The Ecumenical Movement Awakening Women from ‘Freedom From Sanctified Sexism – Women Transforming the Church’ by Mavis Rose

The Ecumenical Movement Awakening Women

from Freedom From Sanctified Sexism – Women Transforming the Church by Mavis Rose, pp. 110-128.

Allira Publications, 17 Cervantes Street, MacGregor, Queensland 4109, Australia.
Copyright: Mavis Rose 1996.
Republished on our website with the necessary permissions

From its inception the World Council of Churches (WCC) has pursued the issue of the place of women in the church. Even in the formation process of the WCC, the American leader of the Young Women’s Christian Association, Twila Calvert, organised a questionnaire on the “Status and Role of Women in the Church”, which was distributed to fifty-eight countries, including Australia. Data from this questionnaire was presented as a report to the First Assembly of the WCC in 1948. In response to this Report, a Commission on the Life and Work of Women in the Church was formed in 1949 under the leadership of Sarah Chakko, a delegate from India, and the secretaryship of Dr. Kathleen Bliss, an English Anglican.

Dr. Bliss, already established as a writer on Christian issues, in 1952 published a book, The Service and Status of Women in the Churches, a comprehensive work covering issues such as the voluntary and professional service of women in the Church, women and the ordained ministry and the participation of women in the government of the Church. Bliss came to the conclusion that, while women in the churches were seeking the right to serve, the institutional churches neither recognised the need for their services nor encouraged them to develop their special gifts. Bliss drew attention to the lack in Christian theology of a notable contribution to the problem of the relations between the sexes.

The WCC itself, although in theory supportive of gender equity, did not earn a faultless reputation as an employer of women. According to Rev. Anna K. Hammar of the Church of Sweden, a church with a close relationship with the Anglican Communion, the contribution of women working for the Council was in practice undervalued:

The World Council of Churches, like most institutions, operates because a majority of women do the basic work of the organisation… Work is valued differently if it is performed by women, and thus sectors of work where women are in the majority are paid less well than those where men are in the majority.

Prior to the formation of the WCC in 1948, one of the most effective interdenominational Christian bodies for raising consciousness about social issues was the World Student Christian Federation, which encouraged the formation of Student Christian Movement (SCM) branches in universities around the world. In the view of Bishop Stephen Neill, an English Anglican, “of the nineteenth-century fellowships, that which was by far the most creative in bringing into existence the twentieth-century ecumenical climate, was the World Student Christian Federation”. Many of the first leaders of the WCC were drawn from the Student Christian Movement.

In regard to gender relationships, the SCM had been a pioneer in appointing women to positions of responsibility and leadership. One of the outstanding leaders in the early period of the Australian Student Christian Movement (ASCM) was Margaret Holmes, raised a Congregationalist but later worshipping in the Anglican Church. With a Masters degree in classics from the University of Melbourne, she became in 1923 the chief executive officer of the ASCM, a position she held until 1945. From 1933 to 1941, she was Vice-Chairman of the World Student Christian Federation.

Rev. David Garnsey (later Bishop of Gippsland), while Travelling Secretary for ASCM in 1930, worked under Margaret Holmes, an unusual situation for an Anglican priest but one which he recalled as a positive experience:

It was uncommon in those days for a woman to hold such a position, but I think that no one, certainly none of her colleagues, male or female, thought it anything but exactly right that she did so. This was partly due to the prevailing outlook in the ASCM. Men and women who were responsible Christians in the Universities worked together naturally as partners. When a particular job had to be done, the best person, man or woman, had to be found and chosen. There was very little racism or sexism in the A.S.C.M.

Nevertheless, within the confines of Anglicanism, Margaret Holmes’ role was restricted by her gender while her once junior colleague, David Garnsey, could rise to episcopal heights.

One of the most religiously fervent and radical interdenominational bodies in Australia at the end of the nineteenth century was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), founded in 1885 on the initiative of a member of the WCTU of the United States of America. Excessive drunkenness in both Australia and America created so much hardship for wives and families that Christian women were motivated to step out of their domestic sphere to lobby for liquor controls. When members of the American WCTU came to Australia in the 1880s, they represented an organisation which was already extremely radical, having close links with the American suffrage movement. It was therefore not surprising that women’s suffrage became a major political issue for the Australian WCTU, along with other social reform issues such as equal pay for women.

