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Rising Protest from Women</H1> <H4 ALIGN="CENTER">from <I> Freedom From Sanctified Sexism - Women Transforming the Church</I> by Mavis Rose

Rising Protest from Women

from Freedom From Sanctified Sexism - Women Transforming the Church by Mavis Rose, pp. 150-169.

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

In 1969, a time when second wave feminism was making an impact on Australian society, the General Synod of the Australian Anglican Church firmly set itself against the trend towards gender equality by rejecting the 1968 Lambeth Conference resolution that deaconesses be admitted to the same diaconate as male deacons. The Australian General Synod did, however, follow the Lambeth directive to study the question of women in priesthood by establishing a Commission on Doctrine to carry out this task.

An interim report of the Commission on Doctrine, issued in 1973, concluded that there were no significant theological objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate. A minority opposition statement representing the views of Rev. Dr. Broughton Knox, Principal of Moore Theological College, Dr. Allan Bryson, a Sydney layman, and Archbishop Reed of Adelaide was included in the Commission’s Report. Dr. Bryson displayed unease that the move to remove discrimination against women in the Church’s ministry might be related to secular feminism, contending: “It is not a matter of a funny group of us with a fixation about Paul’s aberration about women. We just don’t want to trim our sails before the winds of fashion.” His comments implied that the social justice for women being advocated by secular feminists had no relevance to Christianity, it was just a passing phase.

There was in the general wave of liberation from oppressive social structures, including patriarchy, sweeping through the world, a strong anti-establishment, unconventional and outspoken quality. This questioning spirit ran contrary to the religious conditioning of the average Australian Anglican, especially women. Traditional Anglicans instinctively assumed that anything to do with a movement as activist as women’s liberation must be unholy, As Miss Bertha Cleminson of Corinda, Queensland commented: “It seems a pity to associate Women’s Lib with its rather loud vocal claims, with the suggested role of women as priests in the Church”. Likewise, Miss Una Clifford of Somerton Park, South Australia, expressed disquiet, commenting: “Don’t let us fall into the trap of being swayed by the climate in the world today”, adding that “the argument that points to the changing role of women could only hold water if we could be absolutely sure Jesus would have chosen females if they had had today’s status, and that this was his only reason for setting up an exclusively male ministry”.

Miss Clifford’s statement was challenged by Deaconess Fairweather of Murrumbeena, Victoria, who pointed out that “our Lord did not lay down the structures for men in the priesthood; he did but leave eleven men on earth who had been his disciples for three years.... the priesthood developed from this small band of men much later”. Deaconess Fairweather expressed her conviction that “this liberation of women within the Church is ... under the guidance and blessing of God, and because of his leading women will be some time in the future accepted within the ordained ministry of his Church”. The 1969 General Synod decision to deny them entry to the threefold ministry had aroused the fighting spirit of many deaconesses.

In this early awakening stage, Christian feminists were anxious to dissociate themselves from the secular movement because of its perceived profanity. Irene Jeffreys, in theory a feminist through her strong support for the priesting of women in Hong Kong, refuted an ABC interviewer’s suggestion that the pressure to have women clergy came from “the women’s lib.”. She answered: “Oh, no, the Holy Spirit is leading us to it!” To link the Holy Spirit with “feminism” at this early stage would have appeared blasphemous.

Dr. John Nurser, an Anglican theologian who had spent several years at St. Mark’s College, Canberra, analysed the dilemma for ordination activists within the class structure of Anglicanism:

The obvious course, it appears, for those active in promoting the cause is to agitate and be strident and do a suffragette, but that is likely in the present political scene to mobilise support where it does not count and reinforce opposition where it does....But to flout the law is the last thing that the campaigners for women’s ordination temperamentally want to do, for many of them are well educated, upper middle class members of the establishment.

Although failing to recognise the value of the role model provided when radical women spoke up and challenged the system at an informed, theological level, Dr. Nurser did correctly identify that Australian Anglican activists tried to work from within the church system. As the issue dragged on and on, the frustration of remaining in the Church became too painful for many women, forcing them to struggle from outside.

According to Anglican sociologist, Margaret Franklin, “in Australia, Christian women seem to have been among the first to have been affected by the Women’s Movement, which spread through the Western world in the late sixties and seventies”. Brisbane Anglican churchwoman, Win Metcalf-Kendall, admitted that she turned to the feminist movement because of lack of pastoral care from the church, explaining that “when my youngest daughter developed multiple sclerosis at the age of sixteen years, I received practically no support from my rector, in spite of the fact that I had been an active churchwoman and Sunday School teacher for years and my daughter had attended an Anglican school”. Win Metcalfe obtained much more spiritual and practical support from the Women’s Electoral Lobby. “I found”, she reminisced, “the Anglican Church’s attitudes to women to be so appalling that I became alienated from the Church”. Win Metcalfe was later to become a Secretary of the Brisbane Branch of the Movement for the Ordination of Women.

Ruth Sturmey, too, in her research on women in the Australian Anglican Church, found that “many of those who were leaders in the ordination movement within the Church had been involved in the civil rights movement”, commenting that “the ordination issue reflected the same basic philosophy”.

