Obituary: Rev. Mary Levison, minister of the Church of Scotland

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n Rev Mary Irene Levison, minister of the Church of Scotland. Born: 8 January 1923, in Oxford. Died: 12 September, 2011, in Edinburgh, aged 89.

Although she was not the first woman to be ordained to the ministry in the Church of Scotland, Mary Levison was the driving force behind the movement for the ordination of women in the Kirk. In 1963, she petitioned the General Assembly to test her call to the ministry. At the time she was a deaconess of the Church, and had served three years as assistant chaplain to the University of Edinburgh.

Throughout a Saturday afternoon, the Assembly debated the petition from Mary Lusk (as she then was). Students from New College in the galleries cheered everyone who supported her, so loudly that the Moderator, Professor James S Stewart had to threaten twice to have the gallery cleared. Eventually the Assembly decided to instruct its Panel on Doctrine to consider the petition and report to the next General Assembly.

One of the students in the gallery was Margaret Forrester, who went on to have a distinguished career in the Church. She has written of the debate: “While some of the arguments against granting the crave of the petition had an attempt at theology, some bordered on the insulting. Clearly there were those who feared that the Church would change for ever.”

It took five years for the Assembly to decide that “women shall be eligible for ordination to the Holy Ministry on the same terms and conditions as are at present applicable to men”, and a further ten years before personal circumstances allowed Mary Levison to proceed to ordination, and nearly 40 years before a woman was elected Moderator of the General Assembly.

But it is to Mary Levison’s determination, unswerving but always irenic, that the Church owes its recognition of the place of women within the ministry of word and sacrament.

Mary Levison was born in Oxford where her father was first the United Free Church and then the Church of Scotland chaplain. She was educated at St Leonard’s School in St Andrews and Oxford University where she took a first in philosophy, politics and economics. She was chosen by the Church to attend several international gatherings, including the Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Evanston, USA, in 1954, when she made contact with a number of foreign deaconesses. She was determined to ensure that the Church of Scotland recognised deaconesses (and deacons) as equal presbyters with ministers and elders.

Having decided to serve the church as a deaconess, she studied divinity at Edinburgh University and then spent a year in Heidelberg and Basel. In 1954 she was appointed the deaconess of St Michael’s Church in Musselburgh, and four years later she became tutor at the church’s St Colm’s College, responsible for training not only for the diaconate but also other areas of lay responsibility. In 1961 she moved to chaplaincy work at Edinburgh University.

In 1965 Mary Lusk married Rev Frederick Levison, then minister of an Edinburgh parish but shortly afterwards to move to the Borders. Although she continued to be involved in the councils of the Church, she was, for nearly ten years, a minister’s wife. When her husband retired in 1977, they moved to Edinburgh, where, shortly afterwards, Mary Levison was ordained as the Assistant at St Andrew’s and St George’s with special responsibility for outreach to and pastoral support for the retail trade in Princes Street and George Street. Throughout her ministry she believed the Church required radical change, and she played an important part in the Assembly Council, intended to be the catalyst of change.

Her retirement was an active one. In 1991 she was the first woman to be appointed a Chaplain to the Queen in Scotland. She was proposed as moderator of the 1993 General Assembly, and would have been the first woman moderator, but, to the regret of many, she was not elected. She was, however, elected Moderator of Edinburgh Presbytery. In 1994 Mary Levison was awarded an honorary DD by Edinburgh University. She was delighted, not only with the honour but that, as she told her then Minister Rev Andrew McLellan, it affirmed the arguments in favour of women’s ministry she had used 30 years earlier. Her husband died in 1999.

Mary Levison’s autobiography, Wrestling with the Church, was published in 1992. In it she explains her own approach to the struggle for women’s ordination, which went a long way to explain why its effect north of the Border has been much less traumatic than in England. “It has been important to me that the whole debate should have been as little adversarial as possible. That we have achieved what we have without giving offence and such a minimum of conflict is a matter for satisfaction. Wrestling there has been, but that is surely a different thing from fighting and campaigning.”

Johnston McKay