A gracious, gentle pioneer

Bishop Barbara DarlingBy Muriel Porter

Bishop Barbara Darling
17/10/47 – 15/02/15

The outpouring of shock and grief following Bishop Barbara Darling’s sudden and untimely death on 15 February has confirmed that Barbara was a very special person who exercised a significant ministry.

Barbara notched up many significant ‘firsts’: the first woman to be given tenure as a theology lecturer at Ridley College, among the earliest women ordained deacon in the Anglican Church of Australia, one of Melbourne’s first women priests, a first woman vicar, the first woman bishop in Victoria, the first woman bishop to conduct an ordination in Australia… the list goes on.

Her parishioners at St Paul’s with All Saints’, Ascot Vale, All Souls’, Sandringham and St James’, Dandenong adored her. So too did the clergy and people of the Eastern Region.

On the day of her consecration as a bishop in St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, she was described as a role model for all women in the Anglican Church from the time she first became a licensed lay worker in 1981. Her faithful ministry offered living proof more eloquently than any synod debate or learned argument ever could, that women’s ministry is truly of God.

Melbourne Diocese played an important role in promoting the cause of women’s ordination. In 1976 Melbourne Synod called on the national church to legislate for women as deacons, priests and bishops.

At last, in 1985, legislation for women deacons was passed by General Synod and in February 1986, Archbishop David Penman ordained the first in Australia. Barbara was ordained in the second Melbourne group in May that year, and later appointed deacon-in-charge at Ascot Vale. Male clergy were rostered to assist with the celebration of Holy Communion; Barbara affectionately called them her ‘rent-a-priests’.

What a joy it was when finally, in 1992, she was able to celebrate Holy Communion for the people in her pastoral care. She was ordained a priest with 11 other women deacons at Melbourne’s first women priests’ ordination service on 13 December, 1992.

In his sermon at the 1992 ordination service, Archbishop Keith Rayner spoke of the painful journey the women had travelled to that point.

“We thank God for the women who have had so much pain to bear in their years of waiting,” Archbishop Rayner said.

It was only fitting that Barbara was appointed Melbourne’s first woman bishop in 2008. Initially appointed to head up the Department of Diocesan Services, she became Bishop of the Eastern Region in 2009. She laid up her staff from that role last October.

Barbara Brinsley Darling was born in Burwood, Sydney, on 17 October 1947, one of three children of Geoff and Honor Darling. From a very young age, she became involved in the life of the Anglican Church. She once commented that she had been in the church since birth: “I have always just felt close to God”.

In 1975 she came to Melbourne to study full-time at Ridley College. She thought she would be staying in Melbourne for just one year, but stayed on as a lecturer, and gradually began to consider ordination.

When she first preached at a Ridley service in 1976, some male students walked out – a foretaste of what lay ahead. There was both a legal challenge and a bomb threat to the service at which Australia’s first women deacons were ordained in February 1986, and a protest at the 1992 service in which Barbara became a priest.

After the a successful 2007 court ruling, Kay Goldsworthy became Australia’s first woman bishop when she was consecrated in Perth on 22 May 2008. Just nine days later, the new Bishop Goldsworthy took part in Bishop Darling’s consecration in Melbourne.

Barbara’s death, aged only 67, came when she was supposed to be five days into a long-anticipated post-retirement cruise. Many have expressed grief that she was robbed of this relaxation, and of her well-earned retirement.

But as one person commented, “we can be in no doubt of Barbara’s future”. We can be very sure that she rests in peace and will rise with Christ in glory.

This is an edited version of an obituary that was published in The Melbourne Anglican.

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