By the nineteen-seventies, Australian Anglican clergy and laity were conscious that a less conformist breed of tertiary-educated, professional women existed within their patriarchal structures. As observed in 1971 by Canon Ivor Church, Principal of St. Francis Theological College, Brisbane, and a member of the General Synod Commission on Doctrine, “In the patriarchal milieu women were expected to accept a status of permanent inferiority, and in religious matters became a sort of appendage to their husbands”. Canon Church acknowledged that change had occurred, that “the role of women is seen increasingly as being complementary to that of men and no whit inferior”, that women were working as “medical practitioners in our hospitals and judges in our law courts”, proving themselves “to be competent, skillful and humane”. He concluded that “no longer can the priesthood be assumed to be solely a male preserve”. Canon Church was conceding that the church could not ignore secular initiatives, especially on matters of justice and equity. He himself broke with tradition in 1978 by appointing a woman theologian, Deborah Brown, to his teaching staff.

Not all Anglicans were prepared to accept that the higher status and professionalism of women entitled them to priesthood. In July 1977, the Rev. T. G. Drought of Lockleys, South Australia, who described himself as “an ardent feminist” with sympathies for “many of the objectives of the Women’s Lib.”, was critical of the Commission on Doctrine’s 1973 Report, which he viewed as an attempt “ to rationalise the Church’s ministry to fit in with the comparatively modern emergence of women into leading positions in other fields and professions”. He argued:

The Report hopelessly confuses the important distinction between status and function. Much of the report in this regard is quite irrelevant, because it is all about the new status Christ gave to women ... but does not really show in any convincing, positive way how this new status affects the function of the Apostolic Ministry as traditionally understood.

The inability of many clergy and laity to accept that “priestly function” and “status” were linked, especially in regard to the male-dominant traditions surrounding the Apostolic Ministry and the Pauline injunctions on “headship”, was to become evident in the ensuing decades. The use of the term “function” became a strategy to debar women from priesthood, woman’s chief function being seen as “motherhood”.

The women’s groups upholding female stereotypes supported the “function” argument and the maleness of priesthood. In an article on “Christian Ministry” published in 1974, Canon Church pointed out that it was not just the clergy who were opposed to the concept of women priests but “the rank and file of the Church, including a great number of women themselves, are hostile to the whole idea...”. Reminiscing on this period, Canon Church observed that he was aware that it would be difficult for many Australian Anglicans to accept women priests because the concept “ran against accepted cultural norms”. Because of this, he had advised a slow, cautious approach to the priesting of women to prevent schism.

Mrs. M. R. Lambourne of Mount Waverley, Victoria, commenting on Canon Church’s prognostications about the slow acceptance of women into priesthood, remarked that “history has shown this resistance to change to be damaging to the Church itself and to individuals”. In regard to the question of the scepticism of the “rank and file”, especially “the great number of women” and “the fear that this may lead to ‘schism’”, Mrs. Lambourne concluded:

Perhaps Ivor Church and others of like mind are unaware that many women have become alienated from the existing Church as an institution, because of this attitude of discrimination as to the use of their talents, the jealousy or fear of other women at losing their comfortable accepted role, and the condescending “fatherly” attitude of many priests.

Melbourne Synod led the way in 1973 in establishing diocesan committees to examine the question of women’s ministry, although other dioceses too studied the question. When Melbourne’s commission on women’s ministry reported to the diocesan synod in 1975, its findings were that “women who have genuinely felt a call of God to the priesthood have no option but to suppress the call and to channel their gifts into a less fulfilling area of ministry”. It found that by its barrier to ordaining women, the Church implied that “although a woman’s qualifications and ability may be undoubted, because she is not a man her ministry must be less than total, more of the nature of a sheepdog than a shepherd”. Melbourne Synod accepted the report and instructed the Archbishop, “as a matter of urgency”, to initiate discussions on the ministry of women in the diocese. Melbourne, Perth and Canberra/Goulburn were to become the dioceses most prepared to implement the ordination of women.

In 1976, Brisbane Synod also requested the Archbishop-in-Council to appoint a Commission to prepare a report on women in priesthood. The motion was introduced by Noela Burrows, wife of the Rector of Tarragindi, and seconded by the Rev. Richard Bowie. While addressing Brisbane Synod, Noela Burrows pointed out that she knew of several women who felt called to priesthood and she believed they should have an opportunity to fulfil their calling. She was supported by Debbie Price, who said that in the past “women had not been given a fair go in the Church”, producing quotations from St. Paul, early church father John Chrysostom, Martin Luther and Bishop David Hand of New Guinea to justify her claim. Ms. Price stated:

Women’s role in the Church has been seen as a supportive one, and the nature of our work could scarcely be described as highly responsible. It is important that we should examine our own lives for evidence of discrimination against women ....The manifestation of prejudice is the root cause of discontent, and could ultimately even lead to violence. In recent times the Church has recognised racism as evil, but it has failed to see that discrimination on the grounds of sex is just as devastating.

