In this series of posts, University of Roehampton chaplaincy staff are reflecting, in honour of International Women’s Day, on women who have inspired them. Here Chaplain Shanon Ferguson writes about Jean Anne White.
The Reverend Elder Jean Anne White lived an amazing public life as a nurse, a midwife, a missionary, a pastor, a pioneer of church expansion, an Elder of international standing in her denomination, a mentor to other clergy, a counsellor, and as a tireless campaigner for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people – particularly for their active and positive inclusion in the Church.
Central to Jean’s ministry was a tried and tested commitment to Jesus Christ. On this she was unequivocally immoveable. God as Father, Holy Spirit as Inspirer, and Jesus as the sent Son were core precepts of her faith out of which her service and ongoing care for others was maintained. Part of Jean’s genius was to make everyone feel special. She was interested in people, full of great wisdom, good sense and tender humour.
Jean was born in 1941 and grew up in South London as part of the Plymouth Brethren Church; her faith was personal, deep and important to her and she was brought up by her parents with a great sense of duty; a sense that never left her. She trained as a nurse in London’s East End at the Whitechapel hospital and, later, as a midwife in Bristol and Edinburgh.
In the early 1960s Jean trained in both Sussex and Stockholm to be a missionary, building on her faith and learning about the theory and practice of mission. During this time she also learnt Chinese under the tutelage of Gladys Aylward. She always found it odd that her church would let her lead worship, preach and celebrate Holy Communion overseas, but not at home in the UK! In 1964 Jean went to Macao as a missionary and served there until 1970.
During the last three years in China, Jean was incarcerated and tortured by the Red Guard. This made her value the importance of being true to oneself and the need to be honest about her own sexuality and, when she returned to London, resolved to come out. Consequently, she was dismissed by her missionary organisation so returned to nursing where she built for herself a good career in midwifery.
In 1972 she joined a prayer group for lesbian and gay Christians called the Fellowship of Christ the Liberator and, following a visit to London by the Rev Troy Perry, the founder of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC), the group voted to join MCC. Jean’s great faith, her experience of being a missionary, her pastoral expertise and her ecumenism meant that her gifts and skills were used from the start. Jean was elected to serve on the congregation’s Board of Directors, then she was made a deacon and eventually trained for ordination and became the new church’s pastor.
In an age before the internet Jean wrote thousands of letters offering support, advice and wisdom to people in countries all over the world as they started to explore what it might mean to be LGBT and Christian. Jean was responsible for over-seeing and establishing churches in Europe, Asia, South Pacific, Latin America, New Zealand and Africa. In Nigeria she was surprised and amused to find the Jean White Memorial Clinic named in her honour.
Back in the 1970s and early 1980s it was very hard to get any gay literature and so Jean helped set up the Gay’s the Word bookshop in central London; she saw the need for a place for people to come and be able to find that they weren’t the only person in the world who felt like this.
The AIDS pandemic took a dreadful toll on the LGBT community and very few ministers would take the funerals and undertakers were afraid to do little more than put the dead in body bags. She loved and cared about the young men who were dying and officiated at hundreds of funerals with dignity, compassion and tenderness.
Jean was an ordained pastor for over 30 years and during that time helped thousands of LGBT people reconcile their faith and sexuality and/or gender identity and find a church community that they could call home. She truly opened her arms to the world.
She had a magnetic ability to draw people to her, for people to instantly trust her and tell her their deepest problems. Her ability to listen and not judge meant she was an excellent confidante. Jean was also an inspirational preacher with a rich imagination. She would create stories, which she called ‘friendly readings’, to emphasise her message and bring it to life.
She was a pastor, mentor and friend to me and so many others, supported me to seek ordination and has inspired my ministry.
More information, including sermons, can be found here.
Rev Shanon Ferguson is Associate Chaplain and LGBT liaison at the University of Roehampton.