Pioneering Women Songs of Praise


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Pioneering Women

Rev Kate Bottley visits Mansfield College in Oxford to learn about Constance Coltman, the first woman to be ordained in a UK denomination over a century ago.


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This year marks 100 years

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since women over the age of 30 were first given the vote,

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so we celebrate Christian female pioneers past and present.

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Welcome to Songs Of Praise.

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We're in the city of Oxford to hear about a pioneering female minister

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ordained over 100 years ago...

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She was obviously just an incredibly tenacious woman.

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She didn't take no for an answer,

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and that is an inspiration in itself.

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..the first time cameras have filmed a stunning new discovery

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of Elizabethan Christian history...

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It is, in fact, the only object of dress that

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survives from Elizabeth I's wardrobe.

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..and the woman who launched her own Christian magazine.

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Our music this week features hymns written by women, and one of

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the most prolific was 19th-century American hymn writer Fanny Crosby.

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She wrote thousands of hymns,

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and this one is one of her most well-known, Blessed Assurance.

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This is Mansfield College at the University of Oxford where,

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a century ago, a significant moment in Christian history took place.

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It was here that Constance Coltman trained to be the first woman

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in the UK to qualify for ordination.

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She'd started her studies despite the authorities

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warning that there were no guarantees of a woman ever

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becoming a church minister and,

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although she graduated along with male trainees, there was

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one final step before her role could be made official.

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In October 1917, after her graduation,

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the Congregational Church of England and Wales

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formally recognised Constance Coltman as a minister -

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all the more remarkable when you consider that the

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Church of England didn't get women priests until 1992, 75 years later.

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Constance and her husband, Claud, also a minister,

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went on to lead churches across England for over 40 years

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in what's now known as the United Reformed Church.

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Today, I'm meeting 92-year-old Joan French,

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who has fond first-hand memories of Constance.

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So you remember her preaching?

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You remember her going up the steps and preaching?

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I can remember her in the pulpit and,

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when she was in the pulpit, she wore a little hat, like that,

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and a gown which, at my age - I was six when she came - I'd never

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seen before, so it was something that really stayed in my memory.

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-Did it seem unusual to have a woman minister?

-No, perfectly normal.

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-Didn't know it was unusual.

-Cos it was really unusual, wasn't it?

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It was, it was. And I've only come to appreciate that as I was older.

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And, of course, the baton's been passed to you, hasn't it?

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Cos now you teach at Sunday school.

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I try to teach in Sunday school, yes.

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I started while she was still there. They left in 1940.

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So Constance was married to Claud, who was also a minister?

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That's correct, yes. And I remember them together.

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It's an amazing thing, isn't it?

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Cos you think about the culture of the time, you know, women weren't

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necessarily encouraged to work outside the home at all, were they?

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-And yet, here she was.

-Yeah, not many women went to work then.

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And tell me about this photograph.

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So that's Constance in the centre with Claud just behind her.

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It was taken in the gardens at Wolverton.

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She was a wonderful woman, wasn't she?

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To stand out against every other law, and to think she could

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do all that with no prospects of being acknowledged as a graduate.

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-Do you think she was brave?

-I do, I do. She must have been.

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She always seemed calm, quietly spoken,

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but in control, yeah.

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Our next hymn is In Heavenly Love Abiding.

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-Tell me what you know about that hymn.

-Oh, I love that hymn!

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It's wonderful, isn't it?

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The words in it just make you want to follow which, I suppose,

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is what I've done, isn't it? Followed through with the faith,

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following on with Constance.

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This is Hampton Court Palace - home, in the 16th century,

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to another pioneering woman, Queen Elizabeth I.

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Josie d'Arby has been allowed in to see a new piece of Tudor history.

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The experts here at Hampton Court are incredibly excited to

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have found something very special that dates back to

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Queen Elizabeth I herself, and it has a Christian connection, too.

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-Eleri, Josie, lovely to meet you.

-Welcome to Hampton Court.

-Thank you.

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Curator Eleri Lynn is taking me behind the scenes to see

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a church altar cloth found in St Faith's, Bacton, in Herefordshire,

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now kept under cover on the table.

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It's so precious, it can only be exposed for short periods.

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What's incredibly special is that we think it's made from a skirt

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once worn by Queen Elizabeth I herself.

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So we have the real thing in front of us, which I'll show you now.

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And I'm just going to ask my colleague, Libby,

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to come and help me.

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This is the first time cameras have seen the altar cloth

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revealed like this and I, for one, am incredibly excited.

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Oh, the colours!

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What we're looking at here is the back, and conservators

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here at Hampton Court have only recently removed the backing.

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So, if this is a part of something she would have worn originally,

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how rare is that?

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This artefact is a very, very rare survival because it is, in fact,

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the only object of dress that survives from Elizabeth I's wardrobe.