Clearly by the mid-seventies, the issue of women’s ordination was stirring clergy and laity across diocesan boundaries in an unprecedented way. Bishop John Hazlewood of Ballarat, an ardent Anglo-Catholic, stated firmly that “women priests are definitely out in the Ballarat Diocese”. When in 1978 women were ordained to the priesthood in New Zealand, Bishop Hazlewood declared that “no woman who has been through the process of what is claimed to be ordination to either the priesthood or episcopate will be permitted to preach, speak, teach or celebrate any sacraments”. He also made clear that the New Zealand Bishops of Auckland, Christchurch and Waiapu, who had ordained women to priesthood, would not be allowed to officiate in his diocese.

A satirical response came in the form of a letter signed by Colleen O’Reilly Stewart and thirteen members of the activist group Anglican Women Concerned in Sydney. The wording was framed in the context of Ballarat’s gold-mining history:

Rumour has it that gold of the finest quality is being secretly mined under the cathedral narthex in Ballarat ....Through some despicable act of subversion, word about the gold mine has been leaked to those bishops in North America and New Zealand who have ordained women. Circumstantial evidence would appear to point to a feminist fifth-column in the Cathedral Women’s Auxiliary. Naturally the bishops and clergy of these foreign coolie provinces have been working the diplomatic channels to get into Ballarat for the first rush ....For apart from a gold rush, why would foreign bishops and clergy be itching in their cassocks to go to Ballarat? We hope now that your readers will be able to see that Bishop Hazlewood’s secret bans were not highly discourteous, politically motivated or potentially schismatic but quite simply protective.... It is merely a temporary concealment of the glory that may soon glitter on all Christendom from the Victorian country town of Ballarat.

Ridiculing bishops openly was a new weapon, one which Australian Anglican churchwomen had seldom used in the past. The letter from Anglican Women Concerned was indicative of mounting self-confidence among women, a warning that Church leaders could no longer assume that misogynist statements would go unchallenged.

Colleen O’Reilly Stewart’s small Anglican feminist group in Sydney was operating in an environment hostile to women’s issues; its radicalism was constantly being fuelled by hardline conservatism. Sydney Diocese at its Synod in October 1976 not only rejected women’s ordination but flew in the face of trends in the Australian church and Anglican Communion by rejecting a motion to allow lay women to be elected church wardens. Bishop Donald Robinson of Parramatta was the most vehement opponent, arguing that the role of church warden was closely related to that of elder in the New Testament, and was not therefore a natural progression in extending opportunities to women. Dean Shilton of Sydney, in opposing Robinson, claimed that it would be unfortunate if the male-dominated synod rejected the motion. He believed that such rejection would “proceed out of fear rather than faith”, an exposure of the cultural anxiety expressed previously by Archbishops Wright and Loane that Australian Anglican laymen would desert the Church if women held positions of leadership.

Dr. Barbara Thiering, an outspoken critic of the prevailing “male headship” principle. was to play a significant role in radicalising Anglican women. She contributed to a work produced by the General Synod Commision on Doctrine under the editorship of Rev. Dr. John Gaden, entitled A Woman’s Place. In 1973, she published a book entitled Created Second?, an analysis of sexism in Australia, exposing how the church promoted inequality, being “one of the main agencies in the limitation of women”. Thiering argued that there was no theological or biblical basis for male domination, observing that “on the question of its attitudes to women”, the Church had “departed further from the meaning of the Gospel than on any other social question”.

According to Thiering, in Australia, “with a puritan tradition and a hedonistic way of life, ...a polarisation of virtue readily occurs” She observed:

We have a habit of setting up as church leaders narrow and ascetic men, so that, feeling comfortable in the assurance of their goodness, we can disport in the sun to our heart’s content.... This same process of enshrinement has very often been applied to women, making them a class apart.

Barbara Thiering acknowledged that the New Testament Church, for the most part, “endorsed the position currently held by women in the different local areas which it served”. However, she pointed out that in addition to the passages showing the subordination of women, there were “other passages which show that the Church already accepted the principle that it ought to be in the vanguard of the movement for women’s liberation”. According to Thiering, the traditional male-female relationship “was simply an aspect of the male supremacist structure of social order which is accepted as normal in the western world, but which is no part of the Christian programme. Like white supremacy, it passes unnoticed by those who benefit from it, and is unthinkingly incorporated into the Church’s structures”.

One interesting consequence of the women’s ordination issue was that sexuality was brought out into the open, a shock for Anglicans accustomed to its covert place within the church environment. The Rev. Douglas Stevens of East Melbourne exemplified a cleric bristling with disapproval of this trend, complaining in 1976: “Many of us who sat through the Melbourne Synod debate on the ordination of women were appalled at the very poor quality of most of the addresses, and not least the explicit sexual imagery, both masculine and feminine, that brought no credit to either side.”

Peta Sherlock, a Melbourne clergy wife in training for ministry (later to become a leading member of the Movement for the Ordination of Women), responded to the points raised by Douglas Stevens:

I am both amused and horrified at the reactions which call the Melbourne debate on women “vulgar”. Amused that grown men consider the mention of the penis to be vulgar..... In this whole debate, we must be seeking to affirm our sexuality, but one can’t help thinking some members of the Church still think sex is a result of the fall....If the debate involves penises and menstruation, then let us use the words without apologies.

