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Formal Women's Ministry : The Deaconess from 'Freedom From Sanctified Sexism - Women Transforming the Church' by Mavis Rose

Formal Women’s Ministry : The Deaconess

from Freedom From Sanctified Sexism - Women Transforming the Church by Mavis Rose, pp. 56-75.

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

In the nineteenth century, the Church of England recognised that it desperately needed to recruit women staff to provide pastoral care to families in industrial slums. It was a period when middle-class churchwomen were fired up with zeal to save the underprivileged so the potential workforce was there, ready and eager to be employed in a challenging way.

When the issue of having full-time, trained women pastoral assistants in the Church of England was first raised, it was in the context of a re-establishment of religious orders, which had been totally disbanded between the years 1536 to 1539. In 1826, the Rev. A. R. C. Dallas published a pamphlet entitled Protestant Sisters of Charity: A Letter addressed to the Lord Bishop of London, in which he proposed that the Church of England establish a women’s order similar to the French Soeurs de la Charité. The specific task of such an order would be to relieve the sufferings of the increasing number of ill and poverty-stricken people in England especially those living in unsavoury urban slums.The emergence in the nineteenth century of the Oxford or Tractarian Movement in the Church of England, with its aim to restore Catholicity to Anglicanism, including the revival of monastic orders, made the re-establishment of religious sisterhoods easier to implement. By 1878, it was estimated that at least seven hundred women had joined Anglican sisterhoods.

Not unexpectedly in a Church which was still strongly Evangelical, there was considerable apprehension about the formation of religious orders for women. It was not just the Roman Catholic appearance of the sisterhoods but also the extent of their autonomy which worried Anglican church leaders, especially the low churchmen, and motivated them to establish a form of women’s ministry more directly under episcopal authority. The most widely approved alternative was an Order of Deaconesses. “Deaconess” was a term preferable to “woman deacon” because it was less likely to be confused with a male deacon, the first stage in the threefold order of priesthood. An ongoing concern among churchmen in employing women in any formal type of ministry would be that women did not acquire priestly ambitions.

In the New Testament, the Greek word diakonos [servant] or deacon was a term applied to both men and women exercising the function of ministry in the post-Resurrection house church communities. However, by the time of the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, women deacons were being segregated from their male counterparts, referred to as diakonissa , translated deaconess. By the twelth century, women with a vocation to ministry were increasingly enclosed within monastic orders. As a result of this, deaconesses lost their identity and were assimilated with nuns.

The Church of England was not the first denomination to restore the deaconess order. The Anglican Church adapted for its purposes the model of the German Lutheran Deaconess Institution at Kaiserwerth founded by Pastor Fliedner in 1836. Trainees at the Kaiserworth Deaconess Institution not only received religious instruction but were also given practical training in social welfare work and medical and pastoral outreach to the destitute. Florence Nightingale studied at Kaiserwerth and personally recommended the institution to the Church of England.

In 1871, the Church of England endorsed a statement drawn up jointly by Bishop Browne of Ely and Dean Howson of Chester on the General Principles and Rules which should apply to deaconesses. The 1871 principles made clear that a deaconess was not, as in a sisterhood, answerable to a Mother Superior but rather placed in a situation of structured subordination to male clergy. In this way the Church built in safeguards to curb deaconesses from becoming too independent and also to protect the threefold order of priesthood from female aspirations. The advantage of admitting women into formal ministry was that the Church acquired valuable pastoral assistants trained for both religious ministry and social and medical outreach.

The retention of their surname and the use of the title “Deaconess” distinguished these new female ministers from Anglican nuns and also from male deacons. Nevertheless, in practice, many of the deaconesses in the initial formation period did live in communities and there were instances where the community head was referred to as “Mother”, thus blurring the clear-cut lines some English churchmen had sought to draw between deaconesses and religious sisterhoods.

As Australia was undergoing a serious economic depression in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, it was not surprising that Australian Church leaders, the majority of whom had emigrated from England, should start to consider setting up a deaconess order to assist with Christian social outreach to poverty-stricken families, particularly in inner city slums and the outback. The first deaconess order was established in Melbourne in 1885 to assist with the work of the Mission to Streets and Lanes. In 1912 this deaconess order sought permission to become a sisterhood, introducing vows of celibacy, taking as its title the Community of the Holy Name. As Melbourne Diocese was by then dependent on the order for running its social institutions, the request was granted.

This situation troubled Melbourne’s Evangelicals, who preferred the deaconess model of female ministry. In his address to Melbourne Synod in 1920, Archdeacon George Hindley, acting as Vicar-General of the diocese, pressed for the formation of another Melbourne deaconess order, stressing that this order would “not to be confused with the office and work of a religious order or community of Christian women”.

