September 1917: Rev. Constance Coltman

In September 1917, Constance Coltman became the first British woman to be ordained in one of the mainstream Protestant churches, when she became a Congregationalist minister.

Constance Todd’s father, George, was a headmaster and her mother Emily had been among the first women in England to study medicine (although she did not practice). Constance was awarded an exhibition to read Modern History at Somerville in 1908; her choice of college may have been influenced by her religion, as the family were Presbyterians. Somerville College had been established as a non-denominational college for women in Oxford, an alternative to Lady Margaret Hall, which was affiliated to the Anglican Church. Many of Somerville’s founding Council members were Liberals and the college’s students often came from similar political or religious backgrounds.

Tutor's report for Constance ToddBy the second term of her course, Constance Todd’s tutor had noted her student’s interest in the ‘social and philosophical aspects of history’. There are no records to illustrate Constance Todd’s religious thinking during her students days, but two years after completing her studies at Somerville, she had gained a place at Mansfield College, a theological training college for nonconformist ministers at Oxford. The Presbyterian Church did not admit women as ministers; Mansfield was particularly associated with the Congregationalists and she had the support of its principal, Dr W.B. Selbie. At Mansfield, she did well on her course, was accepted by the other students, and met her future husband, Claud Coltman.

Constance Todd completed her studies at Mansfield in 1916 and, with her fiancé, became a member of the Kings Weigh House congregation in London. In 1917, they were asked to take charge of its mission in the East End. On September 17th, the day before they married, she and Claud were ordained, although Constance was not formally recognised as a minister by the Congregational Union of England and Wales until October 1917.

Constance Coltman was a suffragist and a life-long pacifist. Her entry in the 1917 list of Somervillian war work recorded her connection with pacifist organisations. In her joint ministries with her husband, she worked to support women in her parishes and in the Christian ministry more widely. In 1927, she was elected President of the Fellowship of Women Ministers and she was a founder member of the Society for the Ministry of Women, an interdenominational society set up in 1930. Her connection with Oxford did not end in 1916; in 1924, the Coltmans commenced a joint ministry on the Cowley Road in Oxford and in 1942 their daughter Mary Mansfield Coltman came up to Somerville to read PPE.

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