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First woman ordained by Presbyterian Church reflects on 65th anniversary

The Rev. Dr. Margaret Towner featured on ‘A Matter of Faith’ podcast days before historic anniversary

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery ordained Margaret E. Towner the first woman minister of word and sacrament in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America on Oct. 24, 1956. (Photo courtesy of Presbyterian Historical Society)

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Maryland’s Takoma Park Presbyterian Church was getting ready to celebrate Christmas Eve, but leadership wasn’t quite sure what to do.

Then the church’s director of Christian Education, Margaret E. Towner, had an idea, inspired by a Christmas pageant her choir at the Congregational Church in Winnetka, Illinois, had presented when she was in high school.

The choir director didn’t like the idea. The senior pastor didn’t think anyone would come. But, with support from the session and membership, the pageant went on and the church was packed.

“That was a great success, and we had a wonderful thing,” Towner said. “It was mostly music, music with pantomime action, and some great hymns and anthems and stuff. And the music director actually liked it.”

The Christmas pageant was one of several stories Towner ended saying, “that’s something I wish that had been written down in my memoirs,” or something like that. But the Rev. Dr. Margaret Towner, the first woman ordained as a minister of word and sacrament in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, was putting those stories on the record in Thursday’s episode of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast.”

The episode dropped just three days before the 65th anniversary of her ordination on Oct. 24, 1956, by Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery in New York. While “A Matter of Faith” usually tackles several topics an episode, the Oct. 21 edition focuses solely on Towner and her stories.

Towner grew up active in the church, but did not feel called to ministry until later, she told co-host Simon Doong. Her first job was as a medical photographer at the Mayo Clinic, a job that lasted until Towner suffered poisoning from the darkroom chemicals photographers had to work with in those days.

She moved to Syracuse with her mother and had “a breakthrough” working with the Rev. Dr. Harry Taylor at First Presbyterian Church in Syracuse, who helped her deal with deep anger over her father’s infidelity and her parents’ divorce.

“Harry allowed me to express my anger,” said Towner, 96, who now lives in Florida. “He was a great supporter and counselor and got me help, helped get me on the road to health and to ministry.”

She started working for the church as a substitute secretary, and then began to help with youth ministry at a neighboring church.

“The more I got involved in that ministry, the more I began to sense a call,” Towner said, recalling encouragement from people like Taylor; the Rev. Herb Schrader, the chair of the Committee on Ministry for the Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery; and others. “They all said, ‘Marg, why don’t you kind of investigate ministry, because we think you would fit in there.’”

Towner recounted some of the men who doubted her and stood in her way, from fellow students at Union Theological Seminary in New York City to the senior pastor at one church who accused her of “hanky panky” with men in the church, to church leaders in the Indianapolis area who branded her a communist and told her to leave when she explained the church’s support of activist Angela Davis in the 1970s. But she lingered the longest on people, including many men, who supported her as she followed the uncharted path to ministry.

She recalled students at Union making comments asking what she was doing there, because at the time she could not be ordained, and saying she shouldn’t be there.

Towner went to see her advisor, the Rev. Dr. John Coleman Bennett, and told him, “Maybe I don’t belong here. I really don’t understand what some of these guys are saying. And Bennett said, ‘It’s not you, Marg. They don’t understand.’”

Over the years, Towner transitioned from counselee to counselor as she was a trailblazer for many women who followed her into ministry. “A Matter of Faith” co-host the Rev. Lee Catoe, who is gay, reflected on his own experience in recent years as the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to allow the ordination of people in the LGBTQIA+ community in 2010.

“As a lot of women are answering and responding to their calls, and a lot of queer folk are responding to their calls, I wonder if you have any kind of assurance or advice?” Catoe said. “What would you say to a lot of people out there who are tinkering with the idea of being in ministry?”

“Really investigate,” Towner said. “Align yourself with people who are in ministry and visit with them. Just like the medical field does, or other fields, shadow them … and get involved in some way to see if really that’s where you belong, and get into good dialogue and conversation, sharing your fears and your hopes and how you see the church because I know that the church has got to change. We are just not being as effective as we should.”

Towner said in 65 years, she has certainly seen progress with more women taking leadership roles in all levels of the church, though there are still many inequities, particularly when it comes to salaries.

“One thing I did observe in seminary and afterwards is that women worked harder, we excelled. I didn’t, but we excelled and worked harder than the men,” Towner said. “We did things with more vigor and detail, whereas it seemed like some of the men just thought, well, I just do what I could to get by, and that was it. But I think that women have won the prizes at seminaries now. They’re winning the preaching prizes, winning the theology prizes in the seminaries, so that they’re working more diligently and winning those things, working harder in their presentations.”

Click here to hear the entire “Matter of Faith” episode with the Rev. Dr. Margaret Towner.

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” is produced weekly by the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program and Unbound: An Interactive Journal on Christian Social Justice. New episodes are released on Thursdays and can be found here, or wherever you get podcasts.


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