A training centre for deaconesses was established at St. Hilda’s College, Melbourne, which was already a Church Missionary Society training centre for women. In 1940, deaconess training moved to a separate institution in Fitzroy and to Fairfield in 1947. The order did not attract sufficient candidates to become a viable institution, and after two more moves, to Hawksburn and South Yarra, finally closed in 1978. By that time women with a vocation to ministry were training alongside their males colleagues at the two Anglican theological colleges in Melbourne, Trinity Theological School and Ridley College.

Sydney Diocese was to remain the centre of deaconess training in Australia. In 1884, the Synod of Sydney Diocese appointed a Select Committee to report to the 1885 Synod on the Ministry of Women. The Committee’s terms of reference were “to consider the advisability of organising the religious and charitable ministry of women in this Diocese”. The Report which was presented to the 1885 Synod covered both deaconesses and sisterhoods. In regard to the former, it was considered that the establishment of a deaconess order was in keeping with church tradition, and its proven usefulness in England would commend its adoption in the Diocese of Sydney. The Report of the Select Committee stressed that a deaconess was not part of the three-fold order of ministry to which male clergy were ordained,. Candidates for the deaconess order would be trained and then “set apart” by the bishop. No vows of celibacy would be taken and a deaconess would be free to marry. Her duties would not include participation in church services. While establishing that a deaconess was in no way “clergy”, the report also tried to indicate that a deaconess was not just a social worker or a nurse, that she could engage in “spiritual ministration under the direction of the Bishop and the Incumbent of the Parish”. The Select Committee did not recommend the establishment of sisterhoods.

The official investigation into and sanctioning process of the Deaconess Institute did not have female representation, as the following article in the Sydney church paper, The Australian Record of 22 August 1881, under the heading “Aunt Malviny on Deaconesses”, amusingly relates:

One man studies up all the dockymints an’ he ses there was deaconesses in the early Church. ‘Nuther man studies up the same dockymints and’ he ses there wasn’t. Ez fur pore Phoebe, it’s mighty hard to diskiver what she was!....The women themselves don’t seem to be sayin’ nothin’. They jest set back and look on. I guess it’s about this way with ‘em; if the Church wants ‘em to do deaconish work, some sisters will be found willin’ and able to do it, and if it don’t want ‘em to, why it’s no odds; there’s plenty else fur ‘em to fill up their time with.

Although the 1885 Sydney Synod accepted the Select Committee’s Report, it did not act on its recommendations, clearly reluctant to allow women into any formal career structure in the Church, even one which was designed primarily for work among women and children, an area which clergy preferred to delegate to women. The establishment of Sydney’s deaconess institution was a private initiative by the Rev. Mervyn Archdall, an Irish-born cleric, in conjunction with his wife Martha, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor.

Martha Archdall had grown up in Strettin, Germany, near “Bethanien”, a daughter house of the famed Kaiserwerth Deaconess Institution. She chose the name “Bethany” for Sydney’s deaconess institution because of her personal links with “Bethanien”. Martha Archdall was enthusiastically supported by a Sydney clergy widow, Mrs. Schleicher, who had been a co-founder of the Dresden Deaconess Institute in Germany, another offshoot of Kaiserwerth. Mrs. Schleicher’s two daughters were among the first women made deaconesses in Sydney and her son, the Rev. Bernard A. Schleicher, became a future Principal of Moore Theological College, where most deaconesses received their religious training.

In a letter dated October 1961 to Southern Cross (the successor of the Sydney Diocesan Magazine ), Martha’s daughter, Mrs. Rosa Baker, explained how Sydney’s deaconess centre was founded:

My father’s desire to establish the Order of Deaconesses was fed and fostered by my mother, who as a girl had spent holidays at the famous Deaconess Institution of Kaiserwerth in Germany. At that time it was her great desire to qualify as a doctor, and be ordained a Deaconess to serve in the Kenilworth Hospital. However, God over-ruled her life so that she was able to help to plant the seed which is now flourishing so splendidly in your Diocese.

Once established, the deaconess institute was accepted by Sydney churchmen who recognised that not only would it serve a need for social outreach but was also a practical method of defusing, channelling and harnessing the energies of incipient feminists. These sentiments were reflected in The Australian Record of 18 July 1891. The editorial condemned “the tendency abroad among a certain class to borrow masculine ways”, but praised the women who undertook work for the Church, seeing the opening of the Deaconess Institution as a means of availing ourselves “of the loving, tender and faithful ministry of women”.