As the years rolled on, and the women’s ordination issue remained unresolved, discussions on male and female genitalia and biology would become more commonplace.

Among this new openness on male-female relationships, the voice of the Mothers’ Union expressed dissent. This was reflected in a letter written by Mrs. Elizabeth Barrow of Wamberal, New South Wales:

Woman should rock the cradle of the world, true motherhood is what God wants from her. I strongly object to women taking the place of man. How degrading to a man this must be in an educated world. Is not woman sinning by wearing men’s clothing and wanting to do his work when her own work is neglected?

Clearly the early attitudes that it was women’s duty to serve the interests of men rather than use their God-given talents more creatively and widely persisted into the nineteen seventies.

In 1977, prior to the General Synod, the Commission on Doctrine published its full report. The majority report confirmed that there were no insuperable theological problems concerning the ordination of women to the three-fold order of ministry. Again there was a minority report, this time under the signature of Canon Broughton Knox of Sydney. His statement claimed that “God’s Word makes clear that in creating humanity, God gave a headship to man which he did not give to woman, so that the report is fundamentally wrong in the basic assumption on which it proceeds, namely that in the relationship between men and women there is no difference between the sexes in their status towards each other.” Thus the main objections were raised by Evangelical rather than Anglo-Catholic theologians.

The Commission on Doctrine’s Report was favourably received by the 1977 General Synod. Bishop Max Thomas, Chairman of the Commission moved a resolution that the ordination of women be approved in principle and that a canon be prepared to be brought before the 1981 General Synod. The motion was seconded by Irene Jeffreys, who pointed out that “women were ordained in the early church till forbidden in the fourth century”. Archbishop Loane of Sydney, as Chairman of the General Synod, took no part in the debate but he did indicate in his presidential address that he did not agree with the Commission’s findings. He believed, as set out in Canon Broughton Knox’s Minority Report, that there were serious theological objections to the ordination of women. The motion was passed.

Dean Brian Davis of Napier, New Zealand, an observer at this General Synod, remarked on the legalistic approach adopted in Australian Anglicanism and the small number of women members in General Synod. He commented that at times he was reminded of the philosopher C. E. N. Joad, who in his atheist days had said: ‘Hands off the Church of England; it’s the one thing that can save us from Christianity’". He added: “Maybe the ordination of women brings a particular threat to clergymen already sensitive about their peculiar social status in a traditionally male-dominated society”. Davis was affirming that the very dominant Australian male culture put additional pressures on clergy working in a private sphere such as the Church to resist admitting women to the upper echelons where they might become too visible.

Certainly, confused responses and delaying tactics were becoming the practice among conservative clergy. An editorial in Church Scene warned them of the resentment aroused by constant rebuttals of women, pointing out that “clearly many people are hurting in various ways”, which it categorised as “the classical tension of a major dialectic”. The editorial acknowledged that any attempt to curb debate would be dangerous because mounting frustration among women would raise the level of protest. The use of the term “major dialectic” was an indication that churchmen were awakening to the huge social, structural and theological dimensions in the Christian feminist challenge.

Opponents of women’s ordination were searching for scapegoats, the Rev. T. P. Williams of Sebastopol, Victoria, accusing “academics in their polo-neck jumpers and pale grey suits” of having done “a splendid job in undermining and emasculating the Christian gospel in order to advance their private theories and insidious eccentricities”. He condemned the Doctrine Commission’s report as “shoddy”, declaring: “How our theological trendies and popularity seeking parsons love to cripple Anglicanism with their Athenian fascination for something new!”

A cleric who was considered “trendy”, Dean Ian George of Brisbane, was certainly outspoken about discrimination against women in Australian Christian churches: “It is not unfair to say of most of the Christian denominations that they are controlled by a hierarchy, their affairs are conducted from a male point of view, and women do most of the work”. Dean George warned that this situation could not survive, that denominations must be prepared to do more to encourage intelligent, informed, responsible women into top echelons of the leadership. He concluded: “The plain fact of the matter is that Australian society is a sexist society. Most Australian males do not have much faith in women being put in responsible positions”.

The issues raised in General Synod were re-hashed a month later in Sydney Synod. While agitated voices were raised inside, declaring that there were theological objections to the ordination of women, outside the Chapter House members of Anglican Women Concerned, under the leadership of Colleen O’Reilly Stewart, were demonstrating. They had tried to distribute circulars in which they had drawn attention to the prevailing attitude that “humility in relationships becomes a virtue only in women”, but were prevented from doing so. They did have supporters inside the Chapter House as well as detractors. Sue Parkes of Mortdale made the startling suggestion that “if we’ve got to look into the whole question of ministry, we should suspend the ordination of men as well”, stressing that the decisions to be made were “not only theological”. The Rev. Tony Bagnell pointed out that history had been littered with examples of men’s discrimination against women and that women were being kept mentally and emotionally at a distance because there was “a fear and suspicion of women”, again a suggestion of Australian cultural inhibitions.

