Margaret (Thomson) Houston


Margaret Stewart Houston, BA, DLittS
Surname as Student: Thomson
Education: United Church Training School
Graduation Year: 1951
Designated: 1953
Where: Montreal & Ottawa Conference
Denomination: United Church of Canada
  • 1927 - Born

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When one speaks of Margaret (Thomson) Houston (pronounced Who-s-ton) three words keep coming up: unique, outrageous and witty.  Playing with these words, Margaret might best be described as simply ‘outraged’ or ‘outrageously unique’ or ‘uniquely outrageous’ or ‘outrageously witty’ depending on the context and issue at hand.  However one describes her, it is a well-attested fact that when Margaret Houston was in the room, everyone knew it.

Following her death, an article entitled “United Church loses spirited minister”[i] appeared in the Montreal Gazette.  Coverage in the secular city newspaper is a signal of how significant Margaret’s presence was felt in the Montreal community.  Here it is told how she would get into “very spirited exchanges” at Montreal Presbytery meetings with Rev. Dr. George Johnston, then dean of the McGill University Faculty of Religious Studies.  Once the meeting was adjourned, she would turn to him with a laugh and offer him a ride home.  Margaret had a sharp mind and loved debating but never “took prisoners”[ii] in the debate.

Margaret Thomson was born in Edinburg, Scotland in 1927 and immigrated to Canada in the early 30’s when her father, Rev. James S. Thomson, accepted a position in Halifax as principal of the United Church’s Pine Hill Theological College.  Upon arrival in Canada, her father transferred his membership from the Church of Scotland, where he was ordained, to the United Church of Canada.  Shortly thereafter, the family moved to Saskatchewan where Rev. Thomson became president of the University of Saskatchewan (1937-1949).  This is where Margaret received her Bachelor of Arts.

In 1949, when Margaret was 22 the family moved to Montreal so that Margaret’s father could become the Dean of the McGill University Faculty of Divinity, as it was called then.  Growing up in the Thomson family included plenty of theological debate and a life of undeniable privilege that found Margaret often surrounded by dignitaries such as Prime Minister John Deifenbaker and Governor-General George Vanier, relationships that continued throughout her life.

After her undergrad studies, Margaret worked in retail with Simpsons, as a comparative shopper, but she knew her place was in the church.  Mr. Houston shared that while Margaret’s father, her upbringing, and the Church of Scotland were all influential in her sense of vocation, “let’s not kid ourselves… Margaret made up her own mind”[iii].  It was not long before Margaret enrolled in The United Church Training School, and in 1949 she headed west to Toronto.

Clarifying her decision to train as a Deaconess, Mr. Houston offered “ordaining women just wasn’t done then”[iv] despite the ground having been broken in 1936 by Lydia Gruchy, the first woman to be ordained in the United Church of Canada, a year after Margaret’s family arrived in Saskatchewan.  Yet, in 1949 there were fewer than a dozen ordained women.  Interestingly, Margaret and Lydia shared the same alma mater, The University of Saskatchewan; Lydia earning her Bachelor’s degree in 1920, and later, a graduate of St. Andrew’s Theological College, on the U of S campus.  So while the ordination of women would have been known to Margaret as an option, just over a decade later, when she was making her vocational choices, it was still ‘out of the norm’.

Margaret graduated from the United Church Training School in 1951 and then served under the supervision of Gerald R. Cragg at Erksine and American United Church (EAUC) for two years as a Deaconess Candidate, a normal pattern for the time.  In 1953, Margaret was admitted to what the United Church then called the Deaconess Order and continued to offer her ministry at EAUC where her duties were Sunday School and other youth work.  In Margaret’s mind there was “no distinction” between her ministry and that of Gerald Cragg; they were “complimentary”[v].  This is a strongly held, lifelong belief of Margaret’s, although in the 1950s no one would have formally called the work of a Deaconess ministry.  In that era, ministry was narrowly defined as the work of an ordained person, who alone had the responsibility for sacramental leadership.  In fact, George Houston, Margaret’s husband of 42 years, shared that she “saw no difference between ordained ministry and diaconal ministry”[vi].  Margaret thought that the two expressions were a partnership and she felt strongly that both streams should be ordained: one to Word, Sacrament and Pastoral Care, the other to Service, Education and Pastoral Care.