A controversy was sparked off by a letter to The Australian Record of 25 July 1891 written by the Rev. George Spencer, Rector of Bega in New South Wales. Spencer declared his support for both deaconesses and sisterhoods. He contended that, because of the laying on of hands by a bishop, a deaconess was really a female deacon and should not be regarded as just a “lady-worker” and should not just represent the evangelical wing of the Church. In other words, Spencer believed the deaconess should be accorded the same clerical status as a male deacon and that women should also have the alternative of working within a religious community. Spencer aired his views again at General Synod, held in Melbourne in September 1891, when moving that both deaconess institutions and sisterhoods be founded in the Australian Church. Despite opposition, his motion was accepted by the Australian church at the national level, although not endorsed by Sydney diocese. Sydney churchmen saw sisterhoods as a reversal of the Protestant Reformation in the Church of England, part of a counter-Reformation process being engineered by Anglo-Catholics.

During the Deaconess Institution’s first year of operation, Sydney Diocese was startled by the unannounced arrival of an English sisterhood, the Community of the Sisters of the Church. The sisterhood, also known as the Kilburn Sisters, had formed in 1870 in the Parish of St. Augustine’s, Kilburn, London. Its first initiative in Sydney was to open a school in Waverley in 1893. While greeted enthusiastically by Sydney’s high churchmen, the Sisters of the Church were condemned by the Evangelicals as “an ecclesiastical intrusion of a somewhat anarchical tendency”. However, the arrival of the Sisters of the Church worked to the advantage of the Deaconess Institution. Sydney Evangelicals, previously lukewarm about any formal ordering of women’s ministry, suddenly became supportive of deaconesses. Bishop Saumarez Smith of Sydney refused to receive the Sisters of the Church at the same time issuing a general warning that women’s ministry could never be as comprehensive as that of men.

At a service for the “making of a Deaconess” held in St. Andrew’s Cathedral in September 1893, Bishop Saumarez Smith stressed that women were best fitted for care of the sick and the education of the young. He warned that women must leave the “harder and heavier work of active administration of the church ... to the stronger sex”. Bishop Saumarez Smith was transmitting the message that being a deaconess would not give women entry to the Church’s administrative posts or councils. The very physically and psychologically demanding job of ministering to sick and poverty-stricken slum-dwellers was not, in the Bishop’s opinion, as onerous as planning diocesan and parish programmes comfortably seated around a table.

Having allowed women to become deaconesses, Sydney churchmen for several years tried to forget that they existed. Archdall, in an article entitled “The Re-Discovery of Women”, admitted that gaining acceptance for women’s ministry was a slow process, hampered by antagonism to the current feminism in society generally :

The age in which we live is agitated about woman and her advancement, and slowly, and it must be said, reluctantly, yet surely, is according to her greater privileges and learning more and more to look upon them as rights due to her in simple justice.

The Deaconess Institution, in its 1910 Report, admitted that it was “stirred with new hopes” with the appointment of J. C. Wright, who succeeded Saumarez Smith as the new Archbishop of Sydney. Archbishop Wright, in a work entitled Thoughts on Modern Church Life and Work, published in 1909, had written a chapter on the ministry of the deaconess. In his “Archbishop’s Letter” of 19 July 1911, Wright recommended the role of the deaconess, declaring that she worked in a disciplined way and that “the disciplined life is a power; the trained worker can do so much more than the amateur; no vows are taken; there is no pledge of celibacy”. Discipline in terms of restraints on deaconesses also protected male clergy power.

Yet, while recommending the potential of the “trained worker”, it is interesting to note that in Archbishop Wright’s address a week later at the Annual General Meeting of the Deaconess Institution, the “professionalism” of the deaconess was cited as a reason for their demise in the early church:

Throughout the first five centuries they [deaconesses] flourished with greater or less success in different localities. Then they absolutely disappeared from Church life. If we ask the reason why they vanished, one not improbable explanation is that they became too artificial, too professional, and, as it has happened since with other official working, the old zeal went out from them, and they degenerated into a burden upon the society, complicating the issue.

As was noted earlier in the chapter, women deaconesses were increasingly excluded in the early church, particularly when their main liturgical function, annointing for baptism of female adults, became obsolete. Concurrent with the deaconess’s exclusion was the rising professionalism of male clergy. Archbishop Wright’s statement was therefore a misrepresentation of the historical situation. He appeared to be issuing a warning to the Sydney deaconesses not to become too ambitious. Professionalism was all right for men but not for women.

The Deaconess Institution quietly progressed, having the strong support of the bishop’s wife and sister, at the same time maintaining two social institutions, a Children’s Home and a Home of Peace for the Dying. Although the Council of the Deaconess Institute was all male, the working body, the “Associates”, was a dedicated band of clergy wives and lay women, many of whom formed support “Circles” in their parishes to raise finance for the running costs of the Institution.