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It's made from cloth of silver.

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That was reserved by sumptuary law in the Tudor period to the very,

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very highest levels of society - generally, only royalty.

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It's as true as the day that it was embroidered.

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For the first time in 400 years, we're seeing these colours,

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and these are the colours that the Queen would probably have

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worn here at Hampton Court.

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Now, we're talking about pioneering women.

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Why, for you, was she a pioneering monarch?

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She established order and prosperity on the country, really,

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for decades, and the fact that, by the end of her life,

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she was seen as Gloriana

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and her reign is still referred to as a golden age I think is

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testament to the power and control that she wielded.

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And she felt very guided by God throughout her reign, didn't she?

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She said, "I will not make windows into men's souls,"

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which means that she wouldn't persecute people

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on the grounds of faith and that, as long as they were

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loyal subjects to her, she was very tolerant of those differences.

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And the imagery has Christian significance?

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In the early Reformation period and throughout the 16th century,

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religious iconography was forbidden,

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and so one way to show devotion to God was to embroider

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motifs of the natural world, which was in reverence to creation.

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Elizabeth was a very devout queen and woman.

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She saw herself as a vessel for God's direction,

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and she particularly wanted to use that in order to protect her country

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and her people. So she did pray every day for God's guidance.

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This is remarkable and stunning and very beautiful.

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-Eleri, thank you for sharing it with us.

-Thank you. Thanks for coming.

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Constance Coltman,

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the first woman to be ordained in a UK denomination,

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studied here at Mansfield College in Oxford over 100 years ago.

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Reverend Jenny Mills is a more recent graduate of the college

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and has been a United Reformed Church minister for nine years.

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As ordained women,

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she and I have both been inspired by the story of Constance.

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She pushed the boundaries a lot.

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She was a suffragist, so she believed in the non-aggressive

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suffragette movement, so it was about peaceful negotiation.

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She was a pacifist, obviously just an incredibly tenacious woman.

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She didn't take no for an answer.

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I don't know about you but, you know, as an ordained woman,

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there is a sense of whose footsteps you're walking in, isn't there,

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and there's a certain weight that we carry that perhaps

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our male colleagues don't in terms of breaking ground?

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Yeah, and I think that was part of my problem,

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when people started saying to me, "I could see you as a minister,"

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because I kind of didn't think I fitted a mould.

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-Does that make sense - a mould?

-Yeah, that really resonates with me!

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And so, I was, like, no, no, no, no, no!

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But every time I ran away from it, which I did for about five or six years,

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something would happen that made me go, OK, OK.

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And, at one point, I remember bargaining with God, which is

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something I've never done since and I would never do again,

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and I went, OK, God, if this is what I should do,

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one person this week - when we were on a residential -

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needs to say to me, "When are you going into ministry?"

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And, 10 people later, I just put my hands up.

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I remember saying, when I thought I was being called to ministry,

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I'll just see how far I can take it.

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And I presumed that, at some point, someone would just go, "No!"

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-And no-one has yet!

-Yeah.

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But there's always that fear, isn't there, that someone,

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at some point, is going to realise?

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I mean, for me, there's a moment in communion

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when I hold up the chalice -

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and I never realised this until I did my first-ever communion -

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and I remember catching sight of my reflection in the cup and going...

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SHE GASPS

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And thinking, any moment now, someone's going to come

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and stop me from doing this. I'm not allowed, surely?

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I'm not grown-up enough to be a vicar!

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Jenny is now minister of a United Reformed Church in Buckinghamshire

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leading all ages in different forms of worship and community projects.

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Every day is a blessing.

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Even on the really rubbish days, I can wake up feeling, oh,

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I just can't do this, I've got nothing to give.

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And an encounter happens or something is said to you or

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somebody asks you for some advice and you just go, oh, my goodness!

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Thank you, God.

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And I don't even have to understand it - I just have to go, wow!

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This is and I am and God is. And that's where the blessing is.

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I like to think that, when we get there,

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Constance will be waiting for us, don't you?

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And there'll be a big get-together of all the women in ministry,

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going, "Ooh! Well, mine was like this, and my ministry was like that!"

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What do you think?

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Yeah, I think my worry might be she'll go, "Oh, no, you got that fact wrong!"

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Cos, you know, we were the witnesses to the Resurrection,

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so we've got good form.

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If we hadn't gossiped after the Resurrection, if women hadn't

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gone out and had a good old gossip, we wouldn't be here, would we?

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-So hurrah for Mary Magdalene and Constance!

-Absolutely!

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-And hurrah for us!

-Yeah!

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That song, What A Beautiful Name,

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was written by a young New Zealand woman called Brooke Fraser

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just two years ago, and it's already become a worldwide favourite.

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Our next hymn combines the new with the old.