Anglican clergy did not encourage Anglican women to link up with the WCTU. In 1887, Bishop Field Flowers Goe of Melbourne supported the foundation of a separate Church of England Temperance Society in which moderate drinkers and total abstainers could work together “in the crusade against the vice of drunkenness”. Bishop Goe’s initiative was supported by Bishop Saumarez Smith of Sydney. As already observed in Chapter One, the Anglican Church was mistrustful of “collective movements of women for social or even for religious purposes”.

Of the sixty-six Anglican women who joined the militant WCTU, the one who figured most prominently was Bessie Harrison Lee (later Bessie Harrison Cowie). Bessie Harrison Lee did not have the privileged background of many Anglican women. She was raised on goldfields and later married a railway employee. Sturmey comments that “feminists with a strong old style Christian dynamic like Mrs. Harrison Lee were much fewer in Australia than they were in America” and that “Anglicanism certainly did not encourage the rebelliously prophetic, highly individualistic or emotionally chaotic behaviour that came from a reliance on the authority of the inner life”.

In terms of women’s leadership in the church, the Protestant Churches were the pioneers in Australia. The Congregational Church in Adelaide led the way by ordaining the Rev. Winifred Kiek to ministry in June 1927. Winifred Kiek had gained a Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1923, the first woman to receive a B.D. from the Melbourne College of Divinity, followed by a Masters of Arts degree. Ten years elapsed before a second woman, the Rev. Isabelle Merry of Melbourne, was ordained in the Congregational Church, so there was no great flood of women to ministry to attract the attention of women of other denominations.

Both Winifred Kiek and Isabelle Merry were keenly interested in ecumenism. Winifred Kiek became a Liaison Officer for Women’s Work with the WCC, in 1946, conducting on behalf of the newly forming Australian Council of Churches a questionnaire on “Women in the Church”, the information from which being later incorporated into the report on the status of women presented at the first World Assembly in Amersterdam in 1948. In 1950, Winifred Kiek was appointed a member of the Commission on the Life and Work of Women in the Church and in 1952 she represented Australia at the WCC consultation in Oxford. In 1953 she was made a convenor of the Australian Commission on the Co-operation of Men and Women in the Church.

According to Rosalie McCutcheon, “Congregationalism in Australia stems from the long tradition of independence in English religious life, with its resistance to the power of Church and State over the conscience of individual men and women”. Therefore, there was in congregationalism an historical element of rejection of the elitist “Establishment” nature of the Church of England. Despite its disestablishment, Australian Anglicanism retained, as we have seen in previous chapters, a colonial mentality, adhering closely to the perspective of the English church.

To Anglican purists, non-conformist ministry, whether male or female, was viewed as being inadequate. Ministry had to be part of the unbroken Apostolic succession, the threefold order of Bishops, Priests and Deacons, to be considered valid. As the Bishop of Birmingham commented in 1908:

She {the Church of England} does not condemn them {non-conformist ministers}, but she refuses to acknowledge their ministry. That is to say, she ordains de novo any minister not episcopally ordained who joins her communion unless he have formerly been made priest by episcopal ordination (Act of Uniformity) but does not do so with any who have received an episcopal ordination which she recognises as valid.

Sentiments such as these have been used to dampen the impact on Anglican women of progressive movements in non-conformist churches.

Similar comments were made in the Lambeth Handbook for 1948 at the time of the formation of the WCC, especially when the Roman Catholic Church did not join the Council:

Anglicans will not be content for their Church to be regarded simply as one member of a loose confederation of “Churches”…. The Catholic principles of Anglicanism must not be discarded for the sake of achieving a working compromise with Protestantism, which may have a false semblance of unity …. We trust that bishops who are faithful to Anglican principles will prevent the Church being dragged in the wake of Pan-Protestantism.

Yet in an article on “Lambeth 1948″ in The Ecumenical Review in 1950, Bishop Rawlinson of Derby maintained that Anglican Churches occupied an essentially mediating position, having points of contact with Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist churches.

