Short biographies by Susan Thompson

An extraordinary life

Phyllis Guthardt was the first woman to be ordained a presbyter in Methodist Church New Zealand.

As a pioneer, she was someone who acted as a model and set a standard. The experiences and issues she faced have been repeated in the lives and ministries of the women who followed her.

Her ministry was marked by an emphasis on the partnership of women and men in church and society. While she hasn’t been politically active the way Scrimgeour was, working out of a strong social priority was something the two had in common. This also led her to share some of his discomfort with the Church as an institution.

Unlike Scrimgeour, Guthardt was able to combine a social concern with academic interests. As her ministry progressed she became increasingly involved in the area of tertiary education

1. While Scrimgeour had no church background, Phyllis grew up Methodist in Nelson, where she came under the influence of liberal ministers appointed after World War Two, men like John Grocott, Ashleigh Petch and Charlie Hailwood.

As a teenager she was also exposed to the ideals of the Riverside Community, which was formed during the War as a place of refuge for Christian pacifists and conscientious objectors. She came to admire these people and to share some of their views.

Those two influences gave her a liberal theology with an interest in an exploratory kind of faith. For Phyllis, God’s presence was way out in front, “luring us on to new truth and new understandings”. The gospel was good news of reconciliation, wholeness and liberation.

2. Initially Guthardt wanted to be a teacher, but in 1953 she was hit by a “clear and irrevocable” call to ordained ministry.

The Methodist Conference had declared its readiness to accept women into ministry in 1948.

In one sense this decision reflected a tradition within Methodism of allowing women to exercise ministry. Although their work was often limited, women lay preachers were active in some parts of Methodism since the time of John Wesley.

In the 1940s the decision was also made within the context of significant changes to the place of women in society. From the 1880s women had been entering university and gradually moving into professions which were once a male preserve.

The decision to admit women into ministry was also evidence of the growing power of liberal Methodism. This had been particularly strong since the end of World War One. It liked to be progressive, up with times, prepared to stick its neck out.

While Phyllis was accepted as a candidate for training at Trinity College, like many women she faced early opposition and felt considerable pressure to remain invisible.

‘Those first three years were a very lonely time,’ she said. ‘When I arrived, the College Principal advised me to keep my head down and remain quiet. This I did for the next 15 years until I came to the conclusion that being quiet was overrated.’ Crosslink, July 1993, p.5

Once Guthardt decided that silence and invisibility were over-rated, she became willing and confident to speak out on issues that concerned her. The growth of the women’s movement in the 1970s also brought her new insights.

In preaching and parish work she tried to model partnership and to affirm the contribution of women. She favoured working in a team and felt she could bring a less hierarchical style of managing. She emphasised networking and was less formal and authoritarian.

Guthardt became an advocate of inclusive language in worship, the work of the Conference and church committees.

In the 1970s she served on the World Council of Churches working committee on Women in Church & Society and was involved in the Christian Conference of Asia. In 1985 she became the Methodist Church’s first woman president and in 1993 was made a Dame Commander.
Guthardt has also been a strong and encouraging supporter of the ministry of gay and lesbian people.

Like many people, Guthardt found the Church slow to change and inclined to pay lip service to the full and equal participation of women within the institution. Reflecting in 1990, she suggested that women will keep leaving the Church until it started taking their needs seriously.

Guthardt is a Methodist who has a love-hate relationship with the Church. Partly this comes from her perspective as a woman, partly because as a person she finds bureaucracy and church structure deadening. Her own vision is for the kind of community James Baldwin described as “larger, freer and more loving”.

3. Where Scrimgeour represented those Methodists who doubt the value of academic study, Phyllis always stood with those who love and delight in scholarship. She is someone who enjoys the mental stimulation of engaging with and discussing new ideas.

Her own field of study has been biblical thought and she appreciates the Bible, not for its literal sense, but as a document which is alive with illustrations of life and contains an explosive view of God “drawing back the curtains of the mind”.

Guthardt has been one of the increasing number of presbyters who in the twentieth century has undertaken university study. In the early 1960s she received a scholarship to Cambridge which enabled her to complete a PhD in biblical theology.

In New Zealand the Methodist interest in tertiary education dates back to the nineteenth century. The missionary Thomas Buddle had a seat on the first senate of the University of New Zealand in 1874. He was also a member of the Auckland University College’s first Council in 1883.

That early link has been carried on by a number of Methodists, both lay and ordained, who have been involved in various facets of university life, including teaching, governance and chaplaincy

Tertiary education has been a part of Phyllis’s ministry since 1970s. Appointed ecumenical chaplain at University of Waikato in 1970, she was there for six years, tutoring English and lecturing in religious studies on the side. In 1981 she became member of Council of the University of Canterbury; stayed after retirement in 1989 and in 1998 elected Chancellor of University.

For Methodists like Phyllis, involvement in the university has been an expression of a desire to be part of a wider academic community. This community extends beyond, and may challenge, the sometimes narrow confines of the Church. Ministry within the very secular institution of the university has been a sign of faith that’s outward-looking and interested in meeting the world.

