In 2014 the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ) celebrated forty years of women’s acceptance into the ordained ministry. Most of the celebratory comment covered the official Church debate and administrative implementation. The behind the scenes and critical preparation required for an acceptable change of long-held, deeply embedded views, was not told and is not really known or even accessible. Molly Whitelaw is one of a number of women whose visibility through many years of argument and debate has all but disappeared. My aim in the ‘spare time of retirement’ is to bring Molly into view once more in the male dominated Presbyterian ‘‘Hall of Fame’ and beyond. After much pondering I will research this project as a biography and then see where it leads me.
Who is Molly Whitelaw and why should the light shine upon her once more?
Mary Dorothea Whitelaw (Molly) was born in Hawick in the Border Country of Scotland in 1895. The second of three children born to James Wigston Shannon and Agnes Elizabeth Shannon (nee Renton), James Shannon was minister of the United Presbyterian Church, in Elgin, Wilton Hawick, and later in Gilmore Place, Edinburgh. He was born of Irish immigrants, John Shannon, a slate miner, and Mary Wigston, who settled in Carluke, Lancashire, in 1852.
Molly received her junior education in Hawick, secondary education at St. George’s School, Edinburgh and Konigsberg, Germany, returning home on the eve of WW1. In 1920 after the visit of Rev. Dr. James Gibb to Edinburgh in search for suitable men to emigrant to New Zealand as ministers and missionaries, James Shannon and his family made the decision come to New Zealand. They arrived in late March 1921 and were placed at the Home Mission Station of Morere-Nuhaka on the East Coast of Hawke’s Bay, inland from Wairoa.
There, he ministered with the assistance of his daughter Molly until August 1923. Desiring a move into a fully sanctioned parish, he was called to Matawhero congregation out of Gisborne. Sadly, the ministry was cut short by his death in January 1926. In an unusual move, Molly ably stepped into his shoes taking responsibility for Sunday worship and carrying on with the youth work for four months. With her mother and sister they maintained a parish visitation schedule catching up with every member of the large rural parish, with many isolated areas.
From April 1926 to October 1926 she became acting Travelling Secretary of the Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union (PWMU). Maintaining a travel diary in the PWMU Harvest Field Molly conveys the excitement and wonder of a first-time visitor. The reader captures a vision of how New Zealand once looked with its metalled roads, slow trains, dense bush, and what is viewed now as the pesky weed, but much loved by Molly, the ‘yellow’ gorse!
From February 1927 until the end of 1929 Molly became the very popular Young Women’s Bible Class Travelling Secretary, motivating the movement, running courses, preparing curricula, and assisting with conferences and camps. During these years she formed a close relationship with Rev. Alan Campbell Whitelaw, the Travelling Secretary for the Young Men’ Bible Class. They married in Scotland, September 1930.
On their returned to New Zealand they accepted a call to Te Awamutu Presbyterian Church where they both ministered until 1938. Their next parish was St. Andrew’s Blenheim, bordering on the Marlborough Sounds, and in June 1949 they accepted the invitation to Johnsonville and the newly establishment Linden parish, a suburb of the Capitial city, Wellington.
Besides fulfilling her role in parish ministry Molly’s reputation grew with her efforts to open up the role of Eldership and ordained Ministry to women. This work not only involved her in the Presbytery Church debates, but the NZ National Council of Churches, the Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the World Council of Churches. Her support for women and girls extended to the YWCA, the Girls Life Brigade and the Pan Pacific Women’s Association. Her deep spirituality, sharp intellect and wit, her generous spirit, descriptive journalism and skilled public speaker, Molly became widely sought after by many groups and organisations worldwide.
Her sudden death came just months before the 1964 Alliance of Reformed Churches meeting in Frankfurt when she would have taken up the Convenership of the World Women’s Committee. Sadly she did not see the result of her efforts with the General Assembly’s agreement for the ordination of women into Presbyterian ministry of word and sacrament.