In 1978, the ten-year exodus of Australian Bishops to the Lambeth Conference took place. They were aware that debate on women’s ordination would be a high point on the agenda and that this time there would be many bishops present who regarded women priests as a fait accompli. This reality was translated at the Lambeth Conference into a broad resolution which made it clear that the Anglican Communion had within its structures an order of priesthood in which men and women participated, although it was left to the member provinces to decide whether or not to ordain women.

The reminder that hundreds of ordained women priests existed in the Anglican Communion raised the spectre of what to do if one of them visited Australia. Bishop Porter of The Murray, in his address to his synod in October 1978, voiced his fears about the possibility of being invited to a diocese which had authorised an overseas woman priest to celebrate the eucharist. He warned about an even worse dilemma: “I feel certain that it won’t be long before a woman, followed by others, will be consecrated to the episcopate. What of the men she may subsequently ordain to the priesthood?” One could avoid contact with women priests, but male priests ordained by women bishops presented a more complicated situation.

Likewise, the Rev. David Townsend of Heathmont, Victoria, foresaw the whole male concept of God being ruined by the movement to priest women, a movement which he believed sprang primarily “from cultures disturbed by the sexual revolution”:

The centrality of women priests in the authoritative and liturgical centre of the congregation would change our feelings about God....It would introduce a new concept of femininity into our religion.

This, Townsend argued, would create “a religion which was neither Biblical nor traditional”. Townsend clearly perceived Anglicanism as an androcentric denomination in which feminine elements were alien.

Colleen O’Reilly Stewart responded to this argument, pointing out that Townsend was insinuating that “women do not reflect anything of their Creator”:

If both men and women are made in God’s image, then the nature of God encompasses all the traits which society labels as masculine and feminine....In the Old Testament, God is spoken of as mother, midwife, and a woman in labour.... Numerous other references to God using feminine or maternal imagery occur throughout the psalms and the prophets. The point is, of course, that we are to see God as including and transcending our male and female being.

The influence of the Lambeth Conference appeared to alert Sydney Diocese’s leaders to the need for a modicum of flexibility, if only to defuse mounting criticism from laywomen such as Colleen O’Reilly Stewart. The appointment of women churchwardens was approved, the argument being that churchwardens did not after all exercise any “headship”, as was claimed in the past when Bishop Robinson had likened them to New Testament elders. Deaconess Margaret Rodgers, principal of Deaconess House, became the first woman ever elected onto the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Sydney.

Members of Anglican Women Concerned, finding it difficult to get their message across within the church system, looked for alternative means of doing so. They were rewarded when in April 1979 it was announced that their group had won first prize in a photographic competition organised by the New South Wales Premier’s Department for International Women’s Day. The theme of the competition was “Women - Changing Images”. Anglican Women Concerned had submitted a photograph taken in a church showing one of the members, Jennifer Farrell, dressed in a cassock and surplice, distributing communion to a small group of worshippers, one of which was Colleen O’Reilly Stewart.

The chiding voice of one of Sydney’s deaconesses, Beatrice Robinson, was another irritant for the church hierarchy, also a brave stance in a diocese which preferred its women workers to conform to their defined role:

Structures in the institutional churches which have become established over the centuries are like clothes, which become worn out and have to be made new again. If the structures cannot be renewed, and are no longer adequate for God’s purpose, then they will be laid aside and no longer used for His Body. It is not the structures which are important, but the people, the living souls who belong to God through Christ....it seems that men (some of them, at least) have a fear that women priests would be usurping their proper places in the Church.

Anglican churchwomen by 1979 were showing more confidence about being categorised as “feminist” and “radical”. As Edith Littleton, daughter of the former bishop of Gippsland, Cranswick, pointed out: “Jesus needed to be quite ‘radical’ in His day”. She acknowledged that the “hazards of activism” are “personally and socially risky” and called for the support and encouragement of “those brave souls in the churches who do speak out” if the Christian Church “is to be reflected in the life of our nation as we move into the 1980s”.

In March 1980 a small but significant step forward took place when the Church’s “supreme court”, the Appellate Tribunal, ruled that the ordination of women was consistent with the Constitution, which meant that it was not contrary to the Fundamental Declarations, the “unalterable” opening statements in which the preservation of the “three orders of bishops, priests and deacons” was laid down. This ruling implied that the Appellate Tribunal saw no legal requirement to preserve the orders in their traditional masculine form. The decision was a blow for Sydney Diocese, which had consistently declared women’s ordination to be outside the Fundamental Declarations.

The nineteen-eighties opened, therefore, on a hopeful note, with an indication that the concept of women in priesthood was gaining acceptance. A survey of 1,704 Anglican parishioners in the Diocese of Melbourne, for example, found that 67% were in favour of the ordination of women to priesthood. Objections came largely from the people categorising themselves as Anglo-Catholics. While addressing Melbourne Synod in his capacity as chairman of the diocesan Commission on the Minstry of Women, Rev. Dr. John Gaden referred to the survey, pointing out that both hurt and anger were revealed over the way the Church treated its women in ministry in the form of lack of parity in stipends and lack of support generally, and in the situation where “neither trained women workers nor deaconesses have a place at Synod”.