From the beginning, the Deaconess Institution maintained close links with Moore Theological College. Rev. Nathanial Jones, Principal of Moore College from 1897 to 1911, was a close friend of the Archdalls and his wife was an “Associate” of the Deaconess Institution. Deaconess Institution students attended Moore College for lectures on Old and New Testament studies, the Prayer Book, Church History, Social Science, Doctrine and Christian Evidences. For their nursing training, they attended classes in First Aid and Home Nursing and worked for experience in the Casualty Ward of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital which was near their quarters in Carillon Road, Newtown. Students also undertook regular work in the poorest and most thickly populated inner city parishes.

Up until the 1920 Lambeth Conference, there was considerable debate in England on the status of the deaconess. In 1899, Bishop Charles Gore of Birmingham, a highly respected theologian, gave his opinion in Westminster Abbey that “deaconesses were regarded as an Order of the Clergy”, adding that “the Order of Deaconesses has not yet the same position in the Church as that of Deacons, but it only waits for the Church to take more formal action on its behalf”. Remarks such as this not unexpectedly raised women’s hopes that in time they would be elevated to the three-fold order of ministry. In trying to incorporate the variety of interpretations regarding deaconesses into their resolutions, the bishops attending the 1920 Lambeth Conference produced ambiguities which were to plague the Anglican Communion for over sixty years. Their lack of precision would eventually lead to the first ordination of a woman deaconess to priesthood in 1944.

Prior to the 1920 Lambeth Conference, the Archbishop of Canterbury set up a Committee to make practical recommendations for the implementation of proposals already put forward concerning deaconesses. Three English Head Deaconesses were appointed to the Committee as well as three laywomen, in itself an indication of enhanced women’s status. The Committee recommended that ordination to the women’s diaconate had “the permanence which belongs to Holy Orders”; that there should be a common form of ordination service; that some liturgical functions were permissible; and that celibacy was not a requirement.

At the 1920 Lambeth Conference, a committee of bishops under the chairmanship of the Bishop of Ely was appointed to deliberate on and report to the full session on the Ministry of Women. Archbishop Wright of Sydney was a member of this Committee. Following discussion of the Committee’s findings, six Resolutions dealing specifically with deaconesses were passed.

Under Resolution 48, the Lambeth Conference of 1920 declared that “the Order of Deaconesses is for women the one and only Order of the Ministry which has the stamp of Apostolic approval”. “Apostolic approval” did not clearly indicate that the deaconess was a part of “Apostolic succession”, an important concept in Anglican ordained ministry and one which would have opened the door to priesthood. By Resolution 49, the deaconess was relegated to the “primitive” diaconate, “primitive” presumably being defined as equivalent to being permanently in a non-priestly and subordinate order despite the seniority of the deacon vis-a-vis presbyters in the primitive church. The “modern” diaconate for men was, in essence, a brief apprenticeship for priesthood.

Resolution 50 was an attempt to establish a rite for ordaining deaconesses. It read in part:

In every branch of the Anglican Communion there should be adopted a Form and Manner of Making of Deaconesses such as might fitly find a place in the Book of Common Prayer, containing in all cases provision for
(a) Prayer by the Bishop and the laying on of his hands;
(b) A formula giving authority to execute the Office of a Deaconess in the Church of God;

Resolution 52, in setting out the functions permissible for a deaconess to perform, included that she might “in Church read Morning and Evening Prayer and the Litany, except such portions as are assigned to the Priest only” and “in Church also to lead in prayer and, under licence of the Bishop, instruct and exhort the Congregation”. This Resolution did not indicate that the congregation had to be female only.

Sydney Diocese’s reaction to the deaconess resolutions was cautious and protective of “male headship”. The response was more conservative than in many other colonial provinces. On his return to Sydney from the Lambeth Conference, Archbishop Wright warned that while “approval is given to a large extension of the ministration of deaconesses”, this was “not as widely as the report suggested”, declaring that the Lambeth Conference “declined to approve of any share by deaconesses in the communion of the sick or in any service of Holy Communion”, nor could any resolution of the Conference confer “larger powers” on deaconesses “unless the constitutional legislation of the Church in the area permits it”. At the following October 1922 session of Sydney Synod, an ordinance was passed allowing women, “under special specified conditions” to conduct Church services. However, Archbishop Wright emphasised that assisting with liturgy did not mean deaconesses could rise to the priesthood, warning that there was a distinct and definite understanding that “the order of deaconess was not to be the stepping-stone to any higher office in the church but that it stood for that work for which there could be found no parallel”. Again subordination and obscurantism prevailed.