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The 19th-century words were written by female hymn writer Charitie Bancroft,

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and the tune was composed in 1997 by musician Vikki Cook.

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Christian women have been pioneers in all sorts of different ways.

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Josie d'Arby's been meeting a 21st-century woman who's managed

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to combine her faith with a passion for fashion.

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I have always loved the idea of being able to express myself

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through what I wore and I really see fashion as a way

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to kind of express your personality.

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Ruth Awogbade loves the world of fashion

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and has worked for big companies, including Burberry and L'Oreal.

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Growing up I would hear that fashion is a very dark industry

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but actually I found it very full of life.

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Because we serve a creative God,

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so being able to be in an industry that is fast-paced, is creating,

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that's innovating, I found a very enriching experience.

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But Ruth wanted to make a difference in her industry through her faith

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and so she left her full-time job and in 2014 launched

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the first print edition of her Christian magazine called Magnify.

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I think, for me growing up, a lot of my friends,

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they either would say that they don't have a faith

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or they are kind of unsure as to what they think about faith.

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And I really wanted to create a platform that they could engage with on their levels.

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Why have you called it Magnify?

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It goes back to Luke 1, verse 46, where Mary cries out,

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"My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit delights in God my saviour."

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And I think, for me, my vision and prayer and passion

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has always been to see Christ magnified.

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Who is your ideal reader? Who are you aiming this at?

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Women who are driven, who are passionate,

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who are very intelligent, who think deeply about things.

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And so the kind of surface-level answers don't really do it for them.

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I know that you have three Fs that you abide by.

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Can you talk to me about those?

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So Faith, Feminism and Fashion are our three words,

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which often people have to take a step back.

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But for me those were the words that I felt really encapsulated

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the heart of the magazine.

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Ruth's decision to take a step of faith into uncharted territory

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was seen by some as a big risk.

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It was quite a difficult thing when you go to parties or dinners

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and people are like, "Oh, what are you doing?"

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"Oh, you're doing a Christian magazine? OK. All the best with that!"

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So I think for me it was a huge leap of faith to trust that

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what would be next would be better than what I was leaving behind.

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Particularly in today's world we see that women's issues

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are at the forefront of a lot of media, a lot of media campaigns,

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and it is important that there is a voice of faith

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that is positive and enriching.

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Do you feel like a pioneer within your industry?

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I don't know if I would say that but I know what I am passionate about

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is creating something that doesn't exist.

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And if that is a pioneer, then I am very humbled

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but my personal relationship with God has got to be front and centre.

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That's what spurs me on to give other women the opportunity

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to be inspired and to be empowered.

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My own personal relationship with God teaches me to trust him

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more and more and even sometimes when I felt like my back has

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really been up against the wall, God just kind of, yeah,

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opens doors that we never could have imagined or expected.

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# When I fear my faith will fail

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# Christ will hold me fast

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# When the tempter would prevail

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# He will hold me fast

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# I could never keep my hold

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# Through life's fearful path

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# For my love is often cold

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# He must hold me fast

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# He will hold me fast

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# He will hold me fast

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# For my saviour loves me so

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# He will hold me fast

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# For my life He bled and died

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# Christ will hold me fast

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# Justice has been satisfied

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# He will hold me fast

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# Raised with Him to endless life

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# He will hold me fast

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# Till my faith is turned to sight

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# When He comes at last

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# He will hold me fast

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# He will hold me fast

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# For my saviour loves me so

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# He will hold me fast

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# He will hold me fast

0:30:570:31:01

# He will hold me fast

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# For my saviour loves me so

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# He will hold me fast. #

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That's almost it from Oxford.

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Next week, Claire McCollum visits Lincolnshire to discover the link

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between woodlands and Christianity.

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And joins Bishop James Jones planting brand-new oak trees.

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Our final hymn was inspired by probably the most famous woman

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in the Bible - Jesus's mother, Mary -

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whose words of thanksgiving and praise

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resonate with Christians everywhere.

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One hundred years since British women over the age of 30 first got the vote, Rev Kate Bottley celebrates pioneering Christian women. She visits Mansfield College in Oxford to learn about Constance Coltman, the first woman to be ordained in a UK denomination over a century ago. Josie d'Arby gains exclusive access to an exquisite 400-year-old church altar cloth which experts say is from a skirt actually worn by Queen Elizabeth I. Josie also meets Ruth Awogbade, who launched her own Christian fashion magazine. And all this week's music, from across the UK, is inspired or written by women.

Music: Blessed Assurance - LSO St Lukes, London In Heavenly Love Abiding - St German's Church, Cardiff What a Beautiful Name - St Catherine's Pontypridd Before the Throne - Enniskillen Take My Life and Let it Be - Romsey Abbey He Will Hold Me Fast from Belfast - Kristyn Getty Tell Out My Soul - St John the Baptist, Tideswell.