Undoubtedly ecumenical interaction between Australian Protestant churchwomen did provide Anglican women with more opportunities to play leadership roles free of clergy supervision. In Sydney in 1938 the New South Wales Women’s Inter-Church Council, later to be known as Australian Church Women, was formed. Its first rally was chaired by Mrs. H. Jennings, a Presbyterian, while a Congregationalist minister, the Rev. Joan Hore, led the prayers. Brigadier W. Ramage, a female Salvation Army officer, spoke on Social Reform while Miss C. Wedgwood, Principal of the Women’s College, University of Sydney, spoke on right international relations. Thus, from its inauguration the group presented a model of women playing leadership roles in Christian affairs and addressing wider ranging social issues.

Although Anglican women did join the N.S.W. Inter-Church Council, such as Mrs. B. C. Montgomerie, who was President from 1963-4 and Mrs. E. D. Briggs, who was Secretary from 1957 to 1959, those Anglican women who associated themselves with the Council had to do so unofficially up until 1958. In 1958, the Archbishop of Sydney gave permission for Anglican women to be involved in the Council, although insisting that he appoint the eight representatives, another instance of Anglican clergy determination to exercise control over women’s affairs.

An embarrassment for the Church of England was the decision of the Church of Sweden in 1957 to accept the Swedish State directive to allow the ordination of women as priests in line with anti-discrimination legislation. While Anglicans could safely ignore the ordination of women within non-conformist Protestant churches, it was much more serious to have the priesthood of women accepted, even if under pressure, within a church which was in communion with Anglicanism. No break in relations occurred. A statement by the Archbishop of Canterbury made clear that “the ordination of women in the Church of England would be out of the question, and there would be general regret that a Church with which it has such long friendly relations should, by taking this step, introduce a cause of dispute”.

This statement from the Archbishop of Canterbury drew an angry response from Muriel Langford, a Brisbane clergy wife, an indication that events in the Swedish Church, despite its remoteness, could be significant to Australian Anglican women. She wrote to The Church Chronicle of June 1960 as follows:

“The ordination of women in the Church of England would be out of the question…” This is no time or place to talk about the pros and cons of this subject, but a sentence in another article of the same number [Church Chronicle] gives us some insight into the way Christians should view another case of discrimination: “When we are given Christian insight, the whole pattern of racial discrimination is seen as an inutterable offence against God, to be endured no longer, so that the very stones cry out”.

What if sex discrimination is equally abominable in the sight of God? If that be so, the clergy and laity should examine without delay the whole question of co-operation in the Church of God, in every sphere, so that the peculiar gifts of each member should be used to the glory of God without discrimination of race, colour, or sex.

In May 1971, in an article entitled “Women’s Ordination Nearer”, The Church Chronicle drew attention to the fact that seventy churches around the world had given approval for the ordination of women to “the full ministry of Word and Sacrament”, with a further comment that there was still reluctance on the part of Anglicans “to allow women to participate in the ruling bodies of the Church”. The writer pointed out that the “distinct increase in the number of churches ordaining women bears a close relationship to the world-wide movement of emancipation”, an indication that Christian churches could not ignore societal change, that secular and religious life were inseparable. These figures and statements were taken from a report of a consultation on the ordination of women organised by the Department on Co-operation of Men and Women of the World Council of Churches.

The amalgamation of Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists into the Uniting Church of Australia produced a dynamic new denomination which impacted strongly on other Australian mainstream churches. The Joint Constitution Council of the Uniting Church of Australia, at its meeting on 1 November 1974, accepted that women should constitute one-third of the lay representation of councils and committees and, in regard to ordained ministry, that “women should be given equal opportunities with men to exercise the gifts which God bestows upon them”. In 1977, when the Uniting Church was formed, there were 36 women in ordained ministry. In 1983, the regulations in regard to women’s participation in decision-making bodies were allowed to lapse, evoking from a prominent Methodist laywoman, Marie Tulip, the observation that ”our earlier optimism about the willingness of the Uniting Church in Australia to move out of its conservative and patriarchal mould was unfortunately ill-founded”.

However, further endorsement of the ordination of women, a declaration that it was “fundamental to the faith”, was provided by the National Assembly Standing Committee in March 1990 when it declared that “the Uniting Church believes ordination without discrimination on grounds of gender is a fundamental implication of the gospel of God’s love in Christ for all human beings” and “that in ordaining women and men as ministers of the Word, the Uniting Church in company with others has departed from the almost universal practice of the church throughout most of history, but believes that it does so in obedience to the gospel”. As pointed out in the Anglican newspaper, Church Scene, of 6 April 1990, this ruling “precludes the ordination or commissioning of candidates who have declared an allegiance to the Basis of the Union and do not agree with women’s ordination”.