At the General Synod level, in 1921 a committee was appointed to look into the regulation of deaconesses and women workers. No priority was accorded to the issue The committee took sixteen years to compile its report, which even then was little more than a series of draft official documents, such as deaconess licences, and a form of service for ordaining deaconesses.

So, away from the arena of churchmen scheming on their perpetual subordination, how did the Australian deaconesses themselves perform ?

As well as their Christian outreach to the urban poor in Melbourne and Sydney, deaconesses played an important role in inland and overseas missions. The Bush Church Aid Society depended on deaconesses for much of its outback ministry. The main areas of operation were in Bathurst, the Riverina, Gippsland and Willochra dioceses. As Judd and Cable comment in their history of Sydney Anglicanism: “The most striking aspect of Bush Church Aid work was the crucial part played by women in the growth of the Society” They pointed out that in Sydney, while “male lay readers and catechists could assist the clergyman, deaconesses could not preach but only ”address" the congregation and read services in his absence". In the Bush, the deaconesses were allowed to lead local worship. As noted in Chapter One, away from direct clergy supervision women in ministry were allowed more opportunities to develop their talent and demonstrate their resourcefulness.

The Annual Reports of the Deaconess Institution from 1920-21 included a section “Bush Deaconess Report”. In these reports, the formidable tasks being assigned to young female graduates of the Institution were recorded, items such as: “Sometimes a whole month is spent by the Deaconess riding on and on through scattered parishes... visiting, teaching in schools and holding services”. Deaconess Winifred Shoobridge, assigned to Gippsland Diocese, was reported to have “her own pony and thus can work more expeditiously”. By 1937, Deaconess Shoobridge was “travelling in a little Morris Oxford which is equipped with a bicycle (which helps with the daily visiting), a lantern outfit, Bibles, supplies of Mothers’ Union magazines and other literature”. Deaconess Shoobridge noted that bush women would greet her with comments such as “I’m glad it’s a woman come instead” or “Come in, you’re the first woman I’ve seen for ten months”.

Sydney deaconess Dorothy Almond also worked in Gippsland, in the “Big Scrub” region in the East, stationed at Cann River District, working among “pioneer settlers”, the nearest doctor being “sixty miles distant”. Dorothy Almond in 1923 was written up in the Victorian newspapers for her heroic efforts to save a desperately ill woman in the remote Croajingolong area of Gippsland. She rode forty miles and then walked sixteen miles in stormy weather in order to bring medical aid to the patient. “Through her ministry, in conjunction with that of a doctor, who was able to come out later, the woman’s life was saved”.

Deaconess Agnes McGregor, working for Bush Church Aid in the Far West near Wilcannia, in the late twenties, commented: “One has so many experiences that it is hard to know which is best to relate - punctures on treeless plains when the temperature is 115oin the shade (but there is no shade!) or well down to the footboards in sand and having to use the spade for two hours (no one to give the needed push) or trying to find the track in a blinding duststorm.”

In Gippsland Diocese, it became practice to appoint deaconesses to areas which could not afford the stipend of a priest or a deacon, and which were too demanding for a trainee lay reader. Mrs. Edith Littleton, eldest daughter of Bishop Cranswick, recalled that the deaconesses “were very poorly paid but there was no other way we could staff the diocese in those days”. Underlying this statement was an admission that the Diocese of Gippsland was prepared to exploit women workers for the sake of serving the Church’s frontier areas. The Diocese could not get male clergy to accept such conditions. The positive aspect was that these difficult situations allowed deaconesses to prove themselves capable of carrying out the duties of clergy. Yet, despite his progressive views on women, Bishop Cranswick, while allowing the deaconesses to be addressed as “the Reverend”, did not give them the right to sit in the House of Clergy in Gippsland Synod. They were not given clergy seats in the diocesan Synod until April 1949.

In time, the deaconesses in Gippsland were placed in charge of parochial districts, officially under the aegis of some remote priest. They were permitted to conduct funerals, baptise infants, preside at Parochial Councils (before women were allowed to be members of them), prepare and present candidates for Confirmation, conduct Morning and Evening Prayer Services and preach. So highly were the deaconesses regarded in Gippsland that Deaconess Nancy Drew recalled that she was appointed to succeed Deaconess Winifred Halter to the parish of Nowa Nowa in 1955 because the people had petitioned the Bishop for another deaconess even though a male priest could have been appointed. When Deaconess Drew left in 1963, the people again asked for a deaconess.

