The theme for International Women’s Day 2016 is ‘Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality’.
Since its inception in 1977, The Uniting Church in Australia has prided itself on ensuring women have equal status to men throughout the church.
In the Church’s rules and regulations, under the heading ‘Government in the Church’, it states:
The Uniting Church recognises that responsibility for government in the Church belongs to the people of God by virtue of the gifts and tasks which God has laid upon them. The Uniting Church therefore so organises its life that locally, regionally and nationally government will be entrusted to representatives, men and women, bearing the gifts and graces with which God has endowed them for the building up of the Church…
We asked five women leaders in the Uniting Church whether or not the church has lived up to that pledge.
Finding my voice in the Uniting Church
REV LAVINGI TUPOU
In reflecting on my journey from where I was to where I am today, I am truly grateful.
I am one of the many women within the Uniting Church that holds a leadership role (ordained minister). I am also one of the few ethnic women blessed with the opportunity to become a leader not only within the Uniting Church, but ministering in a strange land, foreign people and a different culture.
It would be fair to say that the Uniting Church is among those denominations who have struggled with the issue of leadership and inclusivity. It is clear these two issues are not straightforward or easy to tackle. This is in part due to the nature of our Church and its structure and diverse theological understanding.
In my experience as a minister it is obvious that we as a Church are struggling with both issues. We are far from perfect. We do well in some areas and not so well in other areas.
There have been two areas in ministry that I have always had great interest and feel confidence to speak about; the area of women ministry and cross-cultural ministry.
As a woman from an ethnic background, I am grateful and blessed for the opportunity to work, study, journey and indeed struggle together with many other women in the Church family. But I know other ethnic women do not necessary share the same experience that I have.
With all due respects to all members of our Church community, it is fair to say that the feeling of isolation, prejudices and being undervalued because I am a woman has been my experience. But those feelings are my inspiration.
I know if I sit quietly in my little corner and do nothing about it, my voice and the voices of other women in the same situation will never be heard. So I make it a priority to grab any opportunity relating to the issues of women that comes my way. I try to make a constructive contribution, hoping that our voices as women will be heard by someone.
Similar feeling applies to the cross-cultural aspect of our Church. I don’t see the straight answer to this, but I know I can’t change others and how others act, behave and do things.
The only person I can change is myself.
I have been involved in many cross-cultural activities as part of my ministry and recognise the big gap in how the Church understands what it means to be a cross-cultural Church. Let alone being an ethnic woman.
I love telling this story as part of my experience and understanding of what it means to be in a cross-cultural Church.
A few years back, in a small country town, we arrived as fruit pickers. The town was dominantly Anglo (or ‘Palangi’, as Pacific islanders called the white people). On Sundays we gathered to worship as one big group of fruit pickers. One day the minister came and approached the leader of our group asking if it will be ok to have a combined service on the first Sunday of every month so we can have Holy Communion together.
We accepted the invitation, only to be told by the Anglo members that they wouldn’t come to church on Sunday because they didn’t want to sit next to us.
As a group of Christians, we accepted that as part of our journey. We continued on in our journey in that small congregation and gradually some of us became full members of the Uniting Church. That gave us opportunity to live out our Christian faith in a new way and contribute whole heartedly to the life of this congregation.
A few years down the track, the Anglo members became fewer and older. Then, in a Church Council meeting, our Anglo members officially acknowledged that they had come to the realisation that ‘they’ have needed us as much as ‘we’ have needed them.
For me The Spirit cracked open in the heart of our relationship. The ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ was no longer the experience but it became ‘We’ in every aspects of the life of our little church. Unless the Spirit cracked open in our relationships and understanding, then there would always be feelings of prejudices, inferiority and being undervalued in our Church.
It is my hope and prayer that the Church we love and served in will one day recognise that we need each other – women, men, children no matter what – for the building up of God’s Kingdom.
May the Spirit of God ‘crack open’ anew in our relationships; not as women or men, not as ethnic or Anglo, but as We. As the whole people of God.
And may our gifts and graces be valued and appreciated as God loves us and equally values us.
With thanks to those who went before me
REV BETH DONNELLY
As one of the newest and youngest of the women in ordained ministry in this synod, I have the women who went before me to thank for the boldness required to get to this place.