Uniting Church women ministers have provided a model of women in full ordained ministry for Anglicans. The Uniting Church in Pitt Street, Sydney, where the Rev. Dorothy McMahon is the minister, has become a refuge for women who find Sydney Anglicanism overly oppressive. Similarly, the Rev. Rowena Harris, a minister at Caloundra Uniting Church in Queensland, has been a strong supporter of the Brisbane branch of the Movement for the Ordination of Women. Rowena Harris acknowledged that sexism was still strong in the Uniting Church and expressed concern that attitudes to women were hardening. She recounted that at the 1989 Synod of the Queensland Uniting Church, there was a request that there be more female representation on committees. The Secretary of the Synod was greeted with howls when he commented that “the Church could not always cater for minorities”. Women in the Uniting Church are in the majority but, because of male tendencies to discount them, they are visualised as a minority group.

At a National Conference on Women in the Uniting Church in Australia held from 26 – 29 January 1990, a resolution was passed expressing solidarity with women of the Anglican Church in their struggle for the ordination of women into the priesthood, which read:

We, the delegates of the Church Made Whole Conference of the Uniting Church in Australia, express our total, caring support for the women of the Anglican Church of Australia in their struggle for the ordination of the women into priesthood. We commit ourselves to our sisters in prayer, and will stand beside them in solidarity for the building up of the whole body of Christ.

In Australia, the groups most influenced by WCC literature and by addresses by local and visiting WCC delegates concerning research on women were those attending conferences and participating in projects arranged by the Australian Council of Churches and the Student Christian Movement. For the conservatives in Australian Christianity, including within the Anglican Church, the World Council of Churches was regarded as extremely radical, even communist. In February 1978 the Anglican Missionary and Ecumenical Council (MEC) declared that many Anglicans did not accept the Australian Council of Churches as representative of the church, claiming that it had “an apparent preoccupation with socio-political issues of little relevance to the Australian scene” and that the ACC’s decision-making was “often less than representative and open to the charge of remoteness”.

In 1975 Jean Skuse, a Methodist lay preacher and a leading champion of women’s rights, was chosen to succeed Rev. Frank Engel as General Secretary of the Australian Council of Churches, later becoming a WCC Executive Committee member. Jean Skuse commented that, for her, “the period of the late 60s and early 70s made a profound impact”, acknowledging the complicity of her society in structures of injustice. She added that “as women struggled with issues of class and race, they became more and more aware of their own oppression in a world and church where the economic and political power was in the hands of men. Belonging to a marginalized group in church and society made them more sensitive to others who were left out”.

In view of the vitality and strength of the Women’s Department within the WCC , it was not surprising that the ACC should be active in efforts to raise the status of Australian Christian women. In June 1973, its New South Wales branch set up a Commission under the presidency of Marie Tulip, to carry out research into the status of churchwomen in Australian Christianity . The findings were to be presented at the WCC’s women’s conference to be held in Berlin in 1974 under the title “Sexism in the 1970s: Discrimination Against Women”. One progressive feature of the Berlin conference, according to Jean Skuse, was that “it named sexism as a form of oppression along with racism” and “led to an increased number of women participants at the Nairobi Assembly [1975]”.

Marie Tulip had also been active in the formation in 1968 of an interdenominational Christian feminist group called Christian Women Concerned, which published a journal, Magdalene, speaking out strongly on women’s affairs. Christian Women Concerned played a part in inspiring the Australian Council of Churches in Sydney to establish its Commission on the Status of Women in the Church. Many of the women in the group had already had associations with the Women’s Movement of the 1960s in Australian society. From Christian Women Concerned would spring the first Australian Anglican women’s activist group, Anglican Women Concerned (see Chapter Nine).

In retrospect, Marie Tulip was of the opinion that, “because Australian political, economic, educational, legal, medical and religious structures remain largely patriarchal, women are inevitably in a situation of ambiguity and struggle”:

In the area of religion, particularly in Australia, the male gods are so dominant and all-pervasive, that it sometimes seems healthier to abandon the field altogether, as many feminists have done….There is in Australian culture, perhaps as a legacy from our colonial days, a strongly unified, hierarchical, monotheistic symbolic order which dislikes plurality or differences, and to challenge it or go outside it is to incur disapproval and can seem like entering a void.

