Pioneer leader in a time of great change

Dr Jill Tabart and Dr Deidre PalmerNIGEL TAPP

The Uniting Church achieved two significant goals in the mid-’90s. One was the adoption of consensus decision-making as the official model for meeting procedures. The other was the apology to Aboriginal people. And both occurred during the three-year presidency of Dr Jill Tabart, the first woman to be appointed to the position.

Dr Tabart’s installation in 1994 was another step in the Church’s journey of recognising and promoting the leadership skills of women. Since then very few Australian churches – with the exception of the Society of Friends (Quakers) – have had a female head at a national level.

Dr Tabart admits that her appointment ‘raised eyebrows’ among some of the Church’s partners. But she also knew it was a source of important symbolism at an ecumenical level for many women.

The Sisters of Mercy were so thrilled to see a woman leading a church that they gave Dr Tabart pride of place at the Australian welcome ceremony for Pope John Paul II in 1995.

Dr Tabart’s period in office was a significant time for the Church. It included the adoption of consensus decision-making as well as the apology to Aborigines “for all those wrongs done knowingly and unknowingly by the Church”.

She recalls entering her first business session of the 1994 Assembly still not knowing whether the consensus model, designed by a task group, would be accepted. She had to prepare to chair the meeting under the new system or the previous model.

Fortunately, consensus was adopted by the first business session and Dr Tabart was able to begin its implementation, which she classes as one of the high points of her presidency.

“I was passionate about it,” she said. “It is based on Christian principles; it was wonderful and made sense.”

Two decades later, Dr Tabart believes that the consensus model is not being used to its best effect across the entire church.

“There needs to be more equipping of people coming into leadership. At Assembly level, I believe it is used effectively, but Synods tend to vary and it is more of a challenge for presbyteries and congregations. This is probably partly due to the rapid turnover of people in leadership positions.’’

The Covenanting Statement is recognised throughout the Church as one of its most important – and perhaps fundamental – achievements. It came 14 years before the Australian government said “Sorry” and at a time when no other Church in the nation had openly acknowledged the failings in its relationship with Indigenous people.

To this day, reconciliation between First and Second Peoples remains a subject very few churches have adequately addressed.

Dr Tabart’s experience working with respected Tasmanian Aboriginal elder Auntie Ida West meant she was well placed to lead the Church’s efforts.

She acknowledges that the UCA’s achievement in seeking a fair and just reconciliation between First and Second Peoples probably went a little unnoticed by church members.

While she is pleased with the way the Church engages with First and Second Peoples in the youth sphere, Dr Tabart believes lessons need to be learnt as engagement moves forward.

The current president-elect of the Uniting Church and former South Australian moderator Dr Deidre Palmer will become the first woman to serve in the role since Dr Tabart.

She said she admired all Dr Tabart had contributed to the Uniting Church.

Dr Palmer said she plans to call on Dr Tabart as her installation at the Assembly gathering in Melbourne next year approaches, just as she had sought her counsel around the process of consensus decision making prior to stepping into the moderator’s role.

She said Dr Tabart’s election to the presidency was a defining event in her own spiritual journey.

“I had worked with the Methodist Conference and the Synod and had been very much shaped by the Uniting Church’s affirmation of women’s leadership,” Dr Palmer said.

“Jill’s election was a continuation of that ongoing trajectory for women in the Church.”

She said Dr Tabart was not only inspiring as a woman but also as a person living out her Christian vocation.

“Jill has lived out the Gospel in every aspect of her life, including her work as a medical practitioner,’’ she said.

In a profile for the Encyclopedia of Women and Leadership in Australia, Nikki Henningham said Dr Tabart was a role model to Christian women seeking leadership roles at a time when feminist church women were making great gains.

“She regards her opportunities to lead in the Uniting Church as ‘a special privilege’ especially because she believes her own calling ‘was never to ordination but to medicine’,” Henningham wrote.

“But she was obviously called to be a leader in the church and she is proud to have had the chance. ‘If it has benefited others’, she says, ‘then I am glad’.’’

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