2 February 2023

Thirty years on, the church is richer for women’s ordination

There were more women than men being ordained for the first time in Melbourne’s history. Picture: Janine Eastgate.

By Willy Maddock 

3 December 2022

In 1992, 92 women were ordained as priests around Australia. I was among them. 

In the Melbourne Diocese, people are ordained in alphabetical order of surnames. Therefore it was our privilege to see Elizabeth Alfred ordained first, an absolute and wonderful pioneer in the ministry of women for at least 50 years.  

She was for a very long time a deaconess. In fact she had understood herself as ordained when she was made a Deaconess. It was only when the deaconesses asked to become members of synod that they discovered they were not in Holy Orders, a considerable shock to them all. Elizabeth was a woman of great faith, compassion, grace, and dignity. But more than anything she was someone who had learned to wait; someone who did not lose heart, who looked expectantly to the future. We were also delighted when she was able to preside at the 10th anniversary of the ordination as well. 

It is almost impossible to describe just what those times were like: the joys, the struggles, the hilarity, the outrage at some of the treatment we received.  

Some women now come to ordination believing that there never was a time when this was not possible, much less that it was impossible just over 30 years ago. How quickly history gets forgotten, with the attendant danger that the lessons learned could easily be forgotten and the church go backwards in dealing with half the human race. We need to remember, because from time-to-time in Melbourne some who want to undo the legislation which allows for the ordination of women.  

For the first few years, formal objections to our ordination were made during the service. They were rejected each time, but it was an unpleasant process.  

Read more: From Lutheran in Hungary to Anglican in the Mornington Peninsula: The Reverend Andrea Nagy’s journey to ordination

In the years leading up to the change in legislation, we listened to many objections and arguments against our fitness to hold office. Some were couched in reasonably civil terms, often with the rider that the comments were not meant to be personal. However, if someone is referring to a person’s gender it cannot be merely academic, or anything other than personal, and potentially hurtful. We should still keep this in mind when referring to a person’s sexuality, race, faith, or skin colour. Such things are not separate from real human beings with names and lives to live. The mishandling of such matters has been lethal for some. 

At times, we were subjected to offensive phone calls, curses, hate filled letters and some personal confrontations from opponents. The more highly charged they were, the less possible it was to have a reasonable conversation or debate. Fear seemed to be the common denominator, though some women later were honest enough to say that their anger was really about their own missed calling, or limited lives constrained by society and the church.  

I was much helped on the way by reading an historical review of the objections to women’s entry into each level of education, into to various occupations, and into as well as other areas of ministry within the church such as vestries and synods, as well as objections to women’s rights in marriage, inheritance, and ongoing debates about women’s worth in terms of pay. 

In all the historical debates the arguments used were the very same theological and emotional arguments put forward in the debate about women’s ordination.  

At one point, I remember we women saying that if the church was going to be logical in its arguments, if we were deemed unfit for ordination, we were in fact unfit for baptism too. Before God, there are no second-class citizens, for we are all one in Christ.  

A woman was a witness to the resurrection. Women accompanied and supported Christ and were taught by Christ. Women witnessed the crucifixion and have never been denied the gift of the Spirit. When we think of the Syro-Phonecian woman, we see that Jesus the Christ was also challenged by women, and had his own understanding broadened. In other words, women held all the qualifications for apostleship, a reality lost for a long time in the church’s endeavour to make itself acceptable to the broader culture and society.  

The times of debate about the ordination of women, were not all doom and gloom. We also received wonderful support from many clergy and laity. We had to rely on other male clergy as of course we could not be part of the House of Clergy or Bishops in Synod. Without their support and positive vote, nothing would have changed.  

In the early days, the women also cared for each other. There was a time when I and others knew every woman who was a possible candidate for ordination or was simply involved in public ministry in some way. This network transcended approaches to Scripture, styles of worship, ministry models, places of training. We needed to have each other’s backs. This was a wonderful example of collegiality and support and vulnerability. Lifelong friendships were forged. Perhaps the Church in its current divisions could learn from our experience. For the most part we were treated well in the theological colleges by staff. Reactions from other students were more mixed.  

When ordination as deacons became possible for women, several were appointed as deacons in charge of parishes: four in Melbourne, but also in other dioceses. Because women were not yet able to be ordained as priests, parishes had to work out different ways of doing the acts of absolution, blessing and consecration. Some parishes had a roster of clergy who graciously assisted. Some received the reserved sacrament compliments of Australia Post. One container, a large Nescafe coffee jar, would be shipped to King Island. Our female colleagues further north informed us that they said all the words … but just didn’t move their hands. In my case, with the archbishop’s knowledge, my Uniting Church of Australia colleagues assisted me – in one case a woman.  

Read more: Ordinations to the priesthood 2022, Anglican Diocese of Melbourne | In pictures

In other words, the theology of the sacraments and the understanding of ordained ministry was getting sillier and sillier. I often thought God must have been either enjoying a chuckle at our human foolishness, or at times tearing God’s hair out so to say.  

What difference have we women made?  

We have made it possible for half the human race to see as normal new possibilities in what God might ask of us. It’s worth noting that in the early days, women were spoken of as “wanting to be ordained” while the men “were responding to God’s call”.  

In some instances, in some matters, such as abuse, we have made sharing the experience of abuse for women easier. I know this has been true in my own ministry. Given just how rife abuse and domestic violence are in the broader community, not just in communities of faith, this can only be a good thing.  

Women see the world differently from men, from the lens of our own experience. Women may therefore also approach the interpretation of Scriptures that denigrate or oppress women with much more caution. We are much more aware of the power of language to liberate or bind. Some of us, but not necessarily all, may be willing to be more open about our emotions. Having women and men working together at all levels within the church means we can have a more wholistic approach to the challenges faced by the world and the church.  

Just as all men are different, so are all women. Diversity makes for richer faith communities that offer more challenges to people of faith. Every woman who has taken up God’s calling to ordination will testify that this has changed her life in ways she could not even have dreamt about.  

Ordination with its consequent life of service has enriched our lives and hopefully the lives of others. We have had opportunities to be part of people’s lives when they have been at their most vulnerable; at their times of greatest joy and sorrow. If we have been faithful to God’s call, then we will also have learned something of the real cost of discipleship. We will know, like Peter, what it is to be bound and taken to places we otherwise might not have chosen.  

Being ordained, a lifelong and life changing vocation, is a great privilege and joy, but also requires utter commitment and endurance. I pray that each one of you, irrespective of gender, may have your eyes, ears and hearts opened to hear your calling from God and to embrace it whole heartedly.  

The Reverend Willy Maddock was among the first group of women ordained as priests in the Diocese of Melbourne on 13 December, 1992. This piece is drawn from sermons preached at St George’s Red Hill and St Paul’s Cathedral Bendigo in recent weeks. 

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