Georgia Harkness, Ruth Rogers and Me.
I went back to school after my children were grown. In one of my early history classes at Georgia State University, a professor showed a great deal of interest in a paper I had submitted and asked, “What do you plan to be?”
The question of “to be” was unexpected. I had “already been.” I was an older “sometimes” student, having now raised seven precious children was now pursuing a hobby of "education."
However, when the question of “to be” came up, for strange reason I thought about Georgia Harkness and Ruth Rogers. I suppose they were the only woman theologians I knew about at that time. Far back in the recesses of my mind I must have been slowly preparing for Christian ministry.
As a lifelong Methodist I had read Harkness articles and had even filed some of her work when ministry for me was beyond my thoughts or wildest dreams.
Dr. Georgia Harkness (photo left) was the theologian who kept holding the Methodist General Conference’s feet to the fire until in 1956 they voted for full ministerial rights for all qualified women. Her many books and articles as a Professor of Theology provide a wealth of information about her long career as a theologian, author, and clergywoman.
Harkness believed and taught that women’s rights is more than a matter of justice, It is also a theological issue. What does the church really believe about the Christian God? The theological themes that Harkness expresses in her writings were also lived out in the experiences of Ruth Rogers and other Christian women who spent much of their talents and energy in trying to find a place to serve in answer to a strong calling from God.
On the issue of ordination for women, Harkness believed that ordination with all rights and responsibilities belonged to women as well as men and offered three reasons. Her first reason was a Biblical one. In Jesus Christ all barriers that separate persons from one another have been destroyed. She quotes Paul’s well-known passage in Galations that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galations 3:28)
Harkness further noted that ordination for women could be argued from a “practical” standpoint. She pointed out that a portion of the church’s constituency was alienated and the gifts and graces of women were being lost to the mission of the church to the world. The third reason as a spiritual one. Harkness pointed out that the richest and most intimate experiences in the life of the Christian are those that have to do with church membership, the sacraments, marriage, baptism, and bereavement. She said that so long as a person is debarred by reason of gender from acting as an agent in the church in these high spiritual moments, no matter what other opportunities are opened to her, she is debarred from the largest Christian service.
Yet, Harkness remained aloof to issues regarding inclusive language. The personal nature of God, for Harkness, seem to demand a personal pronoun reference. She said, “I see little sense in trying to change the terminology of the ages.”
At the heart of her theology seems to be a “responsible concern for persons everywhere and in every condition.” This includes men! Her idea of the partnership of the sexes emerges whereby the goal of shaping society in the direction of the kingdom of God relies upon mutuality and good will between Christian men and women.
In that same historical year of 1956, Dr. Ruth Rogers was the first woman to be ordained elder in the North Georgia Conference of the Methodist Church and my husband, a rising senior at Chandler School of Theology was ordained deacon.
Although my husband and I had sat in large Methodist conferences with her, I had never met Ruth Rogers until I, as Atlanta-College Park District Communication Chairperson in 1988, interviewed her for an article in the Wesleyan Christian Advocate.
The Rev. Dr. Ruth Rogers(photo to the left -made in 1958) believed, as do I, that the call from God is what makes a preacher, not whether one is a man or a woman. The deaths of two close family members had a great impact on her. Ruth Rogers had adopted a nephew, but in 1945 lost him at the age of 14 to bone cancer. Among his last words to her, “Aunt Ruth, you are going to have to do my preaching.” Then in 1947, her beloved mother died in her arms saying, “Don’t you see Christ? I can see him. He’s right on the edge of a crowd . . . He’s opening the eyes of the blind. "
After her son Billy’s death, Dr. Rogers did a great deal of thinking “and more praying” about it, but was not quite willing “to take on the enmity...” to answer the call to preach. But after the experience of Christ at her mother’s death bed, Rogers, who came from a family of Methodist ministers, said: “I felt I had to tell the story whether I wanted to or not.” After she preached at a District Conference, the vote was unanimous to accept her call. But she was to learn that the “enmity against women as preachers did not stop there.
When I interviewed her, Rogers was 84 years old and walked on crutches because of a fall on ice at the front of a church some years before. But she still had a twinkle in her eyes and a lovely smile and she indicated to me that she has forgiven those who rejected her for whatever reason.
And I? I was a happy wife, a devoted mother and an enthusiastic teacher of Woman's mission studies and Sunday School Bible lessons! I was unaware that Georgia Harkness and Ruth Rogers were paving roads over which I would one day be called to travel.
How can I briefly tell the story that led to my identity as pastor and as theology student? (photo taken in 2004)The path that led to that incredible day in December, 1986 when I first stood in the pulpit of a United Methodist Church as “pastor” and to a bewildering day in Chandler’s Commons in August 1987 as “student.”
