Unsung Unitarian Women

by Margery MacKay

After a delicious Edinburgh Interfaith Community Meal at the Well Care, Nicholson Square, in April, two speakers contributed to the 'Women of Faith' series. They were Ishrat Hussnain, speaking on 'Bint ul Huda' and St Mark’s member, Margery Mackay, who spoke on the subject of ‘Unsung Unitarian Women’.

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Introduction

I was looking for an ordinary woman, not perfect, not a saint, not necessarily a mover and shaker; but a woman inspired by her faith to do something for her community and make a difference. These are the real ‘unsung’ women but it is difficult to obtain information about them and often they prefer to remain ‘Unsung’.

What I offer here are three short sketches of fairly modern Unitarian women who are comparatively, but not completely, unsung and who have inspired me. (You may already have read an article about Ann Peart, by Joan Cook, in the June edition of Waymark).

June Bell (1918-2010)

(Note 1) June was a Unitarian Lay-Leader, born in Sussex and raised as an Anglican. She was educated at Girton College, Cambridge reading Biology and later studying Medicine. Becoming a Unitarian at Cambridge freed her up, but it also took courage to move away from her family’s evangelical background. After she married, she moved to Edinburgh. From the 1960s onwards, June attended St Mark’s Unitarian Church, my congregation, and became more and more involved. First, as Church Secretary, then leading worship, writing worship material, hymns, and publicity material poetry serious and poetry comic (some published nationally). She wrote, produced and acted in her plays (some about Unitarianism and at St Mark’s we all had to perform to her strict requirements in the annual Christmas pantomime). She was also minutes secretary and led small groups. She was on various national Unitarian and Free Christian Churches Committees including the Ministry Committee and Interview Panel for ministerial students. She continued all these activities well into her 80s.

June was an innovator helping set up groups like the Unitarian Renewal Group coming up with resource registers and networking before it was the ‘done thing’. Her personal outlook was rational, humanistic and down to earth. She called ‘a spade a spade’, but she also cared about people’s spiritual and pastoral needs and personal development in order to enable them to reach their full potential, particularly young people. She offered her outstanding counseling skills over a period of about thirty years to a significant number of ministers during their training, their ministry and in times of difficulty.

June was the President of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches from 1980-1981. This is like being the Church of Scotland, Moderator. My Congregation, St Mark’s, has produced seven General Assembly Presidents from its membership. Three of them were women. The current General Assembly President, Joan Cook is a member of St Mark’s.

The General Secretary at the time, Roy Smith said of June ‘I could hardly keep up with June’s persistence and enthusiasm during her Vice-Presidential year. She was always alert, ever on the ball, never wasting words of wisdom’. He continued that ‘over many years June Bell has been one of the most important and influential thinkers and voices of the Unitarian Movement. She confronted the old order and goaded us on to shape a more democratic Unitarian movement.’ Not quite unsung then.

June was frank and had strong views and expressed them. Some people were put off by this. I was a bit wary when I first met June but found that she had a much softer side. It was she who encouraged me to participate in a significant number of church activities, and I doubt I would have done this without her encouragement. As well as all this intellectual activity, June made lasting friendships in the Fellowship of Youth and later at the annual Unitarian Family Holiday Conference at Great Hucklow in Derbyshire. This event was a great love of June’s where she relaxed and had fun. She invited me to attend in 1980. I was overwhelmed by the intellect of those attending, but also by the warmth of the welcome, acceptance and the fun. Subsequently, I attended many times travelling down with June in her car. I joined June on the Unitarian Holiday Planning Committee. Today, I help to run the Unitarian Discovery Holiday because of June. June’s other interest was her garden and nurturing the Earth and she wrote a lovely hymn about it; Wide Green World We Know and Love You. She recycled, ‘made do and mended’, and was environmental friendly decades before it was ‘the done thing’. June was small in stature with silver white hair since middle age and when you first saw her you would never have thought that she could have done all these things. June died age 91 in 2010.

(Annie) Margaret Barr-(1897-1973) (Note 2)

Margaret was unsung in her day. She was born in Yorkshire and became an educator in India. Margaret always protested vehemently that she was not a missionary. She was opposed to missionary tactics, and argued with anyone who called her a missionary, including the Indian Government. She was a Methodist and became a Unitarian when she was at Cambridge. She trained as a teacher and a minister, but after hearing a talk, her dream was to serve the people of Assam/Meghalaya.

Margaret’s sister, Mary, worked with Gandhi. Margaret had studied Hindu Scriptures and said that ‘Hinduism contains as much to attract thoughtful people as does Orthodox Christianity, perhaps more, as it combines tolerance as well as its other virtues. Tolerance being a virtue which can be lacking in Christianity and some other faiths’. On arrival in India in the 1930s, she spent some time with Gandhi. Not wanting to step on anyone’s toes she asked him what he thought she should do. He said that she should find some work to do in the villages. This was her ultimate aim. First, though she taught in a Calcutta girls’ school. Then she sought Unitarian funding to work in the Khasi Hills in N. E. India, but had been told that ‘No committee would take the responsibility of sending a woman alone to such a post’; and later perhaps understandably that ‘Unitarians never had, and never would do missionary work, therefore, under no circumstances would they fund her project.’

