In celebration of the Presbyterian Jackie Robinson

I think of Margaret E. Towner as the Presbyterian Jackie Robinson. In 1956, she broke the gender line to become the first woman ordained as a pastor in our denomination.

She’s now 89 and still active in church work, including serving on a committee of Peace River Presbytery in Florida.

Some weeks ago I called her to talk about ordination of women because I was working on a piece for The National Catholic Reporter about the 40th anniversary of the July 29, 1974, ordination of the first female priests in the Episcopal Church. And I wanted to remind my Catholic readers that we Presbyterians beat the Episcopalians by about two decades.

Marg, of course, knew all about that so-called “irregular” ordination of the “Philadelphia 11” two years before the church formally changed its rules to allow for female priests. In fact, her mother, whom Margaret describes as “an ecumaniac,” attended that service because she was friends with one of the 11.

With almost 60 years of history of having female Presbyterian pastors (though for sure there has been a stained-glass ceiling that’s been difficult to break through at times), I wanted to know what she thought women had brought to the task of being teaching elders that was different from what men bring to the calling.

Her answer: “I think they have brought a perspective of real caring, patience — most of them have an awful lot of patience. I think they have brought real openness and an understanding of what was meant (by a New Testament passage) about visiting the prisoner. They bring compassion, a different kind of compassion, than some of the men do. I do think that lots of times women clergy have good deeper insights sooner than a lot of the male clergy do. And from the women I’ve heard preach, they bring a humanness to the sermons that lots of times I don’t see the men bringing.”

On the whole, I think she’s on to something, though I certainly have known male pastors every bit as nurturing, compassionate and insightful as female pastors. And I’ve known some female pastors — perhaps as a way to survive in a male-dominated world — who’ve been tough, direct and, in at least one instance, more cut-throat than any male pastor I’ve known.

So it’s hard to generalize, but our denomination today has a much, much richer and deeper talent pool for pastoral work than it did before Margaret Towner was ordained in Syracuse, New York, in 1956. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine where not only our churches but also our seminaries and our many affiliated efforts, including mission work, would be without the females who have followed Marg into the gospel ministry.

Nowadays, she says, “I think we’re almost there because we don’t see a lot of publicity about the ordination of clergy women any more. More and more we see an awful lot of capable women getting into ministry.”

The PC(USA) has been blessed that someone as calm, level-headed and insightful as Margaret Towner led this important parade — and still is marching in it.

Bill TammeusBILL TAMMEUS is an elder at Second Church in Kansas City, Mo., and former Faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Visit his “Faith Matters” blog. Read about his latest book. E-mail him at