Vera Greig Allen was born in Smiths Falls, Ontario in 1896. Vera earned a Bachelor’s degree from Queen’s University in Kingston. She married Dr. James Mortimer Clark, a physician, and with him, was appointed as a missionary by the Methodist Church to China in 1920. (in China, 1921) He died in April 27, 1925 of typhus and she returned to Canada in August, 1925, with her daughter Jean and son Donald.
Upon Vera’s return to Toronto, she enrolled in the brand new United Church Training School (UCTS) created with the merger of the Presbyterian and Methodist schools. She graduated from the two year General Course in May 1927. (Convocation Program) The General Course was the pre-requisite program for entering the United Church Deaconess Order, but UCTS Principal, Jean MacDonald, reported that Vera had decided against entering the Order. Jean does not share however, what Vera did decide to do. It is possible that she went to work as a Woman Worker at Runnymede United Church. It couldn’t have been easy for Vera, with two young children to look after. Women workers in the church, whatever their status, were very poorly paid and childcare would have been hard to arrange, especially for church work where hours are not predictable and regular.
In 1933 the minutes of the United Church Committee with oversight of the Deaconess Order report that inquiries are being made with Vera about her possible interest joining the Order. There is no noted response, but in 1934 Vera is designated as Deaconess by Toronto Conference and appears on the List of Deaconesses under appointment at Runnymede United Church in Toronto.
It is hard to know why Vera resisted joining the Deaconess Order and why the Committee was so interested in having her join. Approaching women workers to invite them to join the Order is not frequently recorded in the Committee minutes. Perhaps Vera was an exceptional woman and her affiliation with the Order was desired for the prestige that would bring and the leadership she could offer. If she did work in a self supporting congregation, one not under the auspices of the Woman’s Missionary Society where she would have had a group identity, she would have been without a formal community connection and the women in the Order might have reached out to offer her one. For graduates of the Training School there were four choices: designation as a Deaconess, commissioning as a missionary with the Woman’s Missionary Society, congregational or other church work as a woman worker, or, returning to a former career or further training for a non-church related career. There was also the option of marriage, which in the era that Vera attended the school, pretty much eliminated the first four options, although the church sometimes hired married women who had formerly been Deaconesses, especially in times of personnel shortages such as wartime and in the baby boom of the 1950s.
The Woman’s Missionary Society (WMS), the largest employer of women in the United Church, attracted many of the students. For those who had a goal to work specifically for the WMS, especially overseas, becoming a WMS worker by being commissioned as a missionary, was much akin to making a commitment like a Deaconesses. The WMS operated a mission structure that paralleled the United Church Board of Home Mission and Board of World Mission. The WMS engaged as many as 186 single women a year, in India, China, Korea, Japan, Angola, Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Trinidad, Nepal, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and, Canada. Married women were not appointed by the WMS. Women married to men appointed by the United Church were recognized but as a sort of second class of missionary, as Vera was in her time in China.
Some WMS workers were also Deaconesses, another option for graduates. Deaconesses were lay women, they were never considered to be in ministry. In fact, the responsibilities of the Order would sometimes be defined as, “all aspects of church work except for ministry.” Ministry was a permanent vocation, and involved an inherent change within those marked for ministry that could never be removed. The vocation of Deaconess was regarded as temporary, argued on a theological principle that a woman’s God given, primary vocation was that of wife and mother. Women couldn’t have a permanent vocation to ministry because the vocation of wife and mother always trumped. Complementing this understanding was the view that women were incapable of sustaining two vocations at the same time. It was one or the other. Once a woman was married therefore, other vocational pursuits must be ended. Ministry in the United Church in this era was reserved for ordained ministers and essentially ordination was reserved for men, even after the United Church began to ordain single women in 1936. But, it is interesting to look at Vera’s situation as a widow with children. She was able to become a Deaconess, even though she still had the vocational responsibilities of being a mother. Arguably as a single mother the responsibilities were even greater! Even as late as 1957 when Elinor Leard is approved as the first married woman to be ordained, her role as a mother is cited as problematic. A last minute telegram from the Moderator of the United Church to the London Conference meeting tried to stop this “unnatural act”. His objection, however, did not dissuade the Conference from proceeding. Her ordination though, prompted the establishment of a church commission “in view of division of opinion in London Conference on the question of the ordination of Mrs. Elinor Katharine Leard, a married woman with three children.[emphasis mine]” There are a few other instances when widows with children are allowed into the Order, and in later decades, there are Deaconesses who adopt children and are allowed to remain. It would seem that the church viewed the need for women to look after their children as more important than the theological principle of vocational primacy. Having failed to sustain the vocation of wife, they were given permission to in a sense, side step, the vocation of mother. I think that this twist in thinking was possible for the church because the truly important goal was to keep control of women’s access to power. The church could allow some exceptions to the rules as long as they were infrequent. In the context of the well entrenched patriarchy of the early 20th century, a Deaconess with children or a handful of ordained single women were not going to upset the natural balance of the world. It is imaginable however, that Vera would have had distractors and been the subject of “talk”.