Margaret insisted that she was not remotely going to be like a missionary and would work with the existing Khasi Unitarian Movement set up by Hajom Kissor Singh in 1887. She would live and work with the people as an educator to improve educational opportunities. Education would be available to everyone who wanted it. It was British Unitarian Women who finally supported her financially. Margaret set up schools and an orphanage in Kharang. Her excellent teaching skills produced good teachers and administrators for the future. Margaret got some midwifery training and saw to it that local people also received Midwifery training. She set up a Medical Centre and Rural Centre. Margaret died in 1973. Unitarian women still support the Schools and Centre today. That is her legacy.

Margaret Barr had also pioneered the teaching of Comparative Religion in Indian Schools as an experiment in the Calcutta girls’ school from 1933 to 1936. She created her own course of studies, objectively considering the different religious traditions of India and comparing them with Christianity. The course was later produced as a text and a book The Great Unity, with information on various religions without upholding any one of them but viewing them all as components of ‘The Great Unity’. (Note 3). I think we might have used the book in Sunday School in the 1950s, perhaps that is why I am interested in interfaith work, today.

Rev. Dr Ann Peart (Note 4)

Ann is a retired minister and academic, who is not completely ‘unsung’ having just been made an honorary member of the Unitarian General Assembly. She first started leading worship when she was eighteen after her Chapel had invited her to be May Queen. For the next twenty years, Ann became more involved in Unitarian life. Ann had read Geography at Cambridge, where she was President of the University Women’s Boat club, and was twice in the winning boat in the boat race against Oxford; the only woman to be awarded a full rowing blue in her year! A first of many firsts! Ann had thought about becoming a minister at that time but dismissed the idea, as she felt she did not have sufficient ‘life experience’. On graduation she trained as a teacher, taught and married. Much later when Ann was divorced, she became involved with second wave feminism and trained for the Ministry at Manchester College, Oxford. She undertook this training on a part-time basis and as such, Ann was the first person to qualify in this way. She served as a minister of various congregations in England for fourteen years and then became the Principal of Unitarian College Manchester; the first woman to do so. While she was Principal of Unitarian College, Ann would consider her greatest contribution was made in relation to education, especially ministry training, and developing and expanding the curriculum. She has also contributed, both within and outwith Unitarian circles, to social justice and LBTI issues, in being an out lesbian in leadership roles. It is not difficult to imagine how much courage this has required. Here she worked on issues of gender justice, including feminist theology and making Unitarian women more visible. Her PhD subject was Unitarian Scholarship; especially in raising awareness of the importance of women in our history.

Whilst minister at the Golders Green church, she helped set up a national Unitarian Women’s Group, which continues to this day. Ann was a member of the ‘Sexuality Orientation Equality Group, and was involved in the production of the Unitarian resource pack, Celebrating Diversity published in 2003. Ann has also been involved in making interfaith connections, and with the local Hope not Hate campaign. Ann is currently taking a sabbatical from some of her many commitments, as she is writing a book on Unitarian Women for the Lindsey Press.

Ann must have inspired and encouraged a great number of people over the years. I am very impressed with the young vibrant female ministers coming into the ministry today who are re-examining theology in their own way and presenting it in a thoughtful, accessible, life-enhancing, compassionate, innovative and, dare I say, ‘feminine’ way, sharing their ideas and spiritual practices, supporting their congregations and using new technology to network with one another. They are also reaching out to other similar groups supporting social justice campaigns and getting involved in joint projects with people of all faiths and none. One of them recently carried out a Survey of 21st Century Unitarian Beliefs and Spirituality. Another lay person helped set up the Charity Simple Gifts in response to the unrest in the Bethnal Green area of London in 2011. The programme - includes an After- School Club, New Neighbours/Old Neighbours Lunch, and English for Speakers of Other Language classes. Coincidently, by chance, in the Edinburgh Congregation at present almost all the lay-leaders and group leaders are female. I hope they are not unsung.

Notes

(1) Information on June Bell based on information given by Roy Smith and Celia Kerr in the Unitarians in Edinburgh publication A Peal of Bells celebrating June’s 80th birthday and other background information based on June’s Obituary by Rev. Andrew Hill, published in The Inquirer in 2010.

(2) Information extracted from A Dream Come True by Margaret Barr, published by the Lindsey Press.

(3) Information extracted from the book A Larger View: Unitarians and World Religions by Rev. Dr Vernon Marshall, Lindsey Press 2007.

(4) An edited version of the nominating speech given by Joan Cook at the Annual General Meetings of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches in April 2018 when the Rev. Dr Ann Peart was made an Honorary Member of the Organisation.

Copyright Margery MacKay

given on 23 April 2018

after the EIFA community meal,

at the Methodist Church, Nicholson Square