7 December 2022

How an uplifting priesthood began with the simple act of listening

The Reverend Margaret Burt. Picture: Jenan Taylor

Jenan Taylor

28 September 2022

The Reverend Margaret Burt’s willingness to listen to people carried her to ordination and shaped her life as a priest.

A cradle Anglican, Ms Burt had always attended church, but before she had her own family, becoming more involved had never really been a consideration.

Yet, a reading of Matthew 16:24 and a sermon, delivered by the Reverend Noel Whale at the parish of Altona, changed Ms Burt’s mind about giving more to God after she had her children. 

As she listened to Mr Whale’s interpretation about taking up the cross, Ms Burt felt she was being called. Initially though she thought it was to be a vestry member, so she became a church warden and from there very much involved in the parish.

Some of that included visiting nursing homes, which struck a chord with her.

“I think I was good with old people, usually because they do all the talking and I didn’t have to,” she said. “But mostly, I just preferred to listen rather than talk.”

It was the start of a long, surprising, often bumpy road to ordination.

Ms Burt was on a train, steaming home from a church outing to Wangaratta one day in the mid-1980s, when she found herself alongside then Trinity College director, the late John Gaden.

They struck up a conversation which ended with him suggesting that she enrol at the college and start studying, she recalled.

But with seven children, the youngest just two-years-old at the time, Ms Burt just didn’t think further study was going to be possible for her.

Even though she had been an organic chemist with the CSIRO before having her family, it had been 14 years since she’d been in the workforce, and she doubted she had the goods to write essays.

Her husband was also very much against ministry for women, and the work she had already started doing at church was a point of contention.

Ms Burt found respite from the marital issues, and confusion about what her path should be, by putting what little time she had left each day into planting and harvesting vegetables in her back yard.

But then she started doing one subject at Trinity and became so engrossed in theology that she enrolled as a full-time student.

Read more: ‘Fantastic’ beginning and end of parish ministry for international Whale

Ms Burt was drawn to clinical pastoral education, in particular, which with its focus on deep listening, complemented her work with nursing home residents. Even so, she still had doubts about her path.

“I spent a lot of time in those years at Trinity arguing with God about vocation. I mean, I had seven kids. Why did I have to I have to do all this?” she said.

With her marriage coming apart, it seemed that money was going to put a stop to anything she might have planned.

But two remarkable things happened. The teachers at the school where her children were enrolled paid for their tuition. And when Ms Burt told Trinity College that she wouldn’t be able to graduate because she couldn’t afford her fees, they said someone had already paid them.

The person wanted to be anonymous, and she has never found out who it was.

The selection process for ordination bypassed Ms Burt when she graduated, but she decided to focus on what her clinical pastoral education studies had trained her for and took on chaplaincy at Caloola, a mental health facility in Sunbury.

After the turmoil of divorce it was a good place to work. It was secular but that was where she got the support that she just did not find at her parish, she said.

Ms Burt left Altona when she moved to be closer to Janefield Training Centre, a school and residence for children with intellectual disabilities, and Kingsbury, a mental health facility for adults, where she had chaplain posts.

Ms Burt believes that move broadened her life, and paved the way to priesthood.

At a diocesan meeting with the newly appointed Archbishop Keith Rayner in 1990, she had the opportunity to talk about her chaplaincy, and realised that she was probably the only one in the intellectual disability space.

A vicar friend reported, sometime later, that Bishop Rayner had inquired with him as to why she was not pursuing ordination, and she believes that her chaplaincy conversation had been the catalyst.

Although Ms Burt was averse to the thought of going through the interview, her colleagues and friends gave her a round of mock interviews to help her.

It paid off, and finally, aged around 50, Ms Burt became a priest in 1994.

To her delight, she was able to continue ministry with the people she had come to love working with.

Her chaplaincy at Janefield and Kingsbury, and later the parish of Broadmeadows, gave her some interesting insights into intellectual disability, Ms Burt said.

She noted how people strived to learn to do things like read, and their unswerving commitment to any job they might get.  

One person at Broadmeadows relished the opportunity to learn about being a church warden, and decided to read the book about it from cover to cover, she recalled.

Read more: The accountant with a heart for holistic care

“Those with Down Syndrome, once they were taught something, would do it to the end of the earth … I had a great crew of servers at Janefield because of that,” she said.

Indeed, whether they were young or old, people in the intellectual disability community seemed to love church.

“Janefield had a lot of residential units with about 20 people each, spread about a hill. And when I did a full service on Sundays, the staff would bring them down to church. And so there would probably be 100 to 250 people, many of them non-verbal in church,” Ms Burt said. “But they engaged. And I always treated them as normal.”

Ms Burt came to realise that if people couldn’t communicate, it was not their problem, and that everyone else had to learn to adapt. That meant being prepared to listen very carefully, she said.

The CPE training was invaluable, she believes.  

“It taught me about learning, and about myself,” she said. “It should be compulsory for priests and chaplains, because being able to listen is what we do. It’s of little consequence whether a priest has degrees or doctorates, because above all else, everybody wants someone to listen.”

Ms Burt also went on to advocate for many residents when institutions closed and they were transferred to live in small group, community-based homes.

She said it was a blanket situation that wasn’t suitable for every person with intellectual disabilities, particularly many of the very elderly and non-verbal people.

She also noticed that even though many of the former institution residents were supposed to be community-based, in several neighbourhoods people didn’t associate with them or weren’t happy to have the small group homes in their area. “So they weren’t a part of the community in that sense,” Ms Burt said.

She visited the community houses to attend to their spiritual needs. Because she didn’t have to let house administrators know she was coming, Ms Burt said she tried to visit very frequently, so she could keep an eye on the interests of the residents, and report on whatever didn’t seem right.

There were definitely instances where that was the case, she said.

Now retired, Ms Burt often does spiritual direction work, but has once again been able to turn her hand to her other passion: gardening.

She loves reflecting on her life’s work while lost in tending the cauliflower heads and almond trees blooming in her yard. 

Her experiences also led her to hospital chaplaincy with mothers whose infants had died, and to an assortment of full-time and locum posts at other suburban parishes.

But Ms Burt sees her time in the intellectual disability area, as the defining feature of her work.

”I went into the field knowing nothing about it to start with. But I learned a lot there, not only about how to deal with it, but about being open to more people, anybody really,” she said.

This profile of the Reverend Margaret Burt is part of a series on women in ministry, marking the December 2022 anniversary of 30 years since women were ordained in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne. 

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