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It should 'feel strange' when women aren't there, empowerment gathering told

Women shared their experiences of leadership and ministry at a gathering on 4 March.

By Emma Halgren

March 5 2019While great progress had been made in women’s ministry, there was still “a way to go” in really empowering women in leadership and making sure that the diocese was not missing out on “50 per cent of its skill base, gifts and perspectives”, Bishop Genieve Blackwell told a gathering last month of women, lay and ordained, from across the diocese. 

Organised by Bishop Blackwell and her fellow Melbourne assistant bishop Kate Prowd, with Bishop Alison Taylor, who retired as Bishop for the Southern Region of the Brisbane diocese in 2017, as MC, the Empowering Women in Leadership event was held on 4 March at St Paul’s Cathedral Chapter House.

Five women spoke about their own experiences of leadership and ministry. After the presentations, participants gathered in small groups to share their ideas, hopes and concerns, and discuss ways to better support and empower women.

The Revd Helen Dwyer, chaplain at Overnewton Anglican Community College, said: “I think we still struggle a little in the church with how we minister and lead as women when we try to fit into a paradigm that has been run by men for centuries.

“And although we have had women ordained as priests for 27 years in Melbourne, and a whole generation of people have only known women as ordained ministers in the Anglican Church, I think we still struggle with how we maintain our difference, the distinctiveness that we bring, the different style that we nurture.”

Mary Soma, a South Sudanese-born woman who is in ministry partnership with her husband the Revd Chaplain Soma at St John the Evangelist Footscray, and is her parish’s Mother’s Union branch president, talked about the roots of her own faith.

“I believe what we women are rooted in is love,” she said. “The roots we are talking about today enable us to do so many things. Our faith can make us move mountains.”

Elizabeth Culhane, a doctoral student at Ridley College, encouraged women to explore their vocation, whether lay or ordained, and said that there were many ways to do this, for example by taking an internship or doing a Year of Discernment, and undertaking theological studies. Attending public lectures or doing short courses could be a good “taster” for further studies.

There were many opportunities, she said, including lay and ordained chaplaincy in schools, prisons, universities, hospitals, and aged care facilities, roles in multicultural ministry, aid and mission agencies, and roles in theological education, to name just a few.

Jenny George, who is CEO of Converge International, a member of Archbishop-in-Council and a former chair of the diocese’s finance committee, said that she had come from a family in which there was a strong emphasis on lay leadership and service to the church.

“There was an incredible emphasis on every-member ministry – the idea that church … was about people working together.”

She said the “biggest enablers” in becoming a leader both in secular and church environments had been, firstly, simply hearing about an opportunity; secondly, being given specific, personal encouragement to pursue an opportunity; and thirdly, “support to actually get it to work”.

The Revd Elizabeth Murray, assistant curate at St John’s Toorak, said that as a female priest, she had inherited “a wonderful legacy”.

“I am doing what I love doing, because other women have paved that road for me,” she said.

Ms Murray said she was fortunate in that she had been given responsibilities, and seen examples of women in leadership in the church, from a young age.

She was 10 years old when women were first made priests in the Diocese of Melbourne; by the age of 12 she was on the reading roster at her church; and at the age of 18 she was elected to be a Synod representative.

“By that time our parish priest was a woman. I didn’t know that was unusual. It was just the way it was,” she said. 

In closing, she described how two years ago at the Diocesan Ministry Conference, Bishop Blackwell had invited all the women at the conference for a lunchtime discussion.

“Most of us went, and [afterwards] I made a point of asking my male colleagues what it was like while we were all at the lunch. The older men said, ‘it felt familiar’. Those who had been ordained in the last 10 to 15 years said, ‘that felt weird’.

“And that's what the fruit of empowering women in leadership should be. It should feel strange when we aren't there.”