Leading the way

our principle of sex equailtyREVIEW BY MARGARET REESON

BOOK | OUR PRINCIPLE OF SEX EQUALITY: THE ORDINATION OF WOMEN IN THE CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH IN AUSTRALIA 1927-1977 | JULIA PITMAN

FORTY years after the inauguration of Uniting Church in Australia, it feels natural in 2017 that women are moderators in four UCA synods and a woman is president-elect. But those of us who have lived long enough to witness many of the changes in placing women in leadership know that this has never been inevitable. Julia Pitman’s book tells our story and much more.

Don’t be put off by the weighty title. This is the story of Christian women who have worked for change and have reshaped the nature of what would become the Uniting Church of today.

The book’s framework is the role of the Congregational Church in opening up the acceptance of the ordination of women in Australia.

It explores the reasons why Congregationalism, as the smallest of the three denominations that formed the UCA, was able to achieve what many other denominations have found impossible or unacceptable.

A useful chapter outlines the Australian context for Congregationalism. Although there were precedents in England and the United States, the ordination of the very gifted Winifred Kiek in June 1927 was the first clerical appointment of a woman in Australia of any denomination.

Decades before the ordination of Kiek, women were active in their Congregational Church. An interesting chapter explores their prophetic role.
Despite being excluded from the formal decision-making bodies of their church, lay women served in and supported mission at home and overseas.

They spoke out through bodies such as Women’s Christian Temperance Union on issues such as suffrage, maternal and child health, gender equality and international peace.

As with their Methodist and Presbyterian sisters, their busy organisations ran parallel to the male preserve of church councils but their wisdom was not always heard more widely.

Pitman also raises questions about times when women’s influence was not always beneficial, such as the separation of Aboriginal children from their mothers. The story is always more complex than at first glance.

The chapter covering the decades of debate about the ordination of women makes thought-provoking reading. The views for and against, the experience of other denominations and other churches globally; the voices of gifted lay women with a strong sense of call to ministry and those who opposed it; this is often a painful story.

Even in the Congregational Church, only 15 women were ordained over the 50 years prior to the inauguration of the Uniting Church in Australia in 1977. Women with high academic achievements and those with long experience as missionaries often struggled for acceptance because few congregations were ready to receive an ordained woman as their minister. The frustrating experiences of those who attempted to walk this path are outlined.

The question is asked: was this a matter of justice or of theology? Julia Pitman concludes ‘In the eyes of the Uniting Church, the ordination of women becomes a test case of the wholeness of the Gospel for the church catholic’.

It is helpful to be reminded, among other things, that the issue of the status of women had the potential to derail the movement toward church union, both in the 1930s and the 1970s. Congregational women and their leadership feared that their opportunities for full participation could be curtailed if the prevailing Methodist and Presbyterian patterns continued into a uniting church. Vigorous advocacy and practical steps for affirmative action were needed to make real change possible.

The story of growth and decline of a range of organisations led by women over the decades makes interesting reading. The women’s liberation movement influenced, empowered or irritated women. Younger women were less likely to be attracted to traditional women’s groups. Denominational and ecumenical groups provided platforms for change in church and society.

Congregational women who had developed skills in leadership and advocacy through these groups in the 1960s and ’70s were prominent in the new Uniting Church at a time when doubters feared that women would lack experience to contribute to key decision-making church bodies. Integrated bodies rather than parallel organisations were the goal.

At the end of this book is a series of brief biographies of the 15 Congregational women ordained prior to Church Union in 1977. Readers are introduced to a very diverse and ‘human’ group of women.

Academically gifted or less so, with support of their families or strong opposition by them, influenced by feminist thinking or disturbed by it; there was no single generic ‘woman minister’ then or now.

Margaret Reeson is a former moderator of the Synod of NSW and ACT.

Available at: www.scholarly.info/home/ RRP $39.95

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