Celebrating 30 Years of
Ordination of Women to the Priesthood
A collection of reflections as we celebrate the ordination of women to priesthood in the Diocese for 30 years.
Women Priests Have Real Presence
The Revd Elizabeth J Smith | Senior Mission Priest, Parish of The Goldfields
In March 1992, the internet was in its infancy, live-streaming had not been imagined, and international phone calls were prohibitively expensive. I was a deacon from Melbourne, studying feminist theology in Berkeley, California. I knew the Perth women were due to be ordained as priests on the feast of Saints Perpetua, Felicity and their companions. I desperately hoped that the service would go ahead. We had been devastated by the last-minute cancellation of the Canberra women’s ordination in February.
Despite more last-minute challenges, Perth did go ahead. Australia had its first women priests. In due course, a friend sent me a video cassette (remember those?) with a recording of the service. It didn’t work on American video players, so I paid for it to be translated into a format that would let me see the historic event. The vision was grainy and the sound was poor, but there were those priests: some staunch, long-serving Perth women in ministry, and one good friend from Melbourne days, who is now our Archbishop.
Other women were ordained during that year around the country. There was quite a list of women in many dioceses who had been serving as deaconesses for decades, or as stipendiary lay ministers, and as deacons since 1986. In 1993, during a visit home to Melbourne, I was ordained to the priesthood, too, in the parish where I had served my second curacy.
All of us heaved a sigh of relief. Finally, we could stand where we and the Church believed we were called to stand: at the Holy Table, presiding at the Eucharist; baptising, blessing, absolving. For years we had been preaching, conducting services of the Word, serving as chaplains, teachers, scholars, pastors and in all the other roles the Church had sometimes grudgingly, sometimes creatively, found for us to fill. At last, we were where we belonged. The fact that women have now been priests for 30 years has made a big difference to the church.
Now, women’s life experiences are not only in the pews, in op shops, caring agencies and school classrooms. Now, women’s life experiences are in the sanctuary and the pulpit as well. Those life experiences include biological, physical realities like pregnancy and birth, menstruation and menopause. The priestly, supposedly “spiritual” zones of worship have survived the advent of women’s bodies, and in fact have flourished.
Theologically, this has been a blessing. We are all more down-to-earth than we used to be, with less of that old, false dichotomy separating the physical from the spiritual.
Women in the priesthood, ministering the body and blood of Christ to the Body of Christ in all its members, have enriched embodied faith for all of us.
Women experience life as daughters and sisters, mothers, aunties, grandmothers, workers, leaders, employees, bosses. Growing up female in Australia, as well as in all the other countries and cultures now represented among Australian women priests, we have been socialised differently to our male contemporaries. So women priests have analysed, challenged and changed the assumptions about femininity and masculinity that society and the church used to take for granted.
Women priests also contribute to the much wider range of skills and perspectives being brought to the table of planning and finding resources for mission these days. In the corporate world, at board level, it has been proven again and again that gender diversity, with other kinds of diversity, significantly improves a company’s bottom line. Anglican women priests add huge value to the conversations at diocesan councils and synods, on the boards of schools, aged care, welfare and advocacy bodies, and of course in parish ministry.
Ordained women can tell similar stories to the ones we are, sadly, still hearing from women in Parliament, business and industry about the many ways women are still silenced, ignored, belittled, or harassed in the course of our work. But we persevere in bringing our resources to the table, our ideas and imagination to the church’s planning and direction-setting, and our determination to getting the work of the Gospel done.
Thirty years ago, we rehearsed Biblical verses like Galatians 3.28, where Paul declares that through baptism there is no longer male and female, but you are all one in Christ Jesus; and Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, with the quote from Joel asserting that your sons and your daughters will prophesy. We were inspired by Mary Magdalene, first apostle of the resurrection, and Martha, that feisty theologian who named Jesus as the Messiah, the one coming into the world. I made badges announcing that “women priests have real presence.”
