The life and ministry of Jean Anne White
3rd April 1941 - 8th November 2010
(based extensively on the eulogy delivered by Andy Braunston at her funeral in November 2010)
We give thanks to God for the life of Jean White whom many knew as a pastor, a colleague, a mentor, and a friend, a daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, aunt and as a beloved partner. We commend Jean to God’s tender keeping remembering her faith which did indeed move mountains and which gave meaning, purpose, and structure to her life.
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. She lived an amazing public life as a nurse, a missionary, a pastor, a pioneer and as a campaigner for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people – particularly for our inclusion in the Church. Her private life was rich; her life with Mary and their families was a source of joy and strength to her, a place of rest and safety, of nurture and growth.
Jean was born in 1941 and grew up in South London as part of the 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. She also took courses in Liverpool for the treatment of tropical diseases – all of which helped prepare her for her later work as a medical missionary.
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 as well as learning Chinese. She told me that 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.
She made deep friendships with other missionaries in Macao which continued throughout her life including close mutually nurturing supportive relationships with some Catholic nuns. At first Jean’s evangelical upbringing didn’t equip her to deal with rosary praying nuns but their shared experiences led to life-long friendships which sustained them and which helped her rejoice in the diversity of Christ’s Church.
During her time in China, Jean became aware of the need to be honest about her own sexuality and, when she returned to London, resolved to come out. She was seen leaving a gay pub in London, ironically on the first time she ever went to one, by members of her missionary organisation and she was then dismissed by them. She returned to nursing and built a good career for herself in midwifery.
In the early 1970s she joined a prayer group for lesbian and gay Christians called the Fellowship of Christ the Liberator and, in 1972 – following a visit to London by the Rev Troy Perry our founder - the group voted to join the Metropolitan Community Church. 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 then slowly took on more and more responsibility eventually training for ordination and she became the new church’s pastor.
Soon other groups wanted to join MCC across the UK and Europe and Jean took on the responsibility for co-ordinating and supporting these new groups, eventually ending up with a position of oversight for our churches in Europe until we could set up a structure with more dispersed leadership as we became a District.
In 1979 the wider Fellowship recognised Jean’s unique gifts and elected her as an elder – people elected to offer spiritual leadership to our churches around the world. Jean was the first non-American elected to this body and her insight and experience of various non-American cultures helped MCC as we became more intentionally international. She served for many years as the staff person responsible for looking after groups wanting to join MCC in countries where we had no presence.
In an age before the internet Jean wrote thousands of letters offering support, advice and wisdom to people in countries all over the world – sometimes using code words to avoid the attention of the authorities - as they started to explore what it might mean to be lgbt and Christian. She told of visits to our churches in Nigeria, travelling for many miles into the remote parts of the country, to find a clinic named after her and a vibrant church community that, whilst not being gay, wanted to join an inclusive Christian denomination.
Jean’s pioneering work didn’t just take place in the Church. Nowadays we are used to being able to get lgbt books and resources on the internet, through Amazon, and in mainstream bookshops. Waterstones have huge lesbian and gay sections, they even teach courses in lgbt studies in our universities these days. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s things were so different, 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.
These days there are many lgbt charities. MCC was the first such charity to be registered and Jean steered the church through that whole process allowing other, secular, groups to follow. She figured that the church was the most respectable such organisation and would be a good test case. She told me it was a long, demanding and much drawn-out process but it opened the door for other groups to register and, therefore, get a degree of respectability as we slowly changed the world.
In the 1980s the AIDS pandemic took a dreadful toll on our community and Jean was taking two or three funerals a week for month after month. In the early days very few ministers would take the funerals and undertakers were afraid to do little more than put the dead in body bags. She would worry about people she loved and cared about dying when she was out of the country and officiated at hundreds of funerals with dignity, compassion and tenderness – helping differing people grieve in different ways.
Most people who knew Jean knew her as a pastor. She just couldn’t help being a pastor wherever she was. She has served as the minister for the MCC in South London congregation for over 36 years. She had an incredible memory and could remember people that only came a few times to church 30 years or so ago.
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 – even when quite surprised with what people told her meant she was an excellent confidante.
But Jean didn’t just work as a pastor in her church context. Several years ago Jean underwent some surgery, and visitors frequently found her surrounded by other patients who were telling her their stories. She was acting as a chaplain to the ward from her own sick bed! She served as a type of unofficial pastor to Tooting Bec Common where she walked Lucy, her dog, collecting people, helping them, finding out more about their problems and offering her deep wisdom and love to all in any kind of need.
As any MCC pastor will tell you, our congregations can be quite transitory places. People come to us for many different reasons and we hope they stay and grow, but sometimes they come for a time and move on. Jean had an amazing ability to keep in touch with people that had moved on, particularly with clergy who had retired or resigned from MCC for a range of reasons, never judging, always loving even when she couldn’t agree or understand the reasons which led people to leave.
Her pastoral ministry also manifested itself through being a mentor, pastor and friend to many of the other MCC pastors around the world and here in Europe. Many have, at different times asked for advice, called her up for a moan, or gone to her in times of crisis.
Twenty years ago Jean and Mary’s lives changed forever when their paths crossed. Jean was so in love with Mary, so proud to introduce her to her friends and so honoured to be given a place in Mary’s family. Jean’s love for Mary was deep and abiding, in her illness she was much more worried about Mary than herself, was insistent that Mary carried on working and was thinking of how Mary would cope after her death. Jean’s life was immeasurably enriched by Mary’s love.
So we give thanks to God for Jean, for all she meant to us, for the many ways in which she touched our lives, enriched us, loved us and allowed us to be all we could be. We give thanks to God for Jean’s life, her faith, her love, her happiness, her perseverance, and her humour and we commend her to God’s tender care.