At no point did I question the validity of my own gifts and graces because they came wrapped in a stylish bow.
I know at other points in history, and in other places at this point in history, those gifts were shoved straight back with a patronising smile. But from where I am sitting, as the chaplain in a regional Uniting Church school, the embracing of the gifts and graces of women is evident by their leadership at every level, both staff and students, and that only makes us stronger as a whole.
Many of the young people at this school are lucky enough not to have to think about the challenges fought by previous generations of women. But several of the young female leaders in this pocket of the UCA family are continuing to challenge the community not to be complacent about the work that still needs to be done. These Year 11 and 12 students speak authentically about empowering their friends and each other; making the most of the opportunities they have been given and making sure all people experience those same opportunities.
There have been several women along the way who contributed a great deal to the opportunities I’ve been given. A few were among those who laid hands on me during my ordination two months ago. Teachers, mentors, colleagues, and my mum, are all part of that generation before me, the generation who ensure I could boldly step into the role I have now. I am, in turn, encouraged by the boldness of the school leaders.
The Uniting Church is a diverse organisation, and I am lucky enough to see a side to it that not everyone is able to experience. The optimism and gratitude that I feel as a woman in ministry sits on the solid foundations laid by my teachers and mentors. I am able to walk boldly, and empower the next generation to do the same, because their gifts and graces were celebrated and turned into the stones that build up a strong and solid church.
We must continue to be bold as a church – to embrace the solid foundations laid for us, and trust them enough to walk in new ways and carve new paths. The diversity of our members makes us stronger, and embracing every one of them with all their gifts will help us be a church that supports the next generation of young women and men.
In the footsteps of the three Marys
REV ESETA WAQABACA-MENEILLY
The Uniting Church is the front-runner in acceptance of women in leadership. The Uniting Church celebrates this recognition of the diversity of gifts and graces within its members, men and women, with joy.
Coming from a cultural background where women in leadership, particularly in the Church, is not enjoyed, I understand that women in leadership in the Uniting Church was not always the ‘’norm’. Although Fiji is changing in its acceptance of women leaders, for instance, in 2014, two out of 56 superintendent ministers were women. A leap in Fiji, it is a far cry from where the Uniting Church is.
The Gospel records the stories of three Marys; the mother of Jesus, the Magdalene and the sister of Martha.
When the message was given to Mary mother of Jesus that she would bear the Christ-Child, her immediate response was, “This cannot be!” When it became clear that the message was for her, that God could and would perform the miracle, that she was going to be the mother of the Messiah, she kneeled and recited The Magnificat.
Mary Magdalene broke into a Men’s Business gathering to pour oil on Jesus’ feet. Although some of the men sniggered, making funny comments and thinking unkind thoughts, that was all right with Mary. She did not have to interact with them. She focused only on Jesus. It was Jesus who had given her new life. And Jesus, reading the thoughts of the hearts, said to the men: “For this anointing of my feet, she will always be remembered.”
Mary the sister of Martha chose to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to his teachings instead of helping her sister in the kitchen. She could do kitchen work on any other day, but this time with Jesus may never come again. In that culture, as in the Fijian culture, she was behaving in an unacceptable manner. She was a woman, she should be in the kitchen! What was she doing? Sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to him? Was she wanting to be a man? And what was wrong with Jesus allowing her this ‘for men only’ privilege? He should have listened to Martha and told Mary to go to the kitchen and help her sister. But he didn’t.
Jesus was present in these events, enabling the three Marys, and many more women, to participate with him in ministry, to move away from the ‘norm’ and create a new thing that would help build up the Church. I give thanks to God for the men in the Uniting Church, past and present, for their support of women leadership. I give thanks to God for the women in the Uniting Church, past and present, who have created a path for other women to follow, to not be afraid to stand up and be counted, to use their gifts and graces, to have a voice.
Lessons in leadership
Our current Kingswood College girls have lived their lives with no experience other than that they are equal to their brothers and their male classmates. They have every expectation that they will live lives of dignity and value, developing their unique talents and receiving treatment according to their behaviour and their character, and not based on their gender. And so they should!
International Women’s Day is an occasion for looking back, and even more importantly, for looking ahead to the untapped potential and opportunities that await future generations of women.
As principal of a coeducational Uniting Church school there are some clear messages and reflections on International Women’s Day 2016.
