Over the past month, Christian women have flocked to Twitter to share their experiences of #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear.
The conversation started on 19 April with a tweet from Christian author Sarah Bessey and quickly snowballed as women eagerly unburdened themselves.
The tweets addressed issues such as modesty and objectification, abuse and rape in the church, racism, and perhaps most predominantly, the role and identity of women.
Women shared stories of church communities where they are not allowed to lead – or in certain situations, are not even allowed to speak. They wrote about people questioning their leadership abilities and ambition, often urging them to focus on helping out with children or becoming a wife and mother.
Together, these stories paint a vivid picture of the discrimination and oppression many women continue to face within church communities.
The Uniting Church has a history of supporting women’s leadership. Each of the denominations that unified to form the Uniting Church in 1977 had previously decided to ordain women.
The Congregational Church was the first to do so with the ordination of Rev Winifred Kiek in Adelaide on 13 June 1927. She had, at that time, already been leading her congregation for a year. In December 1936, Rev Isabelle Merry was the first woman to be ordained as a minister in any denomination in Victoria. She later served as chaplain at the Queen Victoria Hospital – the first full-time chaplain of a public hospital.
Rev Dr Coralie Ling, a deaconess, became the first woman to be ordained in the Methodist Church in 1969, and Rev Marlene Thalheimer was inducted as the first female minister in the Presbyterian Church in 1974.
The three churches continued to support women’s ordination and leadership upon their union in 1977.
While some of these dates may sound remarkably recent in the scheme of things, the Uniting Church could easily be considered early adopters of women’s ordination. This does not mean that the Uniting Church has always been a beacon of gender equality.
Women continued to be under-represented on Uniting Church committees and boards, as well as within church communities, for many years. This problem continues to a lesser extent today. While women hold many of the senior leadership positions within the Uniting Church synods and the Uniting Church in Australia Assembly, there is still unequal representation in many areas of the church.
For this reason, some women within the Uniting Church will find something to identify with in the #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear hashtag. Women who come from different denominations or backgrounds may also find the stories familiar. For others, they will seem completely alien.
But the opportunity is the same for everyone. The hashtag provides an avenue to truly hear the experiences of our Christian sisters and to speak out positively about why the Uniting Church feels women are called to lead.
In 1990, the Uniting Church in Australia Assembly Standing Committee adopted Resolution 90.32.3-9 titled “Why does the Uniting Church in Australia ordain women to the Ministry of the Word?” The resolution affirms the ordination and calling of men and women, acknowledges that this decision is a departure from most church practice and reminds members of their responsibility to see women ordained.
Importantly, the Church also resolved to “invite other denominations to consider the theological position of the Uniting Church in Australia on the ordination of women.”
#ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear may act as a reminder of this responsibility.
While there are many ways men and women in the Uniting Church might share their own experiences and thoughts on this issue, perhaps the greatest opportunity lies in continuing to encourage and promote women in leadership in our own communities.
This is something that American leader and author Nancy Beach has often spoken about and will share more on at Uniting Leaders 2017, a Uniting Church leadership conference and the second National President’s Ministers Conference.
“As one woman leader at a time steps into whatever leadership opportunities do exist, and leads with character, skill, and grace, I believe her example will help open other doors,” says Nancy.
Nancy has been providing one such example over the past three decades, particularly during her 20 years as programming director of Willow Creek Community Church. She has spent much of this time encouraging and mentoring other women.
“It’s about coming alongside a woman and being available, modelling as best you can a surrendered life, allowing yourself to be vulnerable, and sharing some of your own mistakes,” she explains.
At Uniting Leaders, Nancy will share some of her experiences while presenting on healthy church culture, leadership gifts, church for the unchurched, seasons of the soul, and navigating times of transition. She will be joined by fellow keynote speaker Mark Conner, the former pastor of CityLife Church in Melbourne.
Catherine Hoffman is the editor of New Times, the UCA publication for the SA synod.
Uniting Leaders 2017 will be held at Hope Valley Uniting Church in Adelaide from Tuesday 22 to Thursday 24 August. For more information or to register, please visit unitingleaders.org.au or email firstname.lastname@example.org