The New South Wales State Council of the ACC which set up the Commission on the Status of Women received two hundred submissions, representing eleven denominations, including Anglican. In the submission from John Denton, as Registrar of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, he admitted that in Sydney Synod, there were “three women parish representatives among 600 clerical and lay representatives”. Although a woman could be elected to the Standing Committee of Sydney Synod, “a woman may not be elected to the Church Property Trust or to the Glebe Administration Board because the Ordinances governing these bodies state that members shall be male”. This put the considerable economic wealth of the diocese firmly in male control.

In the section on personal submissions to the enquiry, the ACC Commission’s Report noted that all but four of the responses from the one hundred and fifty women who wrote personally contrasted with those submitted by women’s groups”. According to the Report:

Some expressed a great deal of anger and frustration at their experiences in the Church and alienation because of the contrast between the treatment of women by Jesus in the Gospels and the attitudes of people, particularly clergy, in their local congregations…. An Anglican woman wrote “I feel that the church is one of the last places in society (together with the bowling clubs) which segregates the sexes and then divides them into age groups”.

In the Commission’s overall summary, the following conclusions were reached:

There exists a deep rooted resistance to change in the churches, which expresses itself in indirect or direct opposition, often humourously expressed, or in token gestures towards women who seek changes within the church structures or in the churches’ attitude. There is a deep attachment to the perpetuation of the traditional roles for women by some women and by many men.

The completed Report was submitted to the WCC’s first women’s world consultation held in Berlin in which both Marie Tulip and Jean Skuse participated. In the opinion of Marie Tulip on her return, “women in Australia are less free than women in many other countries. The nuclear family in Australia is more isolated than in other countries with the result that women bear greater burdens in terms of housework and child rearing”. In regard to the Australian Churches, Tulip commented that it was “shameful to see decision-making bodies mostly composed of men”, admitting that “women have allowed themselves to be confined to the exclusion of the use of their insights and abilities” and “theology is so one-sided that women’s experience has not been spoken in theology yet”.

From the consultation, a strong women’s statement was drawn up for submission to the Fifth Assembly of the WCC in 1975 in Nairobi. The Assembly in Nairobi acknowledged that “despite efforts of the WCC in the past, the position of women, in both the Church and the world, has not changed significantly”:

Women’s absence from decision-making structures is an obstacle to church unity…. Structures of injustice and discrimination are theological issues; … A true unity/community can only exist when the power to influence the community is shared by its members.

It was decided at this Assembly to carry out a study on the “Community of Women and Men in the Church”, considered to be the most extensive and intensive engagement of the ecumenical movement in issues of the relation of women and men. According to Jean Skuse, “it was not until that study [the Community of Women and Men in the Church] that much impact was made … so far as women were concerned.”39

In 1975, while attending the Fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Nairobi, Dorothy McMahon, then a Methodist laywoman who had served on the Status of Women Commission, addressed the Assembly on the women’s struggle in Australia, admitting that “I have not been able to find in the Church enough ways to share the pain and confusion of that struggle, nor enough celebration to express the hope I feel as I go through the resurrection process of finding myself”. In an interview for The Bulletin of 24 January 1989 Dorothy McMahon reminisced on her struggle:

I’ve had to live with what it means to be disapproved of to the point of hate, and I’ve found that I can actually survive with that because the support you receive when you take a stand on something you believe in is enormously creative and re-energising.

Colleen O’Reilly Stewart, an Anglican member of Christian Women Concerned and a pioneer of Anglican women’s activism in Sydney, viewed the women who carried out the Commission on the Status of Women enquiry as “among the first in Australia to disseminate liberation theology from women’s perspectives”.

Through contacts with the ACC and the WCC, the women’s perspective began to filter through to Anglican clergy. The Rev. John Stockdale of Thornbury in Victoria, on his return from the Vancouver Assembly of the WCC in 1983, made the following comment:

I have come back from the Sixth Assembly of the WCC convinced that the Anglican Church of Australia is priest ridden and male dominated. If there is any doubt, it is in the composition of the Commission on Ministry and Training appointed by Standing Committee of General Synod…. It comprises nine clergymen and three laity…I am angry that this Church appointed one woman. It is a totally unjust act and is tokenism of the worst form.

