A journey through the heritage of the Anglican Church Women
A Brief History of the ACW
In 1885, Canada’s population was as small as 4.5 million people, Sir John A. MacDonald was serving his second term as prime minister, and the ceremonial final spike was driven into the Canadian Pacific Railway. At this time, the suffrage movement was still young but was experiencing small amounts of varying success in each of Canada’s then eight provinces and territory. However, it would still be another forty-four years until women would be declared "persons" under Canadian law.
During this time the Anglican clergy was solely represented by men. Women were not allowed to attend synods, be a part of church governing bodies, nor be ordained as clergy members. The Church Missionary Society founded in London in 1799 by the Evangelical clergy of the Church of England believed missionary work was men’s work and often emphasized the manliness of their work.
Myra Rutherdale author of Women and the White Man’s God wrote, “The initial reluctance of the church to accept women as missionaries produced a certain tension and impression that the mission field was a male endeavour. Women’s status as church workers, whether voluntary or paid, was particularly ambiguous. Ironically, because of this ambiguity, there was potential for women to carve out careers in mission work and ministry that were both unofficial and creative.”
Though thousands of women found ways to be active in their faith with limited resources, they recognized that they would be able to accomplish more with an organized women’s ministry. This led social reformer, Roberta Tilton, to be one of the seven founders of the Woman’s Auxiliary in Canada.
Social Reformer Roberta Tilton
Roberta Tilton was born in Maine and later moved to Ottawa in 1868. Tilton’s extensive list of leadership roles in several women’s organizations as well as her persuasive writing and public speaking created a lasting effect on female culture. Tilton was inspired to start a woman’s ministry in Canada after meeting the leading Episcopalians and Anglicans as she toured deaconess houses in London, England, and attended woman’s auxiliary meetings in the United States.
In April 1885, Tilton headed a seven-woman delegation that proposed the founding of the Woman’s Auxiliary to the Missionary Society of the Church of England in Canada. The women presented their proposal to the church’s Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.
In their proposal, Tilton highlighted how women across Canada were already devoted to serving the Lord through missionary work and fundraising in their own way. Tilton said, “There are in the Church today Marys who have chosen the better part; there are the restless serving Marthas, who only want the opportunity to do something for Jesus; the Magdalens, who tell the story of our blessed Lord's resurrection; the Phoebes, who convey messages of love and Christian greeting; the Tryphenas, and Tryphosas, Dorcases, who are never weary in well-doing... yes, in the Church of Canada – from Victoria to Sydney – women are longing to labor more abundantly, to consecrate all their talents to the Lord's work."
She appealed to the board by asking that as the Apostles recognized the women of their day as labourers who stood beside them, the board should also recognize the women of the Church of England in Canada and provide consent for them to establish a Women’s Auxiliary.
The board enthusiastically accepted their proposal, and Tilton was offered the position of secretary of the auxiliary in the diocese of Ontario, which was the first established branch. Shortly afterward branches of the Woman's Auxiliary sprung up across Canada.
Through their coordinated efforts, women became increasing recognized and appreciated within the church. The Woman’s Auxiliary later amalgamated with other women’s ministries such as the Mother’s Union, Chancel Guild and Church Year to create the Anglican Church Women’s group (ACW) that we know today.
Through courage and determination, Canadian Anglican women helped to forward the suffrage movement by gaining independence and recognition within the church. The ACW of today is rooted in the history of women’s rights and the strength that comes from seeing everyone within the church as having a vital role.
During a 2010 synod celebrating the 125-year anniversary of the ACW, Marion Saunders, a past president of the ACW of Canada, expressed how she saw the ministry. Saunders said, "Anglican Church Women is not an organization, but the ministry of faith-filled women, a ministry so varied and encompassing all the skills, talents, and God-given gifts of women throughout the Anglican Church in Canada, not just the women in the pews, but Anglican women everywhere."
St. Luke’s ACW Today
"The ACW is a group of dedicated women, helping, and serving our church and community. We reach out beyond our borders, parishes, dioceses and into international waters with the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund,” explains Phyllis Morton, 81, president of the St. Luke’s Cathedral’s ACW branch, and Jo Anstess, 81, a former president. Phyllis and Jo sat down with me to talk about the history of St. Luke’s Cathedral’s ACW, and their experiences as members.
“It’s a very rewarding thing to be a part of; most of my friends have come from the church and the ACW,” says Jo, who has been a part of the ACW for forty-five years. Jo moved to Sault Ste Marie in her thirties, back when St. Luke’s ACW had six units of women. She started in Group One, later named the Margaret Wright group. "We were the young ones, we didn't like going to meetings, we didn't have time to go to meetings, we had young kids, but whenever the general ACW meeting was happening, or another group called on us to help, we were there.”
St. Luke’s ACW has served our community for several generations. Though active membership is smaller in numbers nowadays then it was years ago, the women of St. Luke’s ACW tirelessly press on to spread the word of God by the loudest means possible, their actions.
St. Luke’s ACW raises funds year-round to be able to give donations to various programs and charities that make positive impacts on our community. Through leadership and hard work the women of St. Luke’s ACW coordinate their talents to host successful charity events. These events include bake sales, and rummage sales, as well as the annual Cookie Walk, Winterfest, and Loonie Lunch.
These events not only raise funds for programs and charities but also inspire social engagement within the community. By providing these charity events the ACW provides our community with opportunities to give, volunteer, and create cherished memories with our fellow congregation members, friends, and family. Each effort increases their ability to give more to others and in return increases our gratitude for their service.
“I feel it’s very gratifying; the work we do and the funds that we have to distribute,” says Phyllis. This year, St. Luke’s ACW distributed $5,550 in donations to several different programs and charities including Women in Crisis, Junior Girl’s & Boy’s Auxiliary, and the St. Vincent Meals program.
Phyllis describes the women of the ACW as a very friendly, and dedicated group of ladies who are willing to help in any way that they can. Jo adds that there is a strong sense of friendship as the women can laugh together, and call on each other for support.
“Every woman, who is an Anglican, is already a member. Whether they come to meetings or not, if you are an Anglican woman you belong,” says Jo.
Phyllis, Jo and all of the ACW ladies of today carry with them a legacy that began in 1885. They have held true to Tilton’s dream of being a group for all women in the church to express their faith and spread the word of God. Their leadership and service to their community is a source of inspiration for all of us.