Midnight Dec 31st marked more than the end of 2002 for Dame Phyllis Guthardt. It also brought an end to her tenure as chancellor of the University of Canterbury.
Phyllis served for four years as the ceremonial and civic head of the university, an honour that was just one of the highlights of a career filled with accomplishments and pioneering firsts in service to the Church and education.
When Phyllis received ordination as a Methodist minister in 1959, she became the first woman of any denomination to be ordained in New Zealand. She was later to be the first woman elected to the presidency of the NZ Methodist Church (1985).
"In the early 1950s the Methodist Church decided it had nothing in principle against the ordination of women. In 1954 I moved from Christchurch, where I was working as a young teacher and studying part time at Canterbury University, to Auckland so I could enter Trinity College."
I completed my bachelor's degree at Auckland University and went on to study part-time and earn my MA in English while I was a probationer minister in Christchurch.
"After a three and a half years of parish ministry, Phyllis received a scholarship to attend Cambridge University, England. In addition to the scholarship Methodist women around the country raised 1000 pounds to support her studies. Phyllis says it was a tremendous amount in those days. "It shows the extent of support I enjoyed, and I have always been very grateful for it."
In Cambridge Phyllis received her PhD in Biblical Studies. When she returned to New Zealand three and a half years later it was to Hamilton. She served as presbyter at the Melville church and as a hospital chaplain.
"When I got back to New Zealand some people told me seriously not to expect to be invited to parishes or theological colleges because I was a woman. It was never like that, however. My first stationing was by appointment but all my other posts have been through requests. Over the years several theological colleges have invited me to apply for positions."
Her shift to Christchurch was the result of one such invitation - to be minister at Knox Presbyterian Church in Christchurch. That was in 1976 and her first reaction was 'Don't they know I am a Methodist'.
At that time the move toward Church union had stuttered to a halt. Phyllis consulted with several people and they agreed her appointment to a Presbyterian church might be a way forward because it could lead to churches accepting mutuality of ministry.
Phyllis loved parish ministry, because as a single woman it gave her a community of faith and mutual support. While the Church has been a source of strength and support, she has put plenty of effort into changing its attitudes.Some parishioners used to bring their friends along to see the curiosity of a woman minister, and at funerals peoples' jaws would drop at the sight of her. On the other hand, when she left her parish to go to England in 1960, a male minister was to replace her, and a young five-year-old girl asked her mother how a man could be a minister.
"As late as the 1970s synods were still addressed as gentlemen and 'the men' were asked to send in their reports. When I stood and spoke for language that would include the other half of the world's population I was told to sit down. I replied that I if they made me sit down I would stand up again later."
It gives me great delight to see the spread of acceptance of women. I never wanted to see the Church dominated by women. I thought men and women should be equal partners because of their different gifts and approaches."
It was in Hamilton that Phyllis began her long affiliation with New Zealand's tertiary education system. She was the first ecumenical chaplain at the University of Waikato and also lectured in English and Religious Studies.When she moved to Christchurch she became involved with the University Council. She served on the council for 21 years, eventually becoming pro-chancellor and ultimately chancellor.
Phyllis has served with the World Council of Churches, the Christian Conference of Asia, and the World Methodist Conference.
For her service to the Church she was made a dame of the British Empire in 1993. In 1986 the University of Waikato awarded Phyllis an honorary doctorate degree and the University of Canterbury will award her one in April.