Women And Ministerial Priesthood

30 Years On In The Providence Of God

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Women And Ministerial Priesthood

30 Years On In The Providence Of God

The Most Revd Dr Peter Carnley AC | Former Archbishop of Perth

When I see the figures that suggest that it is still something of a hand-wringing struggle to get women into the Australian Parliament and on to the Boards of Australian businesses, I marvel that what happened did in fact actually happen when women were admitted to ministerial priesthood in the Anglican Diocese of Perth in 1992. Perhaps, on the basis of any purely human reckoning, it was actually against all odds at the time.

Today it seems remarkably normal to encounter women in ordained ministry. Even so, gender parity is still a long way off. Though we are about to move into the second generation since the first ordinations of 30 years ago, in the Diocese of Perth only 25% of ordained clergy are women. Certainly, it cannot be said that women have moved into the ranks of the clergy in numbers that have bumped men to the margins, even though fears of a ‘feminist takeover’ fed into the noisy rhetoric of those opposed to the very possibility and may have initially triggered some anxiety.

In fact, this figure is not far behind that relating to women in business leadership and in politics. It is said that about a third of Australia’s 200 biggest companies still have less than 30% female representation on their Boards. And though the percentage of female directorships has apparently risen to around 34% from around 32% since January 2021, women actually held six fewer seats on the Boards of companies in the S&P/ASX 200 Index in November 2021 compared to the previous month. So a slip backwards. Furthermore, there are in fact only 124 companies in the benchmark above the key threshold of 30% female board membership. That was down one from 125 in October.

Clearly, we are not experiencing an exponential boom in the upward trend of numbers when it comes to the fortune of women at the top of Australia’s business world. The numbers of those in ministerial priesthood are even more modest.

A similar situation seems to prevail in the Australian political world. Following the 2016 Australian federal election there were 73 women members of both Houses of the Australian Parliament, representing 32% of all seats in the Senate and House of Representatives – as it turns out, roughly the same percentage as found on Boards of Australian businesses. According to Parliamentary Library figures, as at 2 December 2020, this had risen to 37.9 per cent of Commonwealth parliamentarians, though by far the biggest number are in the Senate, where 51.3% of Senators are women. However, the percentage of Members of the House of Representatives who are women remains roughly the same – still only 31.1% of the House.

Fortunately, we do not have to engage in affirmative action, as in the business or political world, to increase female representation in any of the three Orders of the Church’s ministry. We do not face the task of having to struggle to correct an apparent gender imbalance, for the obvious reason that those entering ordained ministry do so solely because they become convinced of God’s insistent call to pursue this as their vocation. The Church’s role is to discern and then to confirm this. Clearly, the numbers game may be left to God and God’s Providential ordering.

That does not mean that it was not a struggle to get over the line 30 years ago. Given that, after the issue started to be formally studied from 1968 onwards, the Australian Church fairly quickly became convinced that the theological and biblical arguments that had been raised against the admission of women to ministerial priesthood were not valid, this was soon formally and publicly declared by its General Synod. Also, there were in fact already numbers of women deacons whose calling to ministerial priesthood was being discerned and confirmed when judged by the very same criteria normally brought to the question of whether a male person was being called to ordination. Even so, it was nevertheless a considerable struggle to overcome the legal obstacles that inhibited positive action.

Once again, I have a sense that God’s Providence played a role in this struggle. When on the day before the scheduled ordination of the first brave women on 7 March 1992 we were in the Supreme Court of Western Australia to fight an injunction that would have prevented it, the Judge appointed to hear the case, Mr. Justice Kerry White, happened to be a Roman Catholic. I guess an Anglican might have disqualified him or herself. In any event, when those seeking to prevent the ordination argued that an injunction was justified because otherwise the proposed newly ordained women priests would be occupying Anglican Church properties illegally, I was able to point out from the witness box that they were already legally occupying Church properties as Deacons. ‘But, they will cease to be Deacons by becoming Priests!” was the opposing lawyer’s strident reply.

At that point, out of the corner of my eye, I could see Mr. Justice Kerry White gently nodding approval when I pointed out that in the Church Catholic Holy Orders are cumulative: ‘Once a deacon, always a deacon.’ A Deacon does not cease to be a Deacon by becoming a Priest, for the Deacon’s defining ministry as a servant continues to inform the fundamental nature of priestly ministry (and episcopal ministry as well!). It is not all about headship; it is about service. Mr. Justice Kerry White clearly understood such matters. Thankfully, his appointment to hear the case appeared to me to be Providential. And the rest is history.
We can all happily allow the future of women in ministry to play out in the good purposes of the Providence of God.

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