In 1956, Margaret left the Order of Deaconesses to marry George and soon thereafter started a family.  Margaret didn’t have a choice really, as the Order was reserved for single women (or widows).  When a Deaconess married she was disjoined.  It would be interesting to know if Margaret was aware that some women were receiving exemptions, albeit with limiting clauses, to the disjoining rule, beginning in the mid 1950s.  The rule officially ended in 1960, but continued unofficially for nearly a decade.  Also continued after 1960, was the companion act of disjoining for women no longer working for the church.  If not at the time, in later years Margaret must have had an awareness of how the disjoining of Deaconesses was an aspect of clericalism and protected “ministry” for men.

The Church feared two things about Deaconesses: that married women working would destroy the family, and, that Deaconesses might be considered to be ministers.  While movement on the first fear happened in 1960, shaking loose the grip on the second took another couple of decades. Ministry was essentially the work of men, even after the United Church began to ordain single women in 1936.[vii]  Deaconesses were lay women, they were never considered to be in ministry. The rules of the Order were clear from the very beginning: “Upon completion of the course of studies, and a suitable appointment, women shall be designated.  Such designation, however, is not to be regarded as ordination, nor shall any pledge of perpetual service be exacted, but each worker shall be free to retire from her work upon notice duly given to the Committee under whose direction she is labouring.” [viii] In fact, the responsibilities of the Order would customarily be defined as, “all aspects of church work except for ministry.”  In the context of the well entrenched patriarchy of the early 20th century, a handful of ordained single women were not going to upset the natural balance of the world; but there were hundreds of women designated as a Deaconess.  Allowing these women to retain their status when not working, would be admitting something life-long about their vocation, and, theologically speaking, it would have acknowledged something ontological about designation as a Deaconess, making it ministry.  Identifying sacrament (communion and baptism) as the most powerful expression of Christian faith, the only one worthy of the title ‘ministry’, and having an ordained group that was almost exclusively male, insured men’s power.  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.  Margaret’s strong, maybe even stubbornly outrageous view that her work was ministry was one of the wedges needed to break open the old patterns; but not in 1956.

According to her husband, there were no hard feelings at having to leave the Order, “this is just the way things were”. Their daughter, Marion has another view; her mother never left active ministry, only official, paid ministry.  Margaret’s involvement as a layperson remained strong throughout all levels of the United Church of Canada and its courts.  A case in point is that in 1980, and again in 1994, Margaret was nominated as a layperson for the role of Moderator.  (Click here for an United Church Observer article about Margaret and the other 7 candidates.  Lois Wilson was elected that year.)

In 1986, Margaret made an application to Montreal and Ottawa Conference to be readmitted to the Order.  Some work with the Centre for Christian Studies (once the United Church Training School) resulted in Margaret’s earlier Deaconess training being recognized and an interview by Montreal – Ottawa Conference Board lead the way for her to be readmitted to Diaconal Ministry[ix].  She was subsequently licensed, by request of her pastoral charge, to administer the sacraments.  Margaret served two interim ministries before being called by Dorval-Strathmore United Church in 1989 where she served until her death in 1998.

During this time, all of Margaret’s passions were integrated into her role as minister.  She loved the United Church, pastoral care, liturgy – being completely at ease administering the sacraments and “quite enjoyed preaching”[x].  As well, Margaret was a strong believer in education and United Church polity and process.  In the last decade of Margaret’s ministry, she was gifted with the opportunity to combine her love of education and polity/process while teaching UCC polity at United Theological College.

Whether during her years as laity or while in ‘official ministry’, Margaret served her church at all levels.  Nationally, she was a member of the Division of Mission in Canada Executive, sat on Transfer and Settlement Committee as chair of Montreal-Ottawa Settlement Committee, and was nominated for Moderator.  In the Montreal Presbytery, the spirited Margaret served as co-chair of Ministry Personnel and Education, sat on Pastoral Relations and was, at one time, was chair of Mission Support.

When it comes to pastoral care, Margaret is remembered by her friend Nandy Johnston (wife of the late Rev. Dr. George Johnston) as “a good listener and very compassionate”[xi].   Margaret spent hours and hours every week visiting people in hospital, those shut in at home, as well as being with those experiencing other of life’s challenges.

