Obituary: Sister Margaret Dewey SSM

The Revd Michael Hardy and Dr Muriel Porter write:

SISTER MARGARET DEWEY SSM, who died on 8 June, aged 94, belonged to an upstate New York family, whose ancestors arrived from England in the 17th century. From her father, an adopted Mohawk, Godfrey Dewey, son of the cataloguer, Margaret learned to reject settler talk about the empty continent.

She had a questioning, critical mind, and loyalty, compassion, and championship of the oppressed and rejected. She grew up at Lake Placid, where her father helped to persuade the International Olympic Committee to hold the winter Olympics in 1932. She won a scholarship to Radcliffe College.

With degrees in history and choral music, she moved to England in 1950. She studied theology, and then ran a retreat house in Gloucestershire. The Archbishop of Melbourne, Frank Woods, then suggested she become Principal of Janet Clarke Hall. “No one was as surprised as me,” she said.

Arriving in Melbourne in 1959 to take up her post, she discovered that plans were under way to make the hall — then a hostel for female students attached to Trinity College — a women’s college in its own right. Clearly she was none too pleased. “At Oxford and Cambridge, colleges were becoming co-educational,” she said. Nevertheless she helped the hall make the break — what she refers to as the “divorce” — before leaving in 1963. In the early 1960s, she taught ascetical theology at Ridley College. She was involved in ecumenical endeavours with Davis McCaughey, Master of the neighbouring Ormond College.

She scrutinised sharply her native US, whose citizenship she surrendered in 1960, when she was naturalised in the UK, and took also Australian citizenship. A passionate intercessor for the peace of Jerusalem, she blazed against American support of wrong causes in the Middle East.

A natural conservative, she detested the Republican neoliberalism, the influence of the Rapture school, and the religious Right in general, and feared Zionism’s powerful lobbies. She noted that many of the better-known sects, the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventists, began, like her family, in upstate New York. There was the insecurity of the frontier, and an almost total lack of critical thinking, or of any criteria for discerning the credibility or otherwise of new ideas.

She lectured at the Society of the Sacred Mission’s theological college at Kelham, Nottinghamshire, and in the ’70s at other theological colleges. For 28 years, including eight years in Australia, she edited the SSM’s newsletters. In 1978, when she returned to live in England, after the death of her father, whom she had cared for in the States for six years, she was invited to become an associate with the Order at Willen Priory, near Milton Keynes. At that stage, women could not become professed members of the Order.

Her lifetime passion was Jerusalem. She started to go there because an SSM brother, Gilbert Sinden, Director of Studies at St George’s College, asked her to help re-catalogue the library. After his death, she was asked to be Librarian. She had Israeli friends, especially among the peace movement, but since St George’s College is in East Jerusalem, she was mostly among Palestinians.

To all who worked with Margaret, or who supported and prayed for the work of USPG, her published work was important. She also served for six years as Warden of USPG’s Association of Missionary Candidates. She was a driving force for a change of attitude in the “developed” Christian world to the “undeveloped”. Her work with candidates involved encouraging the desire to serve and challenging motives that she deemed shallow.

She was the main agent in popularising the United Society’s work. In her book The Messengers (Mowbray, 1975), a concise history of USPG, she cut through many of the ambiguities and disagreements of British mission agencies. Her writings offer a lively, readable challenge to explore what the gospel says to a diverse and shrinking world.

Margaret was the author or editor of various reports, notably a substantial treatise, Starting from Here, addressed to the USPG Council and supporters in 1972: a potted history of “mission in six continents”, with lively comment and information, and some prophetic remarks
too, about the state of mission and the world. She contributed periodical pamphlets, including Thinking Mission, which she edited till 1989.

All this stimulated prayer, as Margaret meant it to. She contributed to the series of illustrated pamphlets Prayer is my Job. The call to prayer, engagement with God, submission to his purpose, and acceptance of what we may well see as God’s quirky or even outrageous sense of fun, were always the heart of the matter for Margaret.

Becoming, by stages, a nun did not make Margaret any less militant. Herbert Kelly, the priest on whom she modelled her life, long before SSM’s rules let her make a formal religious profession in the late 1970s, was daunting.

Margaret praised “Kelham theology”, showing how Kelly’s plan — wider and deeper than opening ordained ministry to the “less educated” — anticipated postmodernism, and therefore offered hope for the 21st-century seeker. Coming to this conclusion involved her in studies that took in sub-nuclear physics and deconstructionism.

Margaret was negative about the ordination of women, reacting to the upsetting of the polity of the American churches by the divisive ordinations. In her last book, Light from Within (Canterbury Press, 1993), she championed an essential maleness in priesthood. She spoke
of the human psyche in the classical dichotomy of male and female. To call women priests was false; “priestesses” would be their proper title (whereas seeress and prophetess were valid vocations).

Further, she distinguished a ministry of sacraments in Protestant traditions, from a Catholic and priestly ministry retained (begging still-debated questions) in Anglicanism. She later backed off from such controversies, and, indeed, said that she was no longer concerned with ecclesiastical structures, “including the three-fold ministry.”

No line was drawn under Margaret’s quest for truth. Her search took her increasingly into psychology. The 1993 book, with a title reminiscent of Quakerism, in which she “interpreted the biblical drama in terms of consciousness” points to the quieting of a soul, still critical and provocative, but waiting patiently on the Mystery that lies behind all theology, and all life.

At the end of the 1990s, she was asked to go to Newton Theological College at Popondetta, New Guinea, where she taught Old Testament. “That was fascinating,” she recalled. “Imagine trying to teach students about the Old Testament who had never seen a sheep.”

In 2000, she returned to Australia for good, to be professed as a life SSM member based at the Diggers Rest priory. She lived there until it was closed. After several years living independently at Parkville, deteriorating health, including dementia, necessitated Margaret’s moving into full care at Mercy Place in East Melbourne. By the time of her death, she was the only member of the SSM still in Melbourne, but
she received frequent visits from friends and former members of the Society.

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