In October 1980, Perth Synod came out strongly in favour of women’s ordination, the motion “that this synod endorses the conclusion of General Synod and its commission on doctrine that the theological objections to the ordination of women that have been raised do not constitute a barrier to the ordinatioon of women to the priesthood in this church” being moved by Bishop Vernon Cornish.

Bishop Cornish’s wife, Dell, had carried out a research project on the attitude of Anglican laypersons in Perth to the ordination of women. She found that 76% of the total sample of 86 regular churchgoers “were in favour of women’s ordination, although only 18% had no reservations of any kind about the issue”. Among such reservations were comments that the community and parish would not welcome an ordained woman; because society was so prejudiced, women have less status; and other women would not co-operate with a woman priest.

1981 was forecast as being a decisive year when the women’s issue would once more come before a General Synod. There was not great optimism that the problem would be resolved. As the Rev. Dr. John Wilson of Ridley College, Melbourne, commented in March 1981, “a strange double-think” was hindering the progress of women in ministry in Australia:

The strange double-think remains among some that the great commission of Jesus to His disciples to preach and teach is all right for women in pioneer missionary situations but it is not meant to apply in the home Church. We have had some outstanding women graduates at Ridley in recent years .... If a person has the gifts and calling of God for a particular work, should not their gifts be accepted on that basis?

Opponents of women’s ordination, such as the Rev. David Chislett of Warrnambool, Victoria, complained in the lead up to the General Synod that “once again we are to be subjected to a concerted campaign in favour of ‘ordaining’ women to the sacred priesthood”. He was clearly smarting, remarking that “those who oppose the possibility of women ‘priests’ are only too often caricatured as theological lightweights and/or chauvinist pigs”.

The General Synod’s Commission on Doctrine in May 1981 released yet another report, this time entitled “Towards a Theology of Ordination”, in which it rejected suggestions emanating mainly from Sydney Diocese that laymen be licensed to preside at the Eucharist. The Report concluded that nothing in its investigations of the theology of ordination excluded the ordination of women to “those ministries to which the Lord may call them” but also recommended that a permanent diaconate be instituted because “it ought not be assumed that all will be called to proceed to the priesthood”. The permanent diaconate was to be promoted as the most suitable ministry level for women in the ensuing decade, although it was made clear that it was open to men as well. In practice, the permanent woman deacon was similar to those deaconesses who had carried out liturgical functions and pastoral ministry, such as the Gippsland and Tasmanian deaconesses and deaconesses in overseas missions. The elements of subservience and underpayment remained.

In May, preceding the General Synod, a large number of mainly low church Anglicans assembled in Melbourne for the National Evangelical Anglican Congress (NEAC). The issue of the ordination of women was a main discussion point. Women giving papers included Irene Jeffreys and clergy wives Peta Sherlock of Melbourne and Marlene Cohen of Sydney, all ardent supporters of women’s ordination. The male response was mixed. Rev. Dr. John Wilson gave his opinion that “headship is not about authority or domination or leadership”, that the “true emphasis in St. Paul’s letter is on mutual submission”. This was clearly challenging the biblical hermeneutics of Sydney Evangelicals. The response from Gerald Christmas, Registrar of Sydney Diocese, was that “women could be ordained to the diaconate and possibly to the priesthood, provided they were not given the ‘cure of souls’”, an indication that “headship” could not be dismissed so lightly. Bishop Peter Chiswell of Armidale conceded that “single women could exercise authority over men” as Paul was referring to wives and husbands.

The strength of the advocates of “male headship” was reflected in a General Synod Ministry Commission report issued in June 1981 under the title “Pastoral and Social Implications of the Ordination of Women”. While acknowledging that contemporary society was ready for women clergy, the Report admitted that there were “some in the church” who believed that a woman should not hold a position of authority which would “allow her to have authority over men”. For these Anglicans, the Report conceded, the social and pastoral implications of the ordination of women would be “seemingly insurmountable”.

The Report touched delicately on perceived special problems for women priests, such as “pregnancy” and the “unforeseen needs of a young family”, especially if a woman priest and her children were deserted by her husband. Doubt was expressed whether a parish could cope with this situation. As the Report stated: “However much goodwill there may be in a parish towards a woman priest and mother deserted in this way, can the ministry itself in a parish be sustained satisfactorily while the woman’s problems are being sorted out?” The Report noted the higher incidence of husbands deserting wives and children than vice-versa.

The Rev. Jim Minchin of St. Arnaud, Victoria, criticised the negativity in the findings of the Ministry Commission, labelling it “toe-dabbling”. He queried why the report did not “examine for itself the benefits of women’s ordination” such as “the stimulus that might be given ... to uncover a wealth of unique ministries”. His fear was that “the General Synod would nod its collective head safely and commend the commission to a future of producing equally uncreative statements”.