At the first pre-Assembly women’s meeting in Vancouver, Rev. Barbel Von Wartenberg, head of the WCC sub-unit on Women in Church and Society, issued the following challenge:

Will the women delegates raise their voices on behalf of their sisters at home and elsewhere? Will they dare to speak up in the presence of their powerful church leaders?… Will women support each other or will they allow other loyalties to prevail: confessional, regional, national, racial, cultural?….Will women refuse to build solidarity amongst themselves in order to avoid the accusations of dividing the community?

The “Ecumenical Decade for Churches in Solidarity with Women”, a successor to the United Nations Decade for Women which ended in 1985, was launched by the WCC in 1988. Its objectives were to free churches from racism, sexism and classism, to empower women to challenge oppressive structures, to give visibility to women’s perspectives, and to encourage churches to take actions in solidarity with women.

According to Janet Wood, Executive Officer of the South Australian Council of Churches, the member churches have tended to allot questions on the “Ecumenical Decade for Churches in Solidarity with Women” to women alone, which means “they are treated as a side issue”. She felt that for the Decade to be taken seriously, the member churches must become more involved. Only the Victorian Council of Churches had appointed a Commission to promote the Women’s Decade. Janet Wood indicated that the Australian Anglican Church was not pulling its weight, commenting that she once assumed that, in the Australian ecumenical movement, “the big players were the Uniting Church and the Anglicans” but she now considered that “in Australia the Anglican Church is selling itself short ecumenically, because it is so busy checking itself, like Melbourne checking Sydney.”

Perhaps to dull the edge of feminist debate the women’s decade might stimulate, the 1988 Lambeth Conference inaugurated a parallel Decade of Evangelism. While the Decade of Evangelism has been promoted strongly in Australian Anglicanism, only occasionally is the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women mentioned. Melbourne Anglican, Janet Nelson, a former Vice-President of the Movement for the Ordination of Women, queried in Church Scene in December 1989: “What good news does the church hope to hold out to women in the Decade of Evangelism when so many of its messages are of rejection and alienation?”.

The Roman Catholics have been slow to cooperate officially with the ecumenical movement, declining to send observers to the First WCC Assembly in Amsterdam in 1948. Since the Second Vatican Council, which opened in 1962 and continued until 1965, Roman Catholics have developed warmer relationships with the WCC and begun a series of dialogues with a number of Christian world communions, among them the Anglican Communion.

Although women were not invited to be members of the Second Vatican Council, decisions made at the Council have had a liberalising effect on Catholic women worldwide. Dr. Mary Daly, a Catholic theologian, who presented a collection of statements by women to the Council, in 1968 published what has become a widely acclaimed feminist book, The Church and the Second Sex, in which she applied insights of the French existentialist philosopher, Simone de Beauvoir, to the Church.

Since this book was published, a number of Catholic women theologians such as Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, mainly centred in the United States, have gone before Christian women “as a pillar of fire”, stripping away patriarchal structures and theologies to reveal how they disadvantage women.

According to Sister Veronica Brady, an Australian Loreto sister and academic, “Christian feminists like Rosemary Ruether and Mary Daly in the U.S.A. and Barbara Thiering and Jean Skuse in Australia have made out an eloquent case for the dehumanisation of women”, in the meaning that these four women have highlighted the loss of humanity suffered by churchwomen. Sister Veronica, while addressing the Second National Conference of the Movement for the Ordination of Women in Adelaide in 1986, drew attention to Australian male attitudes, and their dualistic perspectives:

The emphasis is on property, propriety, what is proper, appropriation, on self-identity, self-aggrandisement and arrogative dominance. An obsession with possession, classification, systematisation, hierarchy, sets class against class, rich against poor, us against them, men against women…. In the Church it sets conservatives against radicals, clergy against laity, men against women.

Sister Veronica assured her audience that “the ordination of women matters” because “it is important that women become part of the official structures of the church, not just for their sake, but also for the sake of justice and thus for the life of the church as a whole”.