The Diocese of Tasmania also allowed considerable responsibility to their deaconesses but also, like Gippsland, assigned them to remote, pioneering areas. Such was the case of Tasmanian deaconess, Elvie Fraser, trained in Melbourne, who in 1982 was commissioned as Deaconess of the Furneaux Islands, centred on Flinders Island. Elvie Fraser commented:

I can do all that a priest can do except consecrate the elements at Holy Communion, officiate at weddings (because I cannot pronounce the Blessing) and pronounce the Absolution.... We reserve the Sacrament. As we have to pay the fare across from Tasmania for a priest to consecrate the bread and wine, and that is rather expensive, we try not to run out too often.... Because it is not always easy to get a priest to come when we need one for a wedding, I now have a licence to officiate at weddings.

Deaconess Marie Kingston, a rural dean, who ran seven centres in the isolated Tasmanian parish of Derby-Ringarooma, admitted that in spite of her heavy responsibilities, “my status is no different from that of layreader”.

One of the important functions of Deaconess House in Sydney was to train women for overseas missions as well as for the Australian frontier areas. The missionary course was shorter if the trainee did not wish to graduate as a deaconess. Non-ordained graduates were usually referred to as parish or missionary sisters. According to Judd and Cable, under the sub-heading “The Export of Women” (just as if trained churchwomen were commodities!), between 1892 and 1931, 70% of the Church Missionary Society’s 246 missionaries were women. Deaconess Mary Andrews, while Head Deaconess in Sydney after serving with distinction in China, acknowledged the limitations for deaconesses in the Australian urban situation under the close supervision of male clergy. In her opinion, “for those women who sought a more active church role in the extension of Christ’s Kingdom, there was only one option, missionary work, both overseas or in remote parts of Australia.”

The experience of Jacinth Myles illustrates how irksome service in an urban parish could be. After four years of training in Deaconess House, Sydney, Jacinth Myles was employed as a “parish sister” in a Blue Mountains parish. She recalled:

From the start the rector made it clear where I stood. “You are the employee, I am the employer".... My weekly program in that parish was drawn up by the rector and it was not open to negotiation. It did include some adult group work, but it did not include involvement in the services apart from reading the Bible.

Jacinth Myles found that it was in Australia’s rural areas that she was accorded more opportunities and recognition. In Armidale, in contrast with Sydney Diocese, she was advised that “the position would involve a fair amount of leading services and preaching”. When handed her weekly programme, she was not expected to adhere to it slavishly but was “completely free to follow whatever ministry the Lord wanted me to have”.

The narrow moralism taught in their training at Deaconess House and Moore College and the strict injunctions given to them to work only with women and children, could alienate Sydney deaconesses from the people to whom they were trying to minister. Deaconess Dorothy Harris, in expressing her dislike of helping out at the Carramar Hostel for unmarried mothers, is an example of a Christian worker hampered by having acquired an over-moralistic attitude:

That was a job I didn’t enjoy. The actual work was all right but all those pregnant young girls I found nauseating. They had destroyed what should have been part of a future satisfying marriage and brought distress and unhappiness to themselves and families.

While admitting that “there were, of course, many instances where ignorance or some forms of abuse brought about the pregnancy”, Deaconess Harris still reflected the patriarchal church’s judgmental attitude towards women so often espoused by Anglican clergy, and the tendency to free the male of sexual responsibility.

Anglo-Catholics tended to favour the ministrations of women religious rather than deaconesses. In the Anglo-Catholic oriented Church Standard of 17 May 1940, in a series on parish life written under the pseudonym “Quiz”, there appeared an article entitled “The Dirge of the Deaconess”. The writer appeared to be torn between sympathy and rejection. While portraying an unflattering image of the deaconess, he also spoke out against the Church ‘s exploitation of women in this form of ministry.

“Quiz” described deaconesses as “bands of martyrs” who sacrificed their womanhood “to become a despised drudge with nothing on earth to press forward to but eventual retirement in some poverty-infested garret”. The writer continued:

The life demanded of a deaconess flouts every divinely endowed human instinct ....Wearing flop hats and starched collars their uniform closely resembles that of a female felon. Surely the more Catholic and certainly more soul- sating would be the graceful robes of a nun.... So long as the present attire makes many a deaconess resemble rather the captain of her school hockey team than a vestal virgin. she will be treated as such by the average pavement trotter.

The writer also deplored the lowly accommodation - “small room with gas ring and use of bath” which the deaconess’s meagre stipend forced upon her, asserting that “this criminal system has all the austerities and none of the blessings of community life, and saps the very womanhood from her veins.” One of the problems for the urban deaconess was that she was not entitled to the accommodation benefits accorded to clergy and her salary was much lower.

