Obituary: Rev Isobel Kelly, minister and teacher

Born: 14 January, 1945, in Glasgow. Died: 7 January, 2016 in Armadale, West Lothian, aged 70.
Rev Isobel Kelly , teacher and pioneering minister. Picture: ContributedRev Isobel Kelly , teacher and pioneering minister. Picture: Contributed
Rev Isobel Kelly , teacher and pioneering minister. Picture: Contributed

Isobel Kelly was one of Scotland’s trailblazing female ministers, a teacher whose calling led her to train as a missionary before the success of a hard-fought campaign, resulting in the decision to allow the ordination of women, finally opened the door to her true vocation.

She was one of little more than a handful of women ordained in the first few years following the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland’s momentous decision in 1968 and she gave the best part of four decades to the ministry, contributing in ways that stretched far beyond the confines of the pulpit.

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Born in Glasgow’s Rotten Row Maternity Hospital, her family lived in the city’s south side but the focus of their worship was Barony Church in the north of the city, where her father Hugh was an elder and session clerk and where she was baptised.

Educated at Cuthbertson Street School, where she was Dux, she went on to Hutchesons’ Girls’ Grammar School, leaving with five Highers, one of which was history, a subject that would continue to fascinate throughout her life.

She studied English at Glasgow University, graduating with an MA in 1966 which she followed with a certificate in Secondary Education from Jordanhill College of Education. For the next three years she taught English at Glasgow’s King’s Park and Hillpark Secondary Schools and was awarded a Diploma in Education from Glasgow University in 1970.

However, her calling to serve the church was ever-present and she had planned to work as a missionary in Israel but war in the late 1960s and early 1970s prevented her acting on her ambition.

Meanwhile in Scotland, calls had been growing for the Kirk to accept women as ministers. A campaign launched in 1963 had reached fruition in 1968 when women became eligible for ministerial ordination and the first female minister took her place the following year. Not long afterwards, when Isobel Kelly had left teaching to go to St Colm’s missionary training college in Edinburgh, she was accepted to study for a Bachelor of Divinity at New College, the University of Edinburgh.

During her studies she joined the Iona Community and was one of the first to take the university’s new pastoral care course. After graduating for the second time, she became one of only seven or eight women ministers in the Church of Scotland. She was licensed by Glasgow Presbytery at Glasgow Cathedral in June 1973 and the following Sunday returned to her own Barony Church where she led worship.

She spent the next couple of years in Edinburgh as assistant minister at Pilrig and Dalmeny Street Church where she was ordained in September 1974 – the first ordination at the church that century.

At the time she explained that, following her teaching career, her main interest was in Christian education and a year later she was appointed a Church of Scotland assistant Baird Research Fellow. Based in Leith, she worked for the board of education developing the Sunday School curriculum and became a member of South Leith Parish Church.

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She returned to parish ministry, in the autumn of 1978, at Drylaw Parish Church where she worked closely with ministers serving Muirhouse and West Pilton, and alongside community ministers Alan McDonald and Scott Marshall.

Throughout her ministry she gathered, and supported, strong and effective women to assist her and was clear in her belief that women ministers ought not to mimic their male counterparts.

She understood that women had something different to offer and once, while addressing a conference of women in the ministry, challenged her audience never to pretend to be the same as men of the cloth.

Passionately committed to ecumenicalism, she joined the Ecumenical Team Ministry at Livingston in 1985 and during her career had fulfilled a variety of roles in that field, as a member of: the British Council of Churches’ board of ecumenical affairs and youth unit ; the Scottish Council of Churches’ mission committee; Church of Scotland inter-church relations committee and board of world mission and unity; the Scottish Committee of World Day of Prayer and Presbytery inter-church relations committee.

She also attended the first Assembly of the Council of Churches of Britain and Ireland, as an alternate representing the Church of Scotland.

She also continued to pursue her interest in Christian education and was convenor of the Presbytery Education Committee which resulted in her membership of the Religion in Schools committee at Lothian Region’s education committee. She went on to be a member of the board of parish education, convenor of the education for the ministry committee of the Presbytery of West Lothian and served as Moderator of the Presbytery.

In addition, during her time in Livingston, she was a member of the management committee of Baird House Day centre for older people and chair of the management committee of Craigshill Good Neighbour Network, both roles were a reflection of her determination to work alongside people in a way different to that which teaching had afforded her.

It was said that she put her heart and soul into the Livingston Ecumenical Team but after ten years she was ready to move on to a new challenge.

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She headed west again, this time to Greenock, where she was inducted at St Margaret’s Parish Church in November 1998, becoming moderator of Greenock Presbytery.

She retired in 2010 and one of the highlights of her tenure at Greenock was a visit to Zimbabwe through World Mission.

Travel was one of her great loves and she had visited Russia at the height of the Cold War, Germany, Nigeria, Norway and Dubai, among others, plus Las Vegas where she gave a reading at her nephew’s wedding. Her other interests included cats, reading – everything from theology to Greek tragedy and tartan noire – knitting, sewing and embroidery. Some of her sewing and knitting kit has been donated, through the Women’s Institute, to a local primary school and the WI members have been asked to help teach the children – a legacy that will reflect her lifelong commitment to education.

Rev Kelly is survived by her brothers Graham and Robert and their extended families.