, the United Church plans to apologize to women like Cavers and others who, until the mid-1950s and beyond, were not permitted to serve in paid and accountable positions in the church. The April meeting of the General Council Executive will include a special service of apology.

Women were affected by the old policy in various ways. Some studied at seminary, but -- unlike their male classmates -- were not ordained if they chose to marry. Some studied at the United Church Training School in Toronto and became deaconesses, but were required to "disjoin" -- give up their uniform, hand in their pin, and leave the order -- after the wedding.

Most -- especially those who, like Cavers, married clergy -- served the church with all their heart and skills anyway. They just weren't paid for it. "I just did the best I could wherever I was," says Cavers, unfazed even by memories of the Depression, when her husband's salary was uncertain. "We got through. It was a great life."

But time passed. Women's identities changed. Ruth Lang of Oakville, Ont., graduating later from the training school, was less accepting. "Set apart" as a deaconess in 1952, she married in 1955, and that year attended the order's national gathering. "Mrs. Campion was head of it," recalls Lang, "and I was stood up and she said she would like the pin back. I told her she wasn't getting it back, it belonged to me." Lang chuckles. She still has her pin, she says, "which I wear on rare occasions."

Evidence that women's roles were shifting is found in a report in support of married women working outside the home that was accepted by the General Council in 1962. But the same Council also recommended young married women not be ordained; and those who already were should be suspended while they were pregnant or had young children.

Very Rev. Lois Wilson, who went on to become the first woman elected as moderator of the United Church, graduated in 1950, but says she "didn't press my request for ordination" because she didn't want to be settled away from her ordinand husband, Rev. Roy Wilson. "I didn't see any point in marrying him and going somewhere else to live." Like others, though, she never looked back. "It was no great trauma," she says. "If the church didn't understand what a gift it was missing, that was its problem."

The 15 years between her graduation and eventual ordination were rich ones. As a layperson she pursued creative ventures like community television, keeping "one foot firmly in the community and the other in the institutional church," a stance she has never forsaken. When her children were older, she was ordained and settled in Thunder Bay, Ont. with Roy. "So I had to wait for some time," she says philosophically.

"I just did what was at hand." Meantime, the church was getting the message. Ruth Lang became a deaconess again in the 1970s. Her friend Dorothy Mundle of Calgary, made a deaconess in 1959, married a few years later without losing her status. When she stopped working (with young children, living in the United States with her husband) she was "automatically off the list." Later a letter to Presbytery reinstated her easily, so "it wasn't an issue for me." While Mundle approves of the apology, especially for earlier women church workers, she hopes those in charge of the confession "don't get too strung out about this."

Mundle sums up the attitude of many. Lang says that while at one point she did "feel like fighting," now "I think a lot of us are laughing about this apology. It's a good idea, but it's kind of late." And she has, in any case, enjoyed her life. "There's nothing like the church for variety."

Still, many who were disjoined reflect with concern on some who weren't, but paid a price nonetheless. The notion that women would work only for a short time, until marriage, meant those who never married (about half of the women commissioned) spent their working lives in a job perceived as secondary. Their wages reflected it.

Joyce Scott of Sydney, B.C., a deaconess who "took it for granted I would be crossed off" at her marriage, says the "whole struggle of women to be recognized in the church was going on at the same time [half a century ago]." She describes the dearth of female faces -- lay or clergy -- at Presbytery meetings. "We weren't the only ones getting kicked around." As a minister's wife, Scott was an active layperson. She has "no regrets" but she still thinks that she "would like the church to apologize" for the way her professional standing simply vanished. "I wasn't even told I was no longer in the order."

Like Scott and others quoted here, most of the women invited to April's Executive meeting (or Conference annual meetings later) for the special service continue, even now, to benefit the United Church. Cavers, for instance, attends worship regularly, visits, delivers bulletins and remains a constant student. "She is an incredible church member," says her minister, Rev. David McKane of London, Ont. "The strength of the United Church is in the calibre of faith-filled people like Ina Cavers."

Cavers herself regards all this with matter-of-fact contentment. Perhaps that is a hallmark of her generation. "When you come right down to it," she says, while it's "just nice to feel you had been set apart, you would have been serving no matter where you were." *

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