International Women's Day: celebrating diversity, working for equality

Women from the diocese reflect on their faith and share their experiences of being part of the church

March 5 2020To celebrate International Women’s Day on Sunday 8 March, TMA invited a number of women from the Diocese of Melbourne, both lay and ordained, to share something of their experience as women in the church. Who has inspired them in their journey of faith? What do they love about being in the church, and what do they see as some of the challenges the church faces? What are some of the issues that need to be addressed to advance gender equity in the church, and the wider world?

Here are their reflections.

Elizabeth Murray

Jill Missing, who was in my childhood parish, is a woman who has inspired me in my faith journey. She fully lived the teaching of Christ to love your neighbour as yourself. She was very intelligent, caring and always challenged attitudes that disadvantaged others; to me she was a wonderful model of how to live as a Christian in the world.

In the church, one barrier I see to gender equity is the predominance of male language when talking about God. I’m not suggesting we don’t say “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”, but we limit ourselves and our image of God by only using that Triune name and persisting in saying “He” in reference to God. Yes, Jesus was a male, but the important lesson of the incarnation is that Jesus was human. The God who is Trinity should not be limited by human labels, gendered language included.

To advance gender equity in the wider world, we have to challenge the perception that improving conditions for women diminishes the rights of men who have benefited from their unconscious and unspoken privilege. We are all better off if people are inherently respected and afforded equal opportunity. And because women and other disadvantaged groups are overcoming centuries of being ignored or silenced, we need to be intentional about inclusion. It is not enough to be open to other voices, we must actively ask that they speak, then listen properly and be moved to act.

What I love about being in the church is being part of something that can embrace people across the world and across the centuries and whose core purpose is to be there for people in need.

The Revd Elizabeth Murray is Priest-in-Charge of Holy Trinity Williamstown.
Photo: Jerome Cole Photography


Bree Mills

My journey to ordination began in a meeting room at St Thomas’ Burwood with Bishop Barbara Darling. There were two of us in the room that day across a table from her, both of us women who had been in paid ministry in various Anglican churches for many years. Both of us had looked at the ordination pathway at times and thought “too hard” or “not now”. Back then, I was a young mum of three kids, in full-time ministry, and starting a postgraduate degree. That day, Bishop Barbara reached out and offered to make a way. She wasn’t trying to cut corners, or slip us through; she simply offered  to use her influence to make a path possible, where it currently felt impossible.

Over the years, I have benefited from many people making a way for me. Men (mostly) have shared their platform and pulpit to allow me to find my voice, in churches and at conferences. Women and men have used their influence to make a seat at the table for me and help me to find space for my God-given gifts.

Unfortunately, I have also had many other experiences. People who have not sought to make space for me, or who have tried to minimise my gifts or my voice, often purely based on gender. For me, that is the reality of the broken world we live in, and the broken church we belong to.

My prayer for our diocese is that we would be a community where we use our influence, position and even our voices to make space for all people; for women, for those of different ethnic backgrounds, and for the next generation of leaders coming through. Our church, and our community, will flourish when we stop believing that there isn’t enough space for all of us at the table and we start believing the Kingdom truth that God has made abundant space for all to flourish. Equality will come when we stop working in competition and start working collectively for His glory. It starts in the little things. Yes, structures may need to be challenged and changed, but mostly, we need to be challenged and changed. So let’s start there.

The Revd Bree Mills is Senior Associate Pastor at Glen Waverley Anglican Church.


Heather Cetrangolo

I believe that one of the tensions we are learning to live in as a society and a Church is the tension between roles that women have always, traditionally, played, sitting alongside new and emerging roles that have been previously reserved for men. New opportunities for women to access education and employment, to have their writing published, their songs sung, their scripts rehearsed, to choose their husbands, to choose singleness … there are so many changes that feel taken for granted, but that in the history of the human race are recent and still emerging. These do not come without complication. The traditional roles of motherhood, of being a loving and supportive wife, of homemaking, teaching children, mentoring women; these remain important and distinctive roles. We are learning how to celebrate what we have always been, what God made us to be, whilst opening up to new possibilities that were previously withheld for no good reason. We are learning to celebrate the diversity of what we are as women; all that is old and all that is new.

We need to develop structures and cultural norms that can bless and celebrate the diversity of gifts and callings on women’s lives. This includes full-time work, part-time work, volunteer work and “unpaid” work. When women can be truly celebrated, encouraged and safe in their roles in the home and the workplace, with freedom to choose what that balance looks like, without competition, comparison or vilification, they can bring their best to the table as co-workers in the Vineyard.

Some of the women who’ve inspired me in my journey of faith are Sheila Walsh, because she loves the Word of God and preaches it from the head and heart; Paula Sandford, whose ministry with her husband John Sandford, teaching about how God heals the heart, literally changed my life; Heidi Baker, a stunning example to me of a woman who is a wife, mother, missionary and minister and balances these roles so beautifully; and Sarah Morgan, an Australian preacher and prophet who I could listen to for days and never grow weary.