The seemingly endless procession of negative statements about women and the frustration of trying to effect change were leading to increased feminist activism within the Australian Church. In Melbourne, a small group, “Working for Women’s Ordination”, formed to assist women called to priesthood. As one of its members, Heather Murray of Mont Albert, pointed out “the Church mutilates itself and impedes its mission as long as it frustrates that call”. She claimed:

Non-Christians rightly see the Church as a ludicrous archaism, and many of them are well aware of the sick psycho-sexual hang-ups and the frightened conservatism which are the real reasons for much of the opposition to women’s ordination, and which are fed by some types of Anglicanism.

Women were becoming increasingly vocal about the sexuality problems which occurred when a church was gender-unbalanced.

In 1983, a more politically active group formed in Melbourne, the Action Group for Women’s Ordination, under the leadership of Ryl Currey, a teacher and writer. As well as circulating a monthly newsletter, the group arranged monthly “women’s worship” services at St. Oswald’s, Glen Iris.

In Adelaide also, a small but active group had formed under the title Women in Holy Orders?, known by the acronym WHO?. WHO?’s founder was a clergy wife, Alison Gent, who herself had a strong calling to priesthood but whose attempts to join the Postulants’ Guild had been continually thwarted. Alison Gent, who in her student days had been active in the Student Christian Movement in Adelaide, saw the roots of her feminism as deriving from both the ecumenical movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement. In the nineteen-sixties, she had queried: “Can I be in Mothers’ Union and a university tutor?” In the ‘seventies, she had asked: “Can I be in Women’s Lib. and the Church?” In regard to the latter, the answer was in the affirmative for on International Women’s Day in March 1975, Gent had marched with secular feminists and had spoken briefly in public of the situation for women in the Anglican Church. Without movements such as WHO?, Women’s Lib and later MOW, Alison Gent was certain she would not have survived in the Anglican Church.

The earliest of the Church’s activist groups, Anglican Women Concerned, was again present in force outside St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, for the commencement of the 1981 General Synod. This time their protest included street theatre, depicting four professional women - an engineer, a lawyer, a doctor and a gagged-and-bound woman priest. As Colleen O’Reilly Stewart commented, the aim of the protest was to “encourage the Church to keep moving on the issue”.

The main changes proposed in the Constitution to clear the way for a canon to ordain women were the addition of a sub-section to Section 4 stating that “nothing in this section prevents the Church from authorising by canon the ordaining of women into the three orders of bishops, priests and deacons in the sacred ministry” and the insertion in Section 74 after sub-section (6) of the following sub-section: “(6A) Notwithstanding anything in sub-section (6), in Chapters II to XII both inclusive and in the Table annexed to this Constitution words importing the masculine shall include the feminine”... An initial attempt to get the changes through without a special bill were vehemently blocked by Sydney Diocese, leading to considerable debate.

Janet Wyatt of Canberra/Goulburn, also a member of the Commission on Doctrine, was the only one of the seven female synod representatives (out of a total of 210 members) to speak in the debate. She commented that she had “been taught theology by those who are now opposing the ordination of women” but from her own study of the Bible she had found that “God treats women very differently from the way men treat them”. Since ordination had become the be-all-and-end-all of ministry within the Church, women by their exclusion, had been made second-class citizens.

The bill for the proposed amendments obtained a sufficient majority to pass the first stage but needed to be endorsed by three-quarters of the diocesan synods, including all the five metropolitans, and brought back to the next General Synod in 1985.

Melbourne was the first metropolitan diocese to ratify the bill. Sydney deferred making a decision. Brisbane narrowly passed the bill, with only one vote to spare in the house of clergy. Again it was Adelaide synod which nullified the bill by voting against it, in spite of Archbishop Rayner’s strong support for women’s ordination. One of the fiercest Adelaide campaigners against the ordination of women was the Rev. John Fleming, Rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd, Plympton, who had the media advantage of working as a radio announcer for Radio 5 DN.

The local activist group WHO? felt keenly the rejection of the General Synod bill by its synod. The impasse in the Australian Anglican Church was summed up in an editorial in Church Scene of 24 September 1982:

We mourn because the priestly ministry of Godly women is rejected for at least an extra four years. We mourn because this repression will further build up the frustration and alienation of some women (and others) who see this as discrimination on grounds of sex without theological justification....Today Australian Anglicans are the only Europeans in the world outside Africa who haven’t moved to ordain women priests, ordain women deacons, or recognise within its own jurisdiction the validity of Anglican women canonically ordained elsewhere.

The voices of Anglican women sounded out in anger. Colleen O’Reilly Stewart on behalf of Anglican Women Concerned queried: “How long will it be before a bishop acts unilaterally and ordains a woman?”, pointing out that “a courageous act by one bishop may well lead to a harder won but deeper unity than at present exists”. Deaconess Beatrice Robinson put the question: “How long are the opponents of women being officially ordained ministers in the churches going to go on arguing as if women were not members of the human race just as much as men are, despite the fact that it is Jesus Himself who has taught and led us to believe that we are...?”