Margaret, like her father, had strong beliefs that some parts of liturgy “simply had to be done properly… and that meant by the minister … probably stemming from their Church of Scotland roots”[xii], Mr. Houston added.  This belief carried into liturgy for weddings and funerals.  Offering clarification, Mr. Houston shared that Margaret strongly believed funerals needed to be done “well” and rather than risking someone “wailing through”[xiii] the eulogy for a loved one she was known to insist that someone further removed from the immediate family offer it, or she would offer to do it herself and incorporate it into the Prayers of the People.

During Margaret’s “off years”, she became very involved with the Quebec school system.  On the local level, she participated in the “Home and School Association” and later as a member of the “Protestant Committee of Religious Education” – the provincial body responsible for the design and implementation of the protestant curriculum.  She wrote a series of books on Songs of Praise for schools.

As for social justice issues, Margaret was “interested but did not champion any cause”[xiv] except the seven or eight years she chaired a family foundation that dispensed funds to social organizations serving people in need.  Feminism?  “She didn’t take on the issue, she was always treated equally”[xv].  The ’88 debate on homosexuality and ministry? “She didn’t take sides because it’s not the church’s business”.[xvi]  What was important to her was a “person’s capacity to serve the Church”[xvii].  Her involvement in the ‘88 issue however merits mention:  she helped people “debate the matter rationally” and with appropriate process.[xviii]

Throughout her life, Margaret loved the psalms but especially felt comforted by the “Psalms of Scotland” during her last illness as she “listened constantly to the Scottish Philharmonic Singers”[xix].  Margaret died only 10 days after her official retirement from active ministry. She was 71 years old.

While Margaret was “very connected to her church”, Mr. Houston did not recall any particular connection to the Deaconess community. [xx] It leaves be wondering, ‘Was she a Deaconess by choice? Or because ordination wasn’t really an option in the 1940s? She could have been ordained in the 1980s but that would have required more formal theological education.  Perhaps Margaret was a ‘deac-ord’, a made-up word to indicate a combination of diaconal and ordained.  After all, Margaret herself saw no distinction between the two streams and most likely wouldn’t appreciate any attempt to box her in to one or the other.  Employing a functional analysis of ordained ministry; word, sacrament, pastoral care; Margaret’s post 1986 work could be seen to be more ordained than diaconal (education, service and pastoral care).  But a narrowly applied functional analysis rarely assists in understanding the two expressions of ministry.

Margaret possessed diverse and complementary skills.  On one hand, her passion for pastoral care and strong interest in education can be thought of as aspects normally attributed to diaconal ministry.  On the other hand pastoral care (common to both streams), her love for liturgy, her ease with the sacraments, and the fact that she “quite enjoyed preaching” might suggest a call to ordained ministry.   One thing for sure, had Margaret been alive to attend General Council 38, she would have had plenty to contribute to the “One Rite” debate.  Commissioned or ordained it really doesn’t matter. Margaret was committed to The United Church of Canada.  She was unique, outrageous and witty, and many combinations thereof, ~ that is how she will be remembered to many.

This biography was written by Sally Meyer for an assignment at the Centre for Christian Studies in 2003, edited and enlarged by Caryn Douglas in April 2013.

[i] Harvey Shepherd, July 25, 1998.  The Montreal Gazette, “United Church Loses Spirited Minister
[ii] Harvey Shepherd
[iii] George Houston.  Personal Interview.  October 22, 2003.  Montreal, Qc.
[iv] George Houston
[v] George Houston
[vi] George Houston
[vii] The church only ordained single women until 1957, and there were very few ordained women prior to the mid 1970s
[viii] Report of the Deaconess Committee and Board of the Presbyterian Missionary and Deaconess Training Home, to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, 1924 pg 178
[ix] In 1982 the Deaconess Order was replaced by the Order of Diaconal Minsters, and Diaconal Minsters became members of the Order of Ministry, one of two streams in the United Church.  Diaconal Ministers are commissioned to Education, Service and Pastoral Care.
[x] George Houston
[xi] Nandy Johnston,  Personal Interview.  October 22, 2003.  Montreal, Qc.
[xii] George Houston
[xiii] George Houston
[xiv] George Houston
[xv] George Houston
[xvi] George Houston
[xvii] George Houston
[xviii] George Houston
[xix] George Houston
[xx] George Houston