Women clergy called to live out role confidently

By Muriel Porter

July 15 2016

Discovering that women clergy leaders are still in a minority in Melbourne Diocese has surprised her, Bishop Genieve Blackwell told a seminar on women in leadership at Trinity College Theological School last month.

It was a culture shock for her to realise this when she led the clergy conference for her Marmingatha Episcopate recently, she said. In the dioceses of Bathurst and Canberra-Goulburn where she had previously been a rector, archdeacon and assistant bishop, the balance was much more 50/50, she said.

“Melbourne has a very different feel,” she told the Leading Women seminar, which was attended by more than 90 women clergy and laity. Ten participants came from Newcastle for the day-long program, as well as women from Willochra, Canberra, Sydney, Ballarat, Bendigo and Gippsland.

Bishop Blackwell was one of seven speakers at the seminar, which canvassed topics from women leaders in the New Testament to women as bishops, in parish and chaplaincy, in the academic world and in the Councils of the Church.

Thought needed to be given to how younger women clergy could combine work and motherhood, she said. “We must find ways of enabling women to minister in their childbearing years.” This was an issue that concerned her.

The Revd Canon Professor Dorothy Lee, Dean of the theological school, said that although in the ancient world women’s role was entirely in the private sphere, the New Testament had managed to escape from that world often. St Paul, in his letter to the Galatians [Galatians 3:28], had given women a new identity, together with slaves and gentiles, in his vision of baptism. “Whether the Church understood fully the radical implications of this vision is another matter,” she said.

She spoke of the significance of the women mentioned by St Luke who ministered to Jesus as they followed him on the road. “Ministry as leaders always involves following,” she pointed out. The faithful women pictured at the Cross were in a place of real danger, she said, linking themselves with a man condemned for sedition.

The women’s faithfulness continued at the tomb, where they became witnesses to the resurrection. “There is no stronger argument for women in leadership than the resurrection accounts,” she said.

Among the long list of women named by St Paul as his co-workers in the Gospel, Phoebe the deacon was clearly highly trusted by Paul, who gave her his letter to the Romans to deliver to Rome. Priscilla was a theologian of some insight, identified by some scholars as the author of the letter to the Hebrews. Junia was named by Paul as prominent among the apostles. “This was extraordinarily radical at the time,” she said.

Bishop Kay Goldsworthy of Gippsland outlined her own journey from being made a deaconess in Melbourne in 1984 to becoming a deacon in 1986, a priest in 1992 and Australia’s first woman bishop in 2008, and then a diocesan bishop last year.

She quoted Bishop Victoria Matthews, formerly a bishop in Canada who is now Bishop of Christchurch, New Zealand, using the phrase ‘Slowly Turning Purple’ for learning and growing into the reality of being a bishop, both the being and the day-to-day function. “I was consecrated in 2008,” said Bishop Goldsworthy. “I’m not quite purple enough yet!”

The question the Church has grappled with over the years concerning women’s ordination has been, “What’s different?”, she said. “We have had to come to terms with the reality that the answer is both everything and nothing. Women are equal. And we are different. And, so is the Church.

“Some I know are complaining about the feminisation of the Church and the impact they believe that has on our ability to reach out to men. I believe they have missed the point. This hasn’t been about men being absent from the Church or our ministry and mission concerns nor about some sort of redecorating the old structure.

“It’s been about God calling people to ministry in the Church and the Church responding to that movement of the Holy Spirit. It’s been about reading the signs of the times and living into God’s call.”

Speaking of Jesus’ declaration in the synagogue at Nazareth that God’s “great Today” had been inaugurated, she said that for her, “being a bishop is working out how to be part of enabling God’s great Today in and through the ministry of the Diocese.”

It wasn’t a way for the Church to get up to date with wider society, or “thumb our collective feminist noses at the increasingly theologically conservative views of Anglicans around the Communion”, she said. She noted however that nothing refuted those views better “than a real live woman, teaching, leading, guarding, guiding and her ministry bearing fruit in the power of the Spirit”. Nor was it “because we’re desperate for the church to look a little more inclusive.”

Being a bishop who is a woman, she said, “is about modelling – living out of the truth of God’s great Today dawning still and leaning into it, leaning in to discern where and how and in what guise the Gospel is being lived afresh in parishes and schools and hospitals and prisons and outside all of those places as well. Leaning in as I imagine Mary leaning in and saying ‘yes’.”

Bishop Blackwell picked up this theme, noting that “living into the role had been her story in leadership as a parish priest, archdeacon and bishop”. “What has it meant for the Church,” she asked, “for someone like me to be living into the role and even for the Church living into women in leadership?”

Women clergy are an example, she said, “of the Church having to re-think long-held theological understandings”. She encouraged Evangelical women in particular to articulate their theological understandings of their role, and to have confidence in living out their role.

Dr Muriel Porter was also a speaker at the Leading Women seminar.