The disclaimer that Deaconesses are not in ministry remains strong even though by the early 1940s many Deaconesses are serving as the only paid staff in pastoral charges, performing all of the functions of ministry: except conducting sacraments. With the restriction that, essentially, only men could provide sacramental leadership men’s power was insured. Identifying sacrament (communion and baptism) as the most powerful expression of Christian faith didn’t hurt either. The work of Christian Education, pastoral care, and outreach to the poor and disenfranchised was undeniably notable as valued Christian service, but it just wasn’t real ministry.
The sense of identity in the Deaconess Order was never as strong as that fostered in the WMS for its workers. Some women did feel a strong call to the Order, sometimes because they had been mentored by a Deaconess and they desired to follow in her footsteps. It is unlikely that Vera wrestled with becoming a Deaconess for theological reasons, as might be the case in the modern United Church Diaconate where women and men are entering a life-long vocation and are being “set apart” from the laity as a result of the permanence of that mantel. These aspects of responding to the vocational call require deep consideration for most entering now. There is no evidence that the women in the 1920s reflected deeply on the implications of membership in the Order. Pragmatism was sometimes a determinant however, as the status of Deaconess might have helped in gaining employment. There was also a network of support with the Deaconess Committee, who along with the Secretary of the Deaconess Order assisted women in finding an appointment and advocated for the rights of the women to better working conditions and remuneration. The results of their advocacy were not, however, always successful. Commissions held by the United Church make recommendations about the Deaconess Order that are all over the map: one proposing that all workers be Deaconesses; another that women be ordained to the diaconate; and another that the diaconate be ended. All three state a goal of assisting the church to fulfill its service needs and to attract and retain more women. Most of the proposals are also attempts at posturing by the Church to try and keep women, and their ministries, controlled. The diaconate was sometimes promoted as a way to keep women happy and away from real ministry, but sometimes, even it seemed too powerful and some feared it was the thin edge of the wedge.
Throughout the history there is noted concern about the division of what is a pretty small group of women workers into even small groups, lessening their presence and bargaining power. For example, the Deaconess Association and the Professional Women Workers Association combined their national bi-annual meetings in the 1940s to try and foster closer connection and gain greater influence in their advocacy. There were many issues facing women when they made the decision about what status they would seek and how they would carry out their ministry, even if the full implications were not articulated.
In 1939 Vera moves to Timmins, Ontario, to serve the congregation there. She returns to Toronto in 1941 and next is recorded in an appointment at Westminster Central United Church in 1943, where she remains until her marriage to her first husband’s brother, Frederick Charles Clark. Marriage resulted in women being disjoined from the Order and so Vera lost her Deaconess status and, her job.
Vera died in Toronto in 1997 at the age of 101.
Written by Caryn Douglas, with thanks to Mary Beth Clark, Vera’s grand-daughter, 2012.
 This is still the understanding of ministry in the United Church. Diaconal Ministers are now fully members of the Order of Ministry and it is a life long vocation.
 The church only ordained single women until 1957, and there were very few ordained women prior to the mid 1970s
 London Conference of The United Church of Canada, Digest of Minutes 33rd Annual Conference, June 4-7, 1957, 13.