I was recently reflecting on the courage of Esther on the Old Testament and how God used her voice, even in the midst of the oppressive circumstances of her life, waiting and preparing to be a concubine. Even in the midst of sexual objectification and slavery, the Lord anointed her for leadership, which taught me that God won’t always lift every form of suffering or injustice, but is with us in it, through it and can use us to bring redemption despite it.

I would add my own mother. My Mum was one of the first women to train for ministry while raising small children. She ran her own race, without comparing herself to the men around her, without competing with them, or trying to be like them. Her example taught me to be ambitious only for who God wants me to be and not what the world would like me to be.

One of the key challenges facing the church is that we need to get better at managing our time! I know that sounds left of field, but I think we have lost the art of dedicating time to prayer, time to just hang out together and have fun together, time to dream and create, time to rest in the presence of God, time to worship, time to study the scriptures, time to confess our sins properly, time to receive the Body and Blood with awe and reverence. As a busy working Mum, a student, a Pastor’s wife and an active aunty I must say … managing time well is the key to sustainable creative energy and it starts with prioritising time for Church. We need to stop squeezing God in to the ad breaks.

I love that the Church is led by Jesus. He’s the best leader there is. He knows what He’s doing. We so often don’t know, but He does. So, I love that no matter what we go through, no matter what we get wrong, no matter how confused we are, we keep coming back to Him again, again, again. It’s the home we can count on because He’s the Lord who know what He’s doing. I love that even when I don’t feel like going to Church, He always meets with me and melts my heart to repent and believe; to get up and keep going.

The Revd Heather Cetrangolo is Chaplain to the Pathways School at Trinity College and is studying a PhD in Franciscan pedagogy.


Helen Dwyer

As a child, I didn’t realise that some people thought women couldn’t do everything that men could do.

Growing up on a farm, we all had to work hard, and my Nanna was as strong as any of the men. She was brave and feisty, and not to be messed with. She was also funny, gentle, clever and perceptive.

So when I first thought God was calling me to the Priesthood, I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t want to sing the Eucharist, which was the only way I had ever known it: I didn’t even know that at the time, women couldn’t be priests.

My Nanna taught me how to stand my ground in a world that too many men think was made for them. She taught me that the world was unfair, but that we didn’t have to be.

She taught me to step up to any challenge, to prove the doubters wrong, even if only by being brave enough to try.

She taught me how to shell peas and almonds.

She tried to teach me how to make a light, fluffy sponge cake.

Like so many women, my Nanna never received any awards or accolades for her hard work, her faithfulness, her courage or her generosity. But the world would be less, so much less, without her brilliance, and the brilliance of millions of women like her.

I look forward to a time when young men and women presume that women have equal rights to education, health care, autonomy, work, wages, safety (and the list of discrepancies goes on), and that they have presumed correctly.

And so I will continue to teach them that we are all made in the image of God, and try to help them understand what that might mean.

The Revd Helen Dwyer is Senior Chaplain at Overnewton Anglican Community College and a member of Archbishop in Council.


Yvonne Poon

I think equal opportunity for females in leadership roles should be addressed in the church and in the wider world.

And I think there should be more emotional support, pastoral support, mentoring and coaching for women to encourage and guide them in their journey of leadership.

One of the things I love about being in the church is the godly value system which emphasises love, justice and acceptance.

My grandmother is one of the women who has inspired me in my journey of faith. As a woman who was illiterate, she worked hard to learn as many words as she could in her 60s. After she had a minor stroke, she worked hard to regain her strength by walking up and down at the stairs. She showed me her faith in God by her acts: never, never give up.

The Revd Yvonne Poon is Incumbent at St Matthias’ North Richmond. She is an Examining Chaplain, a board member of Anglican Overseas Aid and a member of the Preventing Violence against Women Taskforce.


Muriel Porter

My faith journey has been inspired by a range of women: Jesus’ extraordinarily courageous mother, Mary, who accepted God’s invitation to bear the Christ-child, and his remarkable women disciples – too many to name here. Mary Magdalene in particular is a female saint I look to, she who was named in the early church as the “Apostle to the Apostles”, and also Mary and Martha of Bethany, who were clearly Jesus’ close friends. Tragically, the faithful ministry of all these women was overlooked for much of Christian history.

And the women priests who faithfully responded to God’s call on their lives, some of them initially in the face of great opposition and often cruel disparagement. I have been greatly inspired by women such as our first women bishops, Kay Goldsworthy, now Archbishop of Perth, and the late, dear, Barbara Darling, as well as women clergy serving among us, including my dear friends Colleen O’Reilly and Dorothy Lee.

All these women have, by their faithful ministry, proclaimed the truth of Paul’s teaching, that “… there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Thankfully, women’s leadership in the church has, except in some conservative places, been fully accepted and honoured. The decades-long ugly struggle to achieve this, however, did the church great harm. Now the struggle for full acceptance of the LGBTIQ community in the church is causing even greater damage, both in the church and in its witness to the Gospel. The key challenge for the Anglican Church of Australia today is to be genuinely and generously inclusive, as I believe God is calling us to be.