In 1982, a national ecumenical movement, Women and the Australian Church (WATAC), was set up by the Major Superiors of Catholic women’s religious orders in Australia with the primary task of raising consciousness on Christian feminist issues. The WATAC group queried why it arrived so late on the Australian Christian feminist scene, “at least a decade later than our Protestant sisters in Australia and our Catholic sisters in the USA”. According to Sister Sonia Wagner, the strong Irish influence in Australian Catholicism was part of the slow response of Australian Catholic women to Christian feminism, such as “clerical domination, a lack of a truly critical spirit which makes us slow to examine ideas and movements that challenge doctrinal positions and an obsession with personal salvation”. Erin White, formerly a Catholic nun, remarked that “’religious’ life was blighted with the ‘father-knows-best-attitude’ or, if we could see that he did not know best, with the ‘lets-not-tell-father’ attitude”. She believed that such attitudes made women impervious to the feminist insight;

We women are allowed to function in the lower echelons but we are excluded from decision-making positions. Seduced by the power and responsibility we do hold, women fail to see how precisely regulated are the limits of our actions …. Our minds, hearts and guts are trained to move in the direction of subservience.

Erin White along with Anglican Colleen O’Reilly Stewart has been a moving force in the formation of a group of interdenominational radical Christian feminists calling themselves “Women/Church”.

Australian Catholic nuns and laywomen may have been slower than their Protestant sisters in becoming activist, but now that they are on the move, they are presenting a daring model for Anglican women. For example, Dr. Elaine Wainwright, a Brisbane Sister of Mercy, has for two years in succession (1989 and 1990) been the keynote speaker at the Brisbane Anglican Clergy Wives’ Conference. At the first Conference, she introduced this conservative group to feminist biblical scholarship, raising their level of consciousness about the exclusion of women from Scripture. The clergy wives became so interested that they invited Dr. Wainwright to return in 1990. Dr. Wainwright noticed that in 1990 the Anglican wives were much more accepting of feminist concepts, including Anglican women in ministry. As clergy wives are a force in the parish and do exert influence upon their husbands, their radicalisation could reduce opposition from laywomen to Anglican feminists and allow for greater solidarity. Dr. Wainwright’s lectures on women and the Church in the inter-denominational Brisbane College of Theology have also contributed much to raising the consciousness of churchwomen to women in scripture and to feminist theology.

An increasing number of Catholic women are willing to join Protestant groups such as the Movement for the Ordination of Women and participate in worship organised under the auspices of the WCC’s Ecumenical Decade for Churches in Solidarity with Women. For example, one of the Vice-Presidents of the Movement for the Ordination of Women is a Catholic woman from Canberra, Marie Louise Uhr, while the Wollongong branch is led by a Catholic woman, Suzanne Vernon. This alliance of Catholic and Anglican women is important because of the Anglican Communion’s desire to retain its Catholicity. Catholic women clamouring for ordination are for Anglo-Catholics more threatening than Protestant women already in ministry.

Not unexpectedly, the present upsurge of feminism in the Australian Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches is causing consternation in conservative circles. Michael Gilchrist, a Roman Catholic, in his work New Church or True Church, was clearly disturbed by the claim made by Loreto sister, Roberta Hakendorf, while attending the Second National Conference of the Movement for the Ordination of Women in Adelaide in 1986, that the Catholic priesthood was “a black hole of spiritual schizophrenia”, and her statement that “in the Catholic Church all power is in priestly hands, but the fall of the Bastille will be nothing compared to the fall of that institution [the priesthood] when the day comes”.

The Vatican has made it clear to the Archbishop of Canterbury that women’s ordination is a major obstacle to reunion between it and the Anglican Communion and is not acceptable to the Orthodox Churches. This pressure has tended to make Archbishop Runcie vacillate. The General Secretary of the WCC, Dr. Philip Potter, at the consultation on “Community of Women and Men in the Church” held in Sheffield in 1981, criticised Runcie for emphasising the non-ordained ministries that women could exercise, and evading the issue of ordination. The theologian, Professor Jurgen Moltmann, at the same consultation, reproached the Archbishop of Canterbury for placing expediency before truth. The succeeding Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, in a statement made while Archbishop-designate, was more forthright, declaring: “The idea that only a man can represent Christ at the altar is a most serious heresy”.

On the eve of Archbishop Runcie’s first official visit to the Vatican in September 1989, the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano commented: “The issue of women’s ordination has shown itself to be a substantial obstacle on the road to reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Community.” This comment was in line with the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Declaration, “Inter Insigniores” , regarding the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood. The Declaration asserted that “the Church, in fidelity to the example of the Lord, does not consider herself authorized to admit women to priestly ordination”. Although an authoritative document, it is not an infallible pronouncement, thus not closing the door permanently on the entry of Roman Catholic women to the priesthood.