Being a person of faith sometimes meant very different things for different Methodists. For Scrimgeour it meant political activism, worked out on streets. For Phyllis it meant a different kind of activism, to do with being a woman in a male-dominated profession and struggling for the participation of all women within the Church, the community and society at large. She was also involved in a kind of intellectual activism, the church engaging with and submitting to the academic disciplines of university environment.

“A Trail Blazer”

When Dr Phyllis Guthardt was ordained in 1959, the Methodist Church made history amongst New Zealand’s mainline churches.

Yet it was an event that passed almost unnoticed. Back in 1948, the Methodist Conference had declared itself ready to accept women for ordination. All they needed was a candidate.

When Phyllis entered Auckland’s Trinity College in 1954, she was the only woman amongst 60 male students and, although the maids were permitted to live on campus, she was asked to find accommodation elsewhere. Apparently her presence was more threatening than the maids’.

‘Those first three years were a very lonely time,’ she said. ‘When I arrived, the College Principal advised me to keep my head down and remain quiet. This I did for the next 15 years until I came to the conclusion that being quiet was overrated.’

Phyllis, who retired in 1990, looks back on a long and happy 36 years in ministry. She regards herself as one of the lucky ones, though she admits it hasn’t been easy for all women.

‘It was when I was appointed to Hamilton’s Melville Parish in 1963 that I realised I didn’t have to fight any more to prove myself as a woman minister. I could relax and just enjoy its many challenges.

‘Although I’m certain it’s been largely women who have kept the Church going, it seems that the Church still only pays lip service to their work. There are still parishes who are reluctant to take a woman minister and it grieves me when I see how many women have left or are leaving the Church because change is not happening fast enough.’

For the last 20 years, Phyllis has fought hard for the use of inclusive language in worship and in the work of Conference and Church committees. She is convinced that if you talk about people as if they’re not there or as if they’re honorary males, the effect can be very destructive. Although the 1975 Conference decided all reports should be written in inclusive language, it took much longer, she said, to get men to start using inclusive language.

In her own ministry, Phyllis has always tried to model equal partnership between men and women.

‘Men and women have different gifts and different understandings of faith, but we work best when we work together. I want to see a real cherishing of the different gifts we bring. I don’t like to see polarisation between the sexes.’

In 1985, after eight years as parish minister at Christchurch’s Knox Presbyterian Church (in recognition of her ecumenical commitment), Phyllis became the Methodist Church’s first woman President. Although considered a great honour, she found the year demanding and exhausting. Despite her reputation as being ‘fairly stroppy’, she admits she did not find it easy holding such a public position.

Since her retirement, Phyllis is leading a quieter life in her home in Governor’s Bay. She is able to offer hospitality to people in a more relaxed way these days, something she has always enjoyed doing. But her involvement with the Canterbury University Council where she has been Pro-Chancellor for the last two years ensures life is never too quiet. (Crosslink, July 1993, p.5 May Meditation)

The people who say ‘Yes’, by Phyllis Guthardt

I would love to think that Methodists are people who say ‘Yes’ to life.

In the early sixties I was studying in England when the Profumo scandal brought down the government. A time of social ferment was frequently linked with Christian thinking that became news. As rarely happens, Christian paperbacks were bestsellers. They were offering an understanding of the world which made sense to many people who had written off the church.

I attended one British Methodist Conference and was much impressed by the standard of debate on religious issues and social concerns. Here was real news; in my view; the church was tackling difficult problems in a constructive way.

To my dismay, the only newspaper report was one paragraph in the Observer headed: ‘Methodists, the people who say NO’. It quoted one speaker as saying we should be proud to say No.

There is truth in this, of course. We want firmly to challenge attitudes that hurt God’s people, the creatures and the good earth. But I hope we will not join the chorus of threatening voices that sounds loudly most days in condemnation of some aspect of society. The old thunderbolt God seems to be having a comeback. York Minster, the AIDS virus .. who knows what other fiendish tricks are up the royal sleeve to punish the wicked children of earth?

It is a totally unworthy view of God and far from the life and love of Jesus Christ. When humans get into the divine judgment business they overreach themselves.

By all means let us challenge wrongs in society. But let that challenge come out of our affirmation of God’s creation and human life. Not a punishing, world-denying stance, I beg, but one which rejoices in the dignity of every woman, man and child, and cares for them as God’s beloved. People don’t need harshness and condemnation. They do need compassion and gentleness.

Let Methodists be proud to be the people who say ‘Yes’ to life.

“Focus” May 1984, p.4.

Ruth Fry, Out of the Silence. Methodist Women of Aotearoa 1822-1985, Christchurch, Methodist Publishing, 1987.

P. Guthardt, “Forty up and going strong” (unpublished manuscript), November 1993.

“One Woman’s Pilgrimage”, Interview with P. Guthardt, 9 September 1990. (Audio tape)

“A trail blazer”, Crosslink, July 1993, p.5.


Dame Phyllis


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