‘Give up!’ was the advice given to 35 year old Rose Dowsett when she, her husband, Dick, and her family were relocated to Scotland after nearly eight years in ministry among students in the Philippines.
Rose, now retired, is a former missionary with OMF International (previously the China Inland Mission and Overseas Missionary Fellowship). She is an author, formerly an international convention speaker, and Vice Chairman of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) Mission Commission.
Along the way, she also taught Church History and Missiology at the Bible Training Institute (BTI) and then Glasgow Bible College (GBC) for about 18 years. Today, those words – ‘You can’t teach the Bible or preach here’ – have the capacity to shock, but in 1978 there was strong resistance in many Scottish evangelical circles to women in public Bible teaching. It hadn’t been a problem in Rose’s experience up to that point, in Asia or in the UK. With a young family, and running a mission guest home, there was plenty to do, but she believed God had called her to be a Bible teacher.
God’s answer came through Geoff Grogan, Principal of BTI, who needed temporary teacher cover. One day he fell into conversation with Rose’s husband, Dick, who immediately suggested Rose might help. Rose says, ‘When Geoff appointed me voices were raised in protest, “You can’t have a woman teaching!” Geoff told them, ‘She already is teaching.’
Rose’s career could be summed up by the mantra “But she persisted”. When asked about the position of women leaders within the evangelical church Rose’s response was, ‘Actually, biblical leadership is not just about position and structure. I think the Lord can open up many ways in which you can quietly set about influencing other people and learning from other people. But there are many forms of leadership that are nothing to do with being an organisational leader…I think you look to the Lord to open up the areas of ministry that are right for you and that there are always ways in which you can serve God, whether or not some things are shut off from you.’ Her persistence is following her conviction that she was to serve.
We are in Rose’s sitting room on an early spring day. Outside the street is quiet, the gardens blooming with spring flowers. I’ve brought Jen Clarke to meet her. Jen is in her twenties, studying at Scottish School of Christian Mission for a Certificate of Higher Education in Theology (Pioneer Ministry). She trained as a professional dancer, she has an interest in performance and above all, she wants to dedicate her life to serving God. However, she is not sure yet what form this will take. Jen says, ‘All I know is that I am a creative person and I want to use my gifts.’
Rose remembers how she was called. She portrays her teenage self as a blue-stocking, captivated by Marxism, and proud of her erudition. She was challenged by a friend to learn about the Bible with the words, “You are really quite ignorant about Christian matters!”. Rose, more than a little annoyed, flew to the New Testament, and read it three times in two weeks. At the end of that time she was convinced that the Lord is alive and truly God. ‘The Lord asks for radical disciple-ship. This realisation was built into the point I was converted. I also quite soon had a sense that I must work in Asia. A few years later in the Philippines I was discipling students who were surrounded by committed Marxists, some being converted out of that, and, you know, it really is amazing how God weaves one’s life together because, due to my early experiences, I understood Marxist logic and I was able to talk to them about what they believed.’
I felt very alone
After you heard a call, what did you do next?
Jen says, ‘Next? I cried even more! I felt very alone. I knew I needed to seek out other people, but many people do not answer the call, so there were few I could talk to. Our church runs a school in Africa and I felt pressed to go. I was a youth worker, running bible clubs, and teaching for a month. I returned again to Africa, to Kenya and Ghana. When I finally came home I learned about a place in Brazil where they work with young girls using dance and performance skills. I emailed them and ended up there for 6 months. Later, I travelled to Amsterdam and Cambodia. At the time it was hard watching my friends lead lives surrounded by boyfriends, family and friends; but I knew my path was different.’
When she thinks of her next steps Rose seems astonished by the nerve of her younger self. ‘I was not initially part of any church and I was fairly isolated. I started a small Bible group with no training. I dread to think of what I made of it. Later, I spotted a notice while I was studying English in Bristol University. It was for an evening class to help lay people become non-stipendiary ministers and I asked if I could join the class. It was a brilliant theological training, but hard work studying for a Diploma and a degree at the same time. After three years in student ministry in England, I joined OMF and went to Manila, where Dick and I married and worked together. I was training national staff-workers and students. Together with them we also planted two churches. We also ran evening courses for young graduates to help them, in a very young society, lead their churches better. When I was abroad I was accepted as a woman teacher; the difficulties arose when I came home. Since then, I have found God constantly weaving together experience from all down the years, in many countries, and through many strands of ministry. He doesn’t waste things!’
I ask Jen if she feels that she had met with resistance to her calling. She thinks carefully, at first she says, ‘I don’t think so. I am privileged to be living in a more enlightened time,’ but then she reflects, ‘I was at a pioneer ministry conference recently and I was amazed at how many older men were there! Not many young women.’ Jen says, ‘I try to keep in mind those things that first called out to me, and I try not to get distracted by people.’ Jen and Rose exchange smiles as they talk perhaps realising that they have more in common than they first thought. They both have been called to persist and to serve.
Blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen
Tell me about studying the bible and how you made practical use of your theological learning?
Rose suddenly remembers something: ‘There is a lovely mistranslation in the King James Bible “and I, being in the way, the Lord led me…” Genesis 24:27. ‘It’s quite wrong of course, but I love the wisdom of learning by being, and the way the Lord builds our lives step by step.’ Jen agrees, ‘I think it’s important not just to learn but live out your faith.’ Rose says, ‘Sometimes you only see the pattern of God’s calling looking back. While you are in the middle it can seem like chaos, but you learn by being in a situation as well as thinking about it, and you go from there.’
Rose continues, ‘I think sometimes, in the modern church, that we are in danger of making faith virtually a spectator sport. We have to prove ourselves before we are entrusted with actually doing anything. We are looking for people with experience but not allowing people to become experienced.’ Jen responds, ‘Faith is not just to be studied: faith is life. It’s so important to bring together the practice of living out your faith together with theological study.’
Jen describes her course. ‘My course is for a year but I would love it to go on longer. I’m encouraged by the fact that, the more I learn, the more I know I am doing the right thing. I like the story of Bezalel in Exodus.’ Jen refers to, “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel… and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft. And he has inspired him to teach, both him and Oholiab the son of Ahisamach of the tribe of Dan. He has filled them with skill to do every sort of work done by an engraver or by a designer or by an embroiderer in blue and purple and scarlet yarns and fine twined linen, or by a weaver— by any sort of workman or skilled designer” (Ex 35:30-35 ESV). Jen continues, ‘Studying solidified my conviction that I don’t have to force myself into the conventional mould of being a minister, and yet my creative gifts can be of real use.’
We cannot wait for them to come to us
Tell me about the challenges you face now?
Jen: ‘The walls of the church have grown too thick. I chose to study pioneer ministry because faith is lived out nine to five, not just Sundays.’ Rose responds ‘One of my sons is an ordained Anglican minister in Sunderland. He spends a day every fortnight in the place of work of someone in his congregation. He describes this as some of the best work he has done, both for himself and others. Worship does not have to be in a familiar church building.’ Jen agrees: ‘Our challenge is to go to where people are. We cannot wait for them to come to us.’
Rose: ‘Children brought up on Bible stories may reach 12 or 13 years and overnight find themselves in an aggressively secular setting in secondary school. The mainstream churches are out of touch with younger generations, how their lives are being shaped, their world view, their thought system. We have to grapple with faithfulness and scripture in a way that makes sense to them. If ever there was a need for deep teenage apologetics, it is now. Also we need to understand why some churches, like the ethnic churches, some reformed churches, the charismatic and the Pentecostal churches are growing, while others are not.’
Jen: ‘I think we put missionaries and pastors into a box and they can be forced to become someone they are not. If that happens they will burn out. Instead we should be looking at the talents every individual has to offer. That’s what matters.’
A fully-orbed, faith-growing training
What can a training college do that will help people on their mission?
Rose: I think the best training is always one that engages the whole person: mind, heart, all the senses, and that constantly comes back to seeking to shape students for godly living and spiritual growth and effectiveness. It is important to stretch every fibre of intellect – ignorant or slipshod Christians will easily be led astray into error or foolish behaviour – and good training will instil a love of life-long learning and study. But if it stops with the intellect, it can easily become detached and more like philosophy than faith, so good training always presses the student to apply that study and to see how one’s life is to be changed and refined by it, and how it interprets and weighs up the surrounding culture so that one can speak and live gospel truth into it. In my experience, the very best forms of training combine study with active ministry, bathed in worship and prayer. Training places are under huge pressure to conform to academic standards set by secular authorities, and they of course are not at all interested in anything spiritual and transformational or faith-based. So I hope SSCM will hold its nerve and insist on fully-orbed, faith-growing, training. And because our discipleship and growth in faith and ministry should be progressive all our lives long, I hope SSCM will encourage people to dip back in at regular intervals to study some more. In particular we need to work very hard in understanding how the Scriptures speak into our changing culture, and thus equipping us for effective evangelism and living out robust faith in every dimension of life – family, workplace, neighbourhood, wider society, etc, not just in safe church circles. SSCM needs to ensure students have experienced mentors who are also themselves learning and growing, and exploring fresh ways of communicating God’s truth.
Jen: They can accept people as they are, offering opportunities to help them discover and grow into who God intended them to be.
As our interview draws to a close and night falls we say goodbye. On the way back in the car Jen and I talk about all the things that have been discussed, particularly the Mystery Plays, that bring the Gospel into people’s lives, through humour and drama. I am reminded of what Jen said earlier that day. “There was a time that the church led the way to recreate Bible stories that people could understand. We need to be leading that way again to reach hearts”.