The voices of condemnation for the Adelaide veto were clearly unnerving to those who had campaigned against the bill, as evident in a letter to Church Scene of 15 October 1982 from the Rev. John Fleming. He declared that it saddened him “to know that elsewhere in the Australian Church, people who, in conscience, disagree with the ordination of women are vilified as theological troglodytes, male chauvinist pigs and conservative obscurantists”. He asserted that he was “not open to changing his mind under pressure of emotional blackmail or explicit and ugly threats such as schism”.

John Fleming was supported by another Anglo-Catholic opponent of women’s ordination, the Rev. Ian Herring of Ararat, Victoria. Ian Herring declared that “the bleating of the priestess lobby ...resembles the familiar gimme-my-bat-back syndrome”. He claimed that the Constitution was framed like it was “to stop landslide movements such as women’s ordination engulfing the Church”, and that “landslide movements seldom represent the final mind of the Spirit”. He considered that an innovation such as women’s ordination would involve altering the “matter” of a sacrament, “which would be similar to baptising candidates in oil rather than water, or using meat in the Lord’s Supper instead of bread” This was an example of the “sick psycho-sexual hang-ups” to which Heather Murray of the Melbourne group “Working for Women’s Ordination” had drawn attention.

Dr. John Gaden pointed out that one of the negative aspects of the Adelaide veto was that it affected women at the diaconate level so that they “must either continue their ministry without the backing of an order or else enter the ambiguous state of deaconess” despite the fact that “there is no significant opposition to the admission of women to the diaconate”. He also referred to the uncertainty whether women priests from other parts of the Anglican Communion would be permitted to exercise their ministerial priesthood in Australia.

The problem of visiting women priests came to a head in September 1983 with the private visit to Melbourne of the Rev. Joyce Bennett, the second woman to be priested in the Anglican Communion. Joyce Bennett was retiring from service with the Church Missionary Society in Hong Kong, where she had also been a member of the Legislative Council, principal of a large girls’ school, and decorated for her services to the colony by receiving the Order of the British Empire.

Archbishop Dann of Melbourne raised the matter of Joyce Bennett’s impending visit at the national bishops’ conference in April 1983. The advice he received was that, although the bishops could not prevent Melbourne diocese from offering visiting rights, “it would be inadvisable”, “working against the unity of the Church”. They added that “it should not be seen as a lack of courtesy if such an invitation were not extended in Australia”.

Melbourne diocese reacted angrily to the advice of the bishops, three Melbourne parish priests declaring their intention to invite Joyce Bennett to celebrate in their parish churches. When informed of the stir her visit was causing, Rev. Joyce Bennett made public her view that “it would be very discourteous of them {the Australian bishops} if they accept men priests from Hong Kong while refusing women priests”. She pointed out that she had received invitations to celebrate the Eucharist in Canada, commenting: “They treat overseas men and women exactly the same.”

Joyce Bennett accepted an invitation to celebrate the Eucharist from the rector of St. Stephens, Richmond, Archdeacon David Chambers. The service was scheduled for Sunday, 4 September, 1983. The day before the service was due to begin, Archdeacon Chambers was instructed by Archbishop Dann to celebrate the Eucharist himself. It was known that Archbishop Dann had received a telephone call from the new Archbishop of Sydney, Donald Robinson, although the details of the conversation were not revealed. To avoid an outbreak of protest from the congregation, especially those supporting the ordination of women, Archdeacon Chambers decided that he and Joyce Bennett would share the presidency in a “concelebration”.

Opponents of women’s ordination expressed outrage because Joyce Bennett had used a separate host and chalice and had alone announced the absolution, thus functioning as a priest. Joyce Bennett calmly confirmed that it had been a “concelebration”, “a wonderful expression of the complementary nature of men and women who can serve our Lord”.

In Perth, the new Archbishop, Peter Carnley, was also speaking out for women, couching his remarks in the framework of revolution:

The current feminist revolt against submissiveness is also necessarily a revolt against religion. It is perhaps not a coincidence that recent liberationist movements have occurred at a time when large numbers of people have already freed themselves from the religious expression of docile submissiveness, which we call obedience or devotion to God, by leaving the pews.

He concluded that it was time “to liberate God from the received network of images of domination and submission with which we have sought to bind ourselves to Him, for when you think about it, notions of domination and submission did not provide the basis of Jesus’ relationships with those with whom He had to do”.

Churches inevitably must take note of the prevailing Zeitgeist and the Zeitgeist during the nineteen eighties was in favour of women’s liberation. Where in the past gender issues were discussed discreetly by Lambeth Bishops or in closed circles, now bishops such as Carnley were prepared to lay bare before the public how unChristian was sexual discrimination against women.

The churchwomen’s protest was strengthening. The time had come to establish a national network rather than operate within localised groups. In Sydney in 1983, a new women’s group was in the process of formation using the same name as the English Anglican activists, the Movement for the Ordination of Women (MOW). MOW was to spread Australia-wide under the leadership of a former medical missionary, Dr. Patricia Brennan, and to spearhead the campaign against hardline conservatism and sexism endemic in Australian Anglicanism.

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