First, much has been achieved to improve the status of many women since the first International Women’s Day was celebrated 105 years ago in 1911.
Second, even more remains to be done, especially for women in developing countries, but also for women across Australia. Improving the lives of women and girls delivers better outcomes for everyone. And yet, sometimes the challenge seems overwhelming.
Locally, nationally and globally, we at Kingswood College have more opportunities and resources than most people on our planet to make a difference in the status of women and the quality of their lives. We are called on to remember our college values, and to seek to live out Respect, Integrity, Compassion and Responsibility for ALL the world’s citizens. To achieve this, a greater commitment is needed to women throughout the world.
My first observation, that much has been achieved, can be illustrated by the fact that the girls at Kingswood do feel empowered and equal. This is great.
Alongside this progress is my second key point, which is that much remains to be done, locally, nationally and globally.
Globally, there are countless tragic stories of the systematic misogynist mistreatment of women and girls. And there are also stories of hope, and of how we can all help to make a difference.
In this country where many of us have lived lives of wonderful opportunity, women collectively still fall behind in a number of areas.
- In pay equity – the difference in salaries for the same work done by men and by women last year was around 18 per cent on average. It was recently noted in The Age newspaper that women are on average two to 10 years behind their male equivalents, which is an outrage.
- Women’s representation in leadership and governance. We continue to have lamentably low representation of women on the boards of big companies, and in senior leadership roles in government.
- Sexual harassment remains an issue for many women, socially and in the workplace.
- Violence against women remains a debilitating disadvantage for too many in our community.
This leads to my third observation. At Kingswood College we are well placed to address the challenges women face locally, nationally and globally. The first thing to do is create awareness of where work is needed and to think about ways in which each one of us, and the institutions to which we belong, can contribute. Evenings like our International Women’s Day Dinner, and our IWD School Assembly are two good examples, both enthusiastically supported by our College community.
The status and wellbeing of women is not a women’s issue – it is everyone’s issue, and to achieve a just and fair world, an ongoing commitment by men and women to equality and justice is vital.
Our global community-based learning experience in Cambodia is one example, as is our support for Impact for Women, a local organisation supporting women in crisis. We are committed to providing our students with the experiences and opportunities to make a positive difference, and to understand that improving the lives of women benefits everyone.
At Kingswood College we value education highly – many parents make great commitment and personal sacrifice to have their children educated at our College. We know that education is a gift that lasts a lifetime, and we are committed to providing education opportunities for girls and women everywhere.
REV CAROL BENNETT
January 1990 is an important date for me for two reasons: my youngest child started school and I came to understand that there was a place in the Uniting Church for me and for the gifts and skills God had given me.
I remember the date, the place and the women who shared this revelation with me as if it was yesterday. The women who organised and led the Church Made Whole conference in Melbourne in January 1990 helped me understand that the ‘competence’ I offered to the world could also be valued in the Church – “…that there is no gift without its corresponding service: all ministries have a part in the ministry of Christ.” (Basis of Union para 13).
When I look back over the 26 years since those days I have a mixed response to the question of how well we are living out our commitment to ensure that women, as well as men, are able to use the “gifts and graces with which God has endowed them for the building up of the Church …” (Basis of Union para 15).
There are more women in specified ministry roles but often less women on presbytery and synod committees. I still hear male pronouns used exclusively to refer to ministers. In each of my placements I’ve been described as “the first woman minister we’ve had”.
The Church has given me amazing opportunities to exercise my gifts and I’ve been encouraged by women and men within the Church who have been very generous to me as they have shared experience and insights. At the same time I know what it is to be dismissed on the basis of my gender. Sadly, I continue to hear reports of women being patronised in meetings: anything from being mistaken for the caterer or the administrative support to outright sexist comments.
It is not enough to point to where we fall short of the vision we have of ourselves as an inclusive community. I have a responsibility to play my part in moving us closer to the commitment made in 1977.
The questions I need to keep asking myself are: “How am I working to ensure the inclusion and participation of women in the task groups, committees and councils of the Uniting Church?”; “When can I advocate for meeting styles, times, and locations that ensure women can participate?” and “What younger women can I mentor so that they feel able to step, with confidence, into what is often still a male dominated task group, committee or council?”