“Quiz” dismissed the assumption that a vocation to ministry is by its nature altruistic:

Finally life without ambition is vegetable growth. The description of a deaconess denys [sic] her ambition - there is no higher station to which she may rise. The thought of an archdeaconess eyeing one through her lorgnette, or an even more formidable being in gaiters pouring forth her pastoral charge, rather withers one, doesn’t it?

“Quiz” also criticised the nature of the work assigned to the deaconess, drawing obviously on the urban parish rather than the “Bush” or overseas missionary situation:

What is the work of this woman, so patronized by the morning congregation? Usually there are meetings of aged crones to be addressed, there are parish pamphlets to deliver, visits to be paid and classes to be taught.....No man with any spirit would undertake such work, for it offers no advancement, and a man without spirit is useless.... So we advocate more deaconesses in the parish, doing more efficient work, being better trained and treated as individuals, not as “the deaconess”, as we might talk of “the bell” or “the font”.

The solution the writer suggested for “this tragic figure in parish life clinging to the tattered streamers of her tiny power, living under abnormal and soul-destroying conditions, and yet heroically carrying her cross”, was the conventual life, where “each community would be controlled by an abbess (super-deaconess, or what you will), who would have charge over the work and would instruct the novices”. The writer contended that “the flame of ambition would then not be snuffed within the bosom of a sister - for she might become an abbess or even an abbess-superior (super-super deaconess) over several centres”. The effect of this, the writer foresaw, was that “the pitiful sight of a retired deaconess would never again be the vile reproach it is to the Church to-day, allowing as it does ancient and fragile old ladies to scrape and stint week by week to keep a wretched roof over their heads”. The writer concluded that “the martyrdom of womanhood demanded of a deaconess is a disgrace, it is a system which is murdering personalities, and cries for swift revision”.

The only response to the article “The Dirge of the Deaconess” came from “Reformer” of Burwood, New South Wales, commenting that “her trim uniform seems to me much more suitable than ‘the gracefold folds of the nun’” and reminding “Quiz” that “a certain abbess of old, not only ruled her community wisely and well, but a college of clergy also”. No one condemned the subordinate position, meagre stipend and restricted roles offered to deaconesses or queried the comment that no clergy of spirit would undertake the mundane, pastoral work of the parish. No woman spoke out against the term “aged crones” or queried the quality of clergy who dismissed the elderly ladies of the congregation in such an arbitrary manner.

The anomalies in the status of deaconesses throughout the Anglican Communion at least kept their ministry on the agendas of Lambeth Conferences. The use of the term “Holy” in regard to Deaconess Orders which appeared in 1920 Lambeth Conference resolutions was raised again at the 1930 Lambeth Conference. The Committee reporting on deaconesses came to the conclusion that the Order of Deaconesses was not in “Holy Orders” but in “an Order sui generis; the only Order of ministry open to women”.

Having removed deaconesses from “Holy Orders”, the next Lambeth Conference in 1948 had to deal with the reality that in 1944 the Bishop of Hongkong and South China, Ronald Hall, had ordained a deaconess, Li Tim-Oi (Florence) to the priesthood in order to meet the needs of the Anglican community on the island of Macao during the Japanese Occupation of China. Although Li Tim-Oi had agreed to revert to the office of deacon because of the antipathy her priesting had caused in the Anglican Communion, the Diocese of Hongkong and South China requested that the 1948 Lambeth Conference consider whether it was “in accordance with Anglican tradition ... to try out whether or not the ordination of women [to priesthood] in that province is or is not ‘of God’”? The Lambeth answer to this question was in the negative.

“Deaconesses” were again on the agenda of the 1958 Lambeth Conference, where the bishops ratified the 1930 Lambeth Resolution that they were definitely in an Order which was sui generis This decision was revised in 1968. A Report to the Lambeth Conference, under the sub-heading “Deaconesses”, was adamant that “ the ordination of a Deaconess confers on her Holy Orders”, concluding that “those who are made deaconess by the laying on of hands with the appropriate prayer should be regarded as within the order of deacons”, a recommendation which placed women on the first rung of the threefold order of priesthood. The Report went further. Under a short paragraph headed “Women and the Priesthood”, it was declared that “it is right that a report on the renewal of the Church’s ministry should include a recommendation of whether women should be ordained to the priesthood”, concluding that “we find no conclusive theological reasons for withholding ordination to the priesthood from women”.

The Australian Anglican Church made it clear that it would not accept any Lambeth resolution which placed deaconesses in the same Holy Orders as male deacons. As far as priestly ministry was concerned, Archbishop Marcus Loane of Sydney asserted that if women were admitted to the priesthood this would “sound the death knell of the Church’s appeal to men”, reiterating past sentiments that Australian Anglican males would rather leave the church than accept women in leadership positions.