Thirty years later, in Perth, we no longer need to debate whether women priests might save the church (we can’t), or wreck the church (we won’t). We save considerable energy by simply recognising women’s full and equal spiritual authority, alongside our brothers. The energy we save, we can put into working together in mission, proud of our diversity, confident that in Christ there are no more barriers of culture, race, language, history or gender. The Holy Spirit calls all of us to work together, not just with respect, but with celebration; not with mere acceptance, but with wholehearted delight.
The Revd Sarah Stapleton | Curate, St George's Cathedral Perth
As the 30th Anniversary of the first ordination of women to the priesthood at St George’s Cathedral approaches, I realise I have much to be thankful for.
Answering God’s call has been one of the most rewarding, joyful, and terrifying things I have done in my life. One of the main reasons I felt confident to express my call to the priesthood, was that there were priests of all kinds surrounding me and encouraging me along the way.
The Body of Christ values the entirety of its members, and supporting women in ordained ministry reflects good balance and inclusivity for the church.
Because we recognise that every person bears the image of God, it is important for the world to see the full range of God’s people, in all types of roles and ministries in the church. As we walk alongside people in the rigours of daily life, the God we need most often need is the hospitality giver, feeding and caring for our needs; the mother hen, gathering people under her wings; God as Wisdom, protecting and watching over us; and God as comforter, hearing our cries and healing our hurts. These traditionally feminine images are not bound to the ministry of women priests, but most certainly the honouring of women’s ministry honours these images of God. I am glad to belong to a church that honours and reflects God in all God’s glory.
As the world changes and develops, I hope to see a church that allows priests to reflect the feminine images of God in themselves and their ministries regardless of their gender or gender identity.
One day I hope to see the Anglican Church in its entirety, value the feminine images of God, and the many images that transcend our traditional ideas of gender; as much as it values the masculine.
As me move closer to the kingdom of God, where there is no division between slave and free, male and female, I will joyfully and enthusiastically encourage women to see God in their lives and bodies, and to follow the call that God has set before them (just as was done for me). And to every woman who was ordained before me (and especially the first ones!) I want to say ‘thank you!’ Thank you for making the way easier for me. Thank you for inspiring me to leadership and showing me how to answer God’s call on my life with strength and dignity. I give thanks to God for you every day.
The Revd Brett Gibson | Priest-in-Charge, Parish of Canning
In the Gospel according to John (16:12) Jesus gives an enigmatic statement: ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now’.
Did the incarnated eternal Christ have an eye to future events when his faithful disciples, gifted and empowered by the Holy Spirit, would include both men and women formally set apart for ordained ministry? I like to think so.
Lowering resistances to, and then responding faithfully and boldly to the leading of the Spirit in equality in ministry back in 1992 was significant, to say the least – but others can speak to the historic importance and the daily realities of continuing challenges which have come with that.
I write from a current experience and looking forward point of view – I would say that as this anniversary is marked, I think of what it means in terms of my one-year-old daughter. As she grows, she will have only experienced the Diocese in Perth already shaped by a legacy of decades of faithful ministry by women. Should God have a call on her own life for ordained ministry – I can have every hope that she will be discerned and assessed based on the fruits which the Spirit brings to bear in her life, like any other candidate should be, regardless of biological sex.
I think of this anniversary also in terms of my three-year-old son, who, like his sister, will have grown up with the influence of ordained women, including a great-Aunt, a Godmother, and those who are friends and mentors to his Dad.
On this anniversary – I think of my kids and all those in the next generation whose journeys on this life - in this ‘vale of soul making’ - will be blessed, absolved, nurtured, pastored, shepherded, taught, loved, and exhorted towards offering their own gifts for the kingdom of our Lord, by a representative diversity of the beloved sons and daughters whom God has called into ordained ministry.
May God continue to bless the women in, and being formed for, ordained ministry in the church, as they have and are a blessing to the body of Christ.