Dr Muriel Porter OAM, a Melbourne historian, author and journalist, was a leader in the struggle for women’s ordination at both diocesan and national levels from the 1980s. The first woman elected to the Melbourne Diocesan Council, she has served on many church committees, including the General Synod Doctrine Commission.

Photo: Gray Tham


Jan Hudson

My maternal grandmother was a sacristan in the church and I used to go along with her, and we’d set up the church. She’d chat away to me about different things, and that was mentoring from a long time ago. And then my mum and two sisters. My older sister was very involved in the church and her faith was very strong. She died back in 1997. My younger sister was late coming to faith, but it was there and it was strong. But when I talk about faith, we talk about love as well; I couldn’t have had a more loving younger sister.

My dear friend Jennifer has inspired me, not so much in the church because she is not a believer herself, but she has inspired me in ways to be the person that I can be … she has encouraged me, and helped me to stretch my mind.

We have a lovely Mothers’ Union in our parish and it’s very strong. The lady who started it, Marg Duckett, has been an inspiration to many people and certainly to me. My working life, as a nurse and midwife, was also a great ministry, and I feel very blessed by various nursing sisters who encouraged me.

I became an honorary lay minister in the 1990s. I’ve relinquished my licence now because I’m vision impaired and can’t do as much in the church, and that’s a sadness, but you do what you can and get involved. I still volunteer in the op shop and do various things in the Sunday services. We’ve got a summer fair coming up and I’ll work in the kitchen serving meals there.

Faith is for me a contentment, the continual Emmaus walk, encountering Jesus, not only for myself but the people I meet. It reinforces week by week my knowledge that God is with me wherever I am and we call on him for our help. For me the church is the world. We’ve caravanned, and to sit on the rocks at Devils Marbles or be by a riverside … God’s presence is so real in those places.

Jan Hudson is a parishioner at St Eanswythe's Altona.


Asunta Majur

Some of the issues that need to be addressed in regards to gender equity are that some migrant women come to this beautiful country with very limited English language or limited education. Another issue is transportation to the location of the leadership role because migrant women may take time before they get their licences. 

Some of the young women can be faced with the issue of childcare for their young children. The childcare fees could be high and the young women could not afford it, or for some leadership meetings that are done after hours, there are no centres open after hours. The solution to this issue could be offering flexibility for young women to attend meetings with their children, or having a childcare educator in the location to help young women with young children.

Some communities still have the cultural belief that women should always follow men’s lead; this issue has to be addressed through more education, advocacy and support from their husbands or partners to allow women to become leaders, and allow women of all ages access to leadership roles.

Some communities may still be threatened by women’s leadership and empowerment. They would prefer women to be housewives. This needs awareness and engaging with all communities about leadership roles and awarding incentives for women who seek a leadership role.

I would also like to see more involvement of our women bishops meeting our young women to encourage them into church leadership and educating our young women on ways to become church leaders.

Asunta Majur, pictured with a photograph of her mother, the Revd Monica Kuol, is a member of the Dinka congregation of Red Door Church at the Anglican Parish of Caroline Springs. Photo: Janine Eastgate


Susanne Chambers

A big plastic storage box has been sitting in my study for many years. It is full of correspondence, newspaper clippings, photos and orders of services, among other interesting tidbits. Recently, I have had time to begin the process of collating my story of over 30 years as one of the women in the forefront of change for the church to recognise the calling of women to be ordained in the Anglican Church. My story is similar to many other women’s in our struggle to be heard, to have a voice and to also challenge the status quo. The early days were “heady”. Lots of debates in synods, the media very interested in what was going on in the church. I have a number of newspaper clippings of interviews with me and with my husband, Jonathan, who is also a priest, and so we were also part of a growing group of “clergy couples”. Something again “new” for the church to get its head around and this included children. Oh dear! Who will look after the children while we lead worship? These years were full of excitement, disappointments, joy and sorrow.

The collection of newspaper clippings is now getting smaller. Ordination of women isn’t a big deal any more in the media, except if you are to be a Bishop or Archbishop! Mostly, I got on with doing and being what I felt called to do and I loved being a part of parish and hospital chaplaincy life.

I still have a way to go in collating my own story, which is also very much part of other people’s story I have met along the way. Change is always with us and it takes time to be brave enough to look at our biases, prejudices and the way we hold together Scripture, Reason and Experience.

I believe there is hope for the church as it continues to unfold and become more the face of Christ in the world. This will include our acceptance of LGBTIQ+ folk who are part of our communities of faith, just as the women have been.

The Revd Susanne Chambers is on “sabbatical” (she doesn’t use the word “retired”) as she explores other ways of living out her calling after parish ministry). Susanne’s last parish appointment as vicar was at St Pauls Canterbury for 9½ years. Susanne was among the first women to be ordained in 1992. She has begun her own practice of Spiritual Direction and is also part of the faculty of Living Well Centre for Christian Spirituality. Email: forestretreat242@gmail.com