At the 1969 Australian General Synod, a Canon to Regulate and Formulate the Order of Deaconesses (7/69) was passed, the first time the Order of Deaconesses was incorporated into the Australian Anglican Constitution. In direct defiance of the 1968 Lambeth Resolution, the Australian Canon stated that the deaconess order was “not one of the historic three-fold Orders of the Church of England in Australia”

A Report had been drawn up prior to the General Synod by a Commission on the Ministry of Deaconesses. The Commission’s recommendations read:

The functions and status of deaconesses vary considerably in Australian dioceses. In Perth and Gippsland, deaconesses are licensed to preach, to baptize and to administer the chalice. In Gippsland, they are members of Synod in the house of clergy. In other dioceses they are not ex-officio members of Synod. In Sydney, where by far the largest number of deaconesses have been trained and licensed, they may read Morning and Evening Prayer, and they may perform such pastoral work as is allocated to them. In Melbourne, deaconesses have been licensed to administer the chalice on particular occasions. There is therefore great variety in the situation in Australia.

Under the 1969 Canon, a deaconess might be licensed to perform pastoral and liturgical duties but these were left to the discretion of the diocesan bishops. Neverthelss, the main purpose of the Canon appeared to be to clarify that a “deaconess” was not in the same Order as a “deacon”.

In Sydney, Head Deaconess Mary Andrews spoke out against the decision of the Australian Anglican Church, becoming in retirement a firm supporter of the ordination of women to priesthood. In Melbourne, Head Deaconess Elizabeth Alfred urged that the Australian Church accept the 1968 Lambeth ruling that deaconesses be regarded as being in the same diaconate as male deacons. The irony for the Australian women was that while they were being denied “Holy Orders”, The Anglican in December 1969 reported that the “Synod of the Diocese of Christchurch, New Zealand has approved ordination of women deacons to the priesthood; 120 members voted for the motion and 40 against”.

From 1969 onwards, deaconesses across Australia began to voice the frustrations which had been building up for years. In a report to the Australian Council of Churches’ Commission on “the Status of Women in the Church”, the “Deaconess Order of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney” included the following statement in its submission:

The Deaconess Order has no representation on the Synodical government of the Diocese. Deaconesses have little chance of advancement. Regardless of her capabilities and years of experience, a deaconess will always be third in line after the rector and curate, and always an assistant. She can never be the senior partner in a team ministry. When a position is being filled, a man will be preferred before her....Occasional preaching by a deaconess is permitted when a minister is present, but temporarily incapacitated through ill-health, or when the topic is about women or on a missionary subject. In these cases, the occasions should be reported afterwards to the Archbishop.

In responding to a section on how deaconesses define their present status in the Church, the Sydney deaconesses replied:

Deaconesses feel, on the whole, that the Church in this Diocese fails to use the gifts and capabilities which God has given to those women whom He has called and who are willing to be trained for His Service. This is because the Diocese follows a specific interpretation of St. Paul’s doctrine of “Headship” (Ephes. 5-22ff). It has failed to come to terms with a society in which there are many single professional women. It would seem that women within the Church’s ranks are too often discriminated against and their potential is lost.

Sydney deaconesses were no longer prepared to remain passive under oppression. They pointed out that “the Scriptures make it clear that both men and women were made in the image of God, were redeemed by Christ, and received the gift of the Person of the Holy Spirit”.

Deaconesses also complained of being automatically underrated, as a letter from P. J. Nelson of Turramurra, NSW, indicates. She wrote:

When ordained a deaconess in St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, some years ago, I wore, on request, my B.A. hood. An incredulous and horrified clergyman saw me, asked me why I was wearing it, objecting that no deaconess was capable of attaining such intellectual heights! A small rudeness, perhaps amusing, but the incident was unfortunately typical of the pompous attitude of many of our brothers in Christ.

In 1984, at a Deaconess Conference at Gilbulla in New South Wales, Deaconess Marjorie McGregor, Senior Woman Minister in Melbourne Diocese, criticised the Australian Anglican Church’s treatment of deaconesses:

Australia does not have a commendable record in regard to women’s ministry, especially in relation to deaconesses.... Apart from Sydney, only small numbers have worked in a few dioceses. .... While there is no shortage of women studying theology and offering for ministry, few are invited to attend selection conferences in Melbourne. No more than one woman a year is accepted for ministry... At the same time, a record number of parishes are independently employing laymen and women and youth and pastoral workers.

Trained laywomen had become less threatening for clergy as the barriers keeping deaconesses out of the three-fold order of priesthood began to totter.

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