Obituary: Reverend Canon Pam Skelton, church minister

Rev Canon Pam Skelton: Pioneering minister who was one of the first women to be ordained in Scotland
Rev Canon Pam Skelton: Pioneering minister who was one of the first women to be ordained in Scotland
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Born: 20 April, 1938, in Sheffield. Died: 7 December, 2014, in Edinburgh, aged 76.

When a director is making a film, their role is to hold a red thread throughout to make sure the essence of the story is maintained. The red thread is the element found in every layer, section and cycle of a project that draws the whole together in unity and harmony. Pam Skelton’s red thread comprised adventure, creativity, fairness, connection, faith and family. Together they produced a spark of colour and energy which pioneered change and debate throughout her life and ministry in the Scottish Episcopal Church.

Pam Skelton was born in Sheffield in 1938. Leaving school at 15, she worked as a junior clerk and receptionist while she put herself through college to get her O’levels. She moved to Hull and studied to be a teacher and got involved in the college amateur dramatics. It was there she met Arthur, who became her husband of 52 years.

She went on to teach in secondary and primary schools in Hull, Sheffield and Weaverham in Cheshire. By this time Pam also had three children, Nicholas, Justin and Liz.

Her journey into ministry began here. Having always been active in the Anglican Church in Weaverham, Cheshire, she started People Next Door, an ecumenical initiative which brought together people of all denominations to promote understanding and connection. Her involvement in the diocese grew, and a range of projects emerged from the connections across faiths, notably the Weaverham Village Theatre.

After moving to Falkirk in 1973, Pam had her fourth child, Jonathan. She volunteered with the Samaritans and the Women’s Aid refuge in Denny and studied New Testament Greek- while at the same time becoming increasingly involved in the local Christ Church community in Falkirk.

She continued exploring options for ecumenical connections. Disappointed by the lack of opportunities open to her for ministry in 1975, Pam completed the Edinburgh Diocese non-stipendiary ministry course.

It seemed like such a small step at the time but she was the first woman to do so and three years later, on Friday, 23 June, 1978, she was ordained as deaconess in the Diocese of Edinburgh at the Cathedral Church of St Mary, Edinburgh.

This remarkable ordination was to be the first time a woman had been ordained as a practising deaconess in the Scottish Episcopal Church. For Pam, it marked the beginning of more than 36 memorable years of adventure, struggle and change in the church.

Pam recalled that day: “Edinburgh Cathedral was packed; the congregation a mixture of worshippers and well-wishers, the curious, the uncertain and those totally opposed. Outside, the press hovering and Pastor Glass protesting.

“It was at once exciting and deeply humbling. Being the only woman in an otherwise all-male procession had its problems. There had been much discussion with Bishop Alastair Haggart about what I should wear (his only real objection was to the wearing of a bikini!) The isolation of the role and responsibility of this occasion surfaced only afterwards as we processed out – a member of the congregation ran out from his seat and said: ‘I was not in favour of women until now, but on seeing you I know that this is right for the church.’

“I have never forgotten this remark nor the expectations and responsibility it contained. The expression ‘be yourself’ became very important in my ministry.”

From 1982-91, Pam was youth organiser for the Edinburgh Diocese, organising youth camps and developing initiatives to engage young people within the diocese.

At the same time she was appointed as the first ever deaconess to be “in charge” of a parish at St Barnabas, Moredun in Edinburgh. This was particularly significant because until then no deaconess had been given this opportunity or responsibility.

Over the eight years in ministry at St Barnabas she engaged the local community across faiths, many maintaining that without her care and determination the parish may not have survived.

In 1978 Pam was one of the founders of the Group for the Ministry of Women (which later became the Movement for Whole Ministry in the Scottish Episcopal Church). The group supported more women in their desire to have their vocation tested, looking for ways of recognising and affirming the role of women in the church.

They also continued to challenge the church to be more holistic and inclusive in its concepts and practice.

By 1986 Pam was one of seven women in Edinburgh ordained as deacon. From this foundation, she led the way for herself and a pioneering group of 14 other women to be ordained.

On 17 December, 1994 they became the first women priests in Scotland. By this time Pam was associate minister at Christ Church Parish, Morningside; the Anglican Chaplain for the Royal Edinburgh hospital from 1992-2005; and she established The Corner, a drop-in centre for people with mental health issues, in partnership with the Eric Liddell Centre.

In 2000 Pam was made Honorary Canon by Bishop Richard Holloway. She retired in 2005 and continued to practice her ministry while supporting other women in their fight for equality within the church.

She believed that a swing towards a more matriarchal society could bring a new model for priesthood moving closer perhaps to a priesthood of all believers.

Like many pioneers this struggle was costly. Sadly, Pam’s health declined over the last few years but fortunately she was able to participate in the 20th anniversary ceremony celebrating the ordination of women marching from Westminster Abbey to St Paul’s Cathedral in May this year.

While maintaining the demands of ministry Pam played a major role in her family’s life. Her growing family of children and grandchildren meant the world to her and she was active and engaged in all their lives.

She travelled extensively with Arthur and continued pursuing her love of adventure and desire to live a purposeful life. She deeply loved and was loved deeply by her family.

Her spirit and work has influenced many lives individually and institutionally and lives on in the ongoing quest for the full role of women in the ministry.

These words from Thornton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker expressed some of Pam’s feelings about recognised ministry in the church over 36 years and the privilege she felt at being part of the pioneering spirit which has enabled women to have a full role in ministry.

They also capture how she lived her life:

“The test of an adventure is that when you are in the middle of it, you say to yourself: oh, now I’ve got myself in an awful mess; I wish I were sitting quietly at home; and the sign that something’s wrong with you is when you sit quietly at home wishing you were having lots of adventure”.