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Jan 13, 2022

Women in Ministry

The Opinions, Feminism, Uniting Church Australia, Women in Ministry

Dr Janice McRandle recently published an article on this website, titled “Holy Pathos, Subjectivity, and Pentecostal Feminism in the Global South”. Her article issued a challenge to consider the voice of the Australian Uniting Church. I didn’t intend to take up her challenge, having written much of this article several weeks ago. Yet that is what seems to have happened.

When I walk down the street wearing a clerical collar, I am regularly confronted by people who enquire about my uniform. They honestly do not relate the collar to a church. When I explain that I am a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, I am asked, far too frequently, “Can women really do that?” To which I answer, “Yes, we can for almost 100 years now in Australia.”

To be exact, 2022 marks 95 years since women have been ordained in Australia. Yet the community seems largely unaware of this fact and I wonder how well it is known throughout the Uniting Church. I wonder if the issues experienced by those pioneering women preachers are still experienced in today’s Australia?

When I studied Uniting Church history, I learned of Winifred Kiek; but as an American in Australia, I knew little of her contextual history. In 2011, as part of my Master of Theological Studies program at the Australian Catholic University, I was enrolled in a unit entitled “Women in Ministry.” As part of this unit I undertook to find about more about this Australian woman, the first to be ordained in this country. There were few resources available but thankfully, Rev. Dr. Julia Pitman has since filled the void by publishing ‘Our Principle of Sex Equality’: The Ordination of Women in the Congregational Church in Australia, 1927-1977.[1]

Winifred Kiek was the first woman ordained in Australia, in the Congregational Church in South Australia, on June 13, 1927. It is easy to imagine the types of discrimination and lack of opportunity that Winifred may have faced being the first ordained woman in Australia; however Kiek herself apparently believed there was only one issue of significance. This was described by Maude Royden in the preface of a book published in 1930, and was the fact that men rarely openly say that they believed women to be spiritually inferior to men, however, their actions support that assumption. Royden and Kiek believed that the concept of spiritual inferiority was the sole reason for excluding women from parish ministry.[2] Is this still the case?

The local newspaper covering Kiek’s ordination reported that the sermon explained that while ordination had in the past been limited to men, there was nothing in the congregational principles that prevented women being ordained. The preacher went on to say that the “oft quote dicta of St. Paul ” were “uttered in view of a local situation” and that nothing was contained in the teaching of the Lord that would prohibit a suitably trained woman from preaching and administering sacraments. Women’s ordination was further defended during the service, by saying that the Bible is full of the witness and activities of women; and that the Spirit had the power to override “ordinary social convention” so that “the gospel resting on the intrinsic worth of human personality could not therefore be limited by sex” (sic). Kiek herself spoke of the serious nature of the event of her ordination and her desire to serve God. 

Historically, the Church’s teachings “perpetuated the fall as a permanent condition.”[3] The fall broke the healthy relationship between not only God and humanity and creation, but also between men and women. All this was redeemed in Christ; however; the view persisted of women as spiritually inferior to men; women’s sin was greater. Women, it seemed, were redeemed by the man through marriage, thus creating the image of God.[4] Women’s inferiority was also perpetuated by teachings that women could not be the image of Christ because Jesus was male. “When preaching and its hopes are conflated with the presence or absence of a particular body, that body inherently restricts the possibility of preaching. Preaching becomes an unimaginative practice.” said Lisa Thompson, writing to Black women preachers.[5]

Kiek defends her theological position that women are not spiritually inferior by citing Jesus’ interaction with women. She sees this as a demonstration of that mutual relationship which she believed the Gospel required. She often quotes, as she did during her ordination, that the proclamation of the risen Lord by women is a demonstration of apostleship.[6]

The underlying judgement of spiritual inferiority is held more widely than purely in relation to the ordination of women. I suggest the exclusion of any group is due to that group being judged as less capable or spiritually inferior. On November 22, 2021, I listened to the Bishop Michael Putney Memorial Lecture for Queensland Churches Together, given by Ben Myers. He broached the subject of women’s ordination as an ecumenical topic. He states that he grew up believing that it was the baptism of the Holy Spirit that was the deciding factor for the elevation of both men and women to a position of leadership. However, his experience is not the wider experience of women ecumenically; and it does not speak to people in the LGBTQI+ or other ethnic communities who have received the baptism of the Holy Spirit but have been denied leadership. 

In 1985, just over 4% of ministers in the Uniting Church were women. [7] My estimate is that in Queensland, this may now have risen to around 30%. But I wonder, has the issue of spiritual inferiority which Winifred Kiek identified ever really been addressed? Is this why domestic violence continues? Why does the Australian community not seem to know women can be clergy? Does spiritual superiority continue to undermine the structure and processes of the Uniting Church? While many factors can influence a person’s suitability for ordained leadership in the Uniting Church, including Blue Cards and psychological profiles, a difficult question remains unanswered; who did God the Holy Spirit choose? Israel? Gentiles? Men? Women? Rich? Poor? White? Ethiopian? Cis gendered? Eunuch? Other?

Rev. Dr. Linda Hamill is the minister at St Stephen’s Toowoomba Uniting Church.  She has a Doctor of Ministry focusing on preaching following a disaster. She also presented the October 2021 Cooperative Lecture.

 

References:

[1] Julia Pitman, ‘Our Principle of Sex Equality’: The Ordination of Women in the Congregational Church in Australia, 1927-1977, (North Melbourne, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2016).

[2] The Register News-Pictorial, “Women And Spiritual Equality,” (Adelaide, SA : 1929-1931) 5 Feb 1930: 24,  http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article54159382 (accessed 26 May 2011).

[3] Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 165.

[4] Elizabeth Johnson, “Imaging God, Embodying Christ: Women as a Sign of the Times,” in The Church Women Want: Catholic Women in Dialogue,ed. Elizabeth Johnson, (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2002), 50.

[5] Lisa L. Thompson, Ingenuity: Preaching as an Outsider, (Nashville, Abingdon, 2018), 15.

[6]  Kiek, One House, 20.

[7] UCA, “Ordain women”, 575.


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