Go with me briefly to my childhood. I am nine years old and my father is dying. He has been ill for a year with a heart and kidney ailment. He is a committed Christian. Earlier, he had put his arm around me as i stood by his bedside and told me to never leave our yards without "leave" from my mother. Then he reminded me to always tell the truth and went on to explain the importance of truth. I am profoundly impressed by the faith my wise and good father lived. I am thinking, “When I grow up, I want to be that kind of Christian.”
I found it interesting to note that both Georgia Harkness and Ruth Rogers were also profoundly affected by a dying parent’s last words and/or actions. Harkness had told in her autobiography about returning home to nurse her father in his final illness. He had asked about her many successful books and remarked, “. . . but I wish you would write more about Jesus Christ.” Harkness understood these remarks to be a “directive from an eternal realm” and saw this experience as a turn in her thinking and writing to a more “Christ-centered approach to religious truth.” (Gilbert, p. 18)
Two years after my father’s death, I was sitting with my mother in a worship service at our small town Methodist Church, the same church in which I had been baptized as a small baby. The congregation was singing an old gospel song entitled “At the Cross.” The song later fell into disrepute because of an offensive verse that went like this: “Would he (Christ) devote his sacred head for such a worm as I?” The Hymnal committee later deleted “such a worn as I” and substituted “sinner such as I.” I do not know about changing the words of a poem after the author's death but I ,along with the hymnal committee did not know any “worm like” people. We didn’t even lock our doors at night in my home town. The Psalmist had written that we were created just a little lower than angels!
But one phrase did capture my attention during the singing and I began to ponder the first theological question I ever remember giving thought to. It is a big one. As the singing continued, I was listening to: “Was it for crimes that I have done, Christ died upon the tree?” I thought, “How could my sins today have anything to do with the death of Jesus on the cross nearly 2000 years ago?” Yes! The mystery of God in Jesus Christ became a real part of my life ... my story.”
This was before Hitler, the Holocaust and World War II. The New Deal was beginning to work. Education was going to do away with crime, disease, and discrimination. Later, when I read about the extent of Hitler’s crimes I thought back to that day in church. “Is it possible,” I thought with great sadness, “For human beings to act like ‘worms?’” The jury is in. Education and prosperity are not enough. Germany and Japan excelled in both education and prosperity when they plunged us into World War II. Only Christ can solve our sin problem.
Becoming a preacher is the last thing I even expected or aspired to do. Charles recognized my call to preach early on and mentioned it to me before i said anything to him about it... in 1975. He as pastor and the church (Park Street UMC) recommended me for license to preach, which was then and still is the starting point for Ordained Ministers in our United Methodist Church.
Charles began to have health problems and after a second heart attack and bi-pass surgery he retired on disability in 1983. A year later the District Superintendent needed someone to fill in at Rico Church in Palmetto and called one Sunday morning and asked Charles to go down that morning to preach and conduct the service. He did and kept preaching every Sunday except on two occasions when he asked me to go down and preach.
Charles preached his last sermon the first Sunday in advent in 1986 and 3 days later "went home to be with the Lord." Two weeks later the D.S. called me and told me the congregation had asked to have me appointed to finish the conference year. The Bishop and Cabinet agreed. Would I do it? After much prayer, I knew this was an open door the Lord wanted me to walk through.
In spite of grief and responsibilities, I began as their pastor the 4th Sunday in Advent and continued to serve as pastor at Rico while I started and finished the work for a Master of Divinity degree from Candler School of Theology at Emory.
During my years of "telling the good news of Jesus" behind a pulpit instead of a Sunday School classroom or a Missionary platform, I have sought to learn how to communicate this good news of Jesus. The love and power of God in the hearts of people is able to bring people together across all kinds of barriers as Paul tells tells the people of Galatia in Galations 3:22-28. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female ; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. "(Galations 3:28)
Ordination is not a right to which any of us, male or female are entitled. It is an unmerited call and an unexpected gift of the Lord's mercy. It is not a call to authority but a call to service.
Gilbert, Paula Elizabeth. Choice of the Greater Good: The Christian Witness of Georgia Harkness. Graduate School of Duke University, 1984.
Harkness, Georgia. Religious Living. Association Press, New York, 1957.
Harkness, Georgia. The Church and Its Laity. Abingdon Press, New York, Nashville, 1962.
Harkness, Georgia. Grace Abounding, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1969.
Harkness, Georgia. Christian Ethics, Abingdon Press, New York 1957.
Harkness, Georgia. The Ministry of Reconciliation. Abingdon Press, New York, 1971.
Harkness, Georgia. Women in Church and Society: A Historical and Theological Inquiry. Abingdon Press, Nashville. 1972.
Johnson, Helen. “Georgia Harkness: She Made Theology Understandable.”