The Inter Insigniores Declaration indicated that a feminist movement had been stirring in Roman Catholicism following the issuing of the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes. Gaudium et Spes had enumerated sexual discrimination among “the forms of discrimination touching upon the basic rights of the person which must be overcome and eliminated as being contrary to God’s plan”. Clearly Inter Insigniores was formulated to inform those calling for the elimination of sexual discrimination at all levels that this basic right did not apply to priesthood.

According to the Inter Insigniores Declaration, “for some years now, various Christian communities stemming from the sixteenth-century or of later origin have been admitting women to pastoral office on a par with men”. As a result of this, Roman Catholics had been querying whether their Church “too could not modify her discipline and admit women to priestly ordination”. In “Commentary Prepared at the Congregation”s Request by a Theologian Expert”, an addendum to the Declaration, it was stated that “the question of the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood seems to have arisen in a general way about 1958, after the decision by the Swedish Lutheran Church in September of that year to admit women to the pastoral office” because this decision had “caused a sensation and occasioned numerous commentaries”. The Commentary admitted that “a new and much more serious situation was created when ordinations of women were carried out within communities that considered that they preserved the apostolic succession of Order” , citing the Anglican Bishop of Hong Kong’s ordination of women in 1971 and 1973 and the Episcopal Church of the USA’s ordination of eleven women in Philadelphia in July 1974.

While Inter Insigniores established that the Vatican was not prepared to admit women to priesthood, a stance later reiterated by Pope John Paul II, the document did stimulate considerable debate on the issue of women’s ordination from a wide cross-section of scholars, whose comments and critiques were used by Australian Anglican women as extra evidence in their push for women’s ordination, especially in the period of the nineteen-eighties. Inaccuracies in the footnoting in the Declaration in regard to evidence from the Early Fathers in particular aroused criticism.

The overseas feminist forces which had been filtering through to Australian Anglican women since the formation of the World Council of Churches impacted more strongly when in February 1991, the Seventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches was convened in Canberra. The Assembly provided a forum in which marginalised people, including women, could voice their frustrations. A large marquee was erected in the grounds of the Australian National University which was designated as Womanspace. Womanspace provided programmes on Aboriginal Women, Women in Renewing Creation, Women, Health and Wholeness and Women, Peace and Violence.

One of the most challenging women to attend the Assembly was South Korean theologian, Professor Chung Hyun Kyung, who provoked considerable controversy by integrating elements from the East into her Christian concepts and by claiming that it was time for traditional theology to make way for newer forms. Chung aroused both excitement and condemnation when she coupled the Holy Spirit with the East Asian goddess of compassion and wisdom, Kuan To. Chung’s paper ended with the words: “Wild wind of the Holy Spirit blow to us. Let us welcome her, letting ourselves go in her wild rhythm of life. Come, Holy Spirit, renew the whole creation. Amen!”

Former Archbishop of Melbourne, Sir Frank Woods, analysed Chung’s feminist perspective as follows:

She vigorously attacked the dominant masculinity of Western Christianity, pointing out that every one of the Christian creeds and all the Christian sacramental rites had been written and most performed by Western male Christians, most of them being bishops or patriarchs, unmarried, and very often living in male communities… She said that the future of Christian theology would not really be understood unless it managed to come to terms with the equality of the sexes.

Contents of Book Support our campaign Sitemap Contemporary theologians Join Campaign activities Go back to home page

Wijngaards Institute for Catholic ResearchThis website is maintained by the Wijngaards Institute for Catholic Research.

The Institute is known for issuing academic reports and statements on relevant issues in the Church. These have included scholars’ declarations on the need of collegiality in the exercise of church authority, on the ethics of using contraceptives in marriage and the urgency of re-instating the sacramental diaconate of women.

Visit also our websites:Women Deacons, The Body is Sacred and Mystery and Beyond.

You are welcome to use our material. However: maintaining this site costs money. We are a Charity and work mainly with volunteers, but we find it difficult to pay our overheads.

Visitors to our website since January 2014.
Pop-up names are online now.

The number is indicative, but incomplete. For full details click on cross icon at bottom right.

Please, support our campaign
for women priests

Join our Women Priests’ Mailing List
for occasional newsletters:

An email will be immediately sent to you
requesting your confirmation.