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Wednesday 20 December, St Thomas’ Eve, marks the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn.

The  diocese had been a pioneer of inclusion of women at all levels of church life, an early adopter of women as lay readers, preachers, and members of synod and parish councils. The debate about whether this could also mean ordination continued over many years. General Synod legislation was passed in 1985 to allow for women to be ordained to the diaconate and, after a legal challenge, the first women were made deacons in this diocese in 1987.

Priesthood was another matter entirely, in part because of a diversity of views about the nature of priesthood: those who believed that women ought not lead or teach men tended also to express priestly ministry as essentially about exercising authority and teaching, thus excluding women; others, taking a sacramental view, tended to argue that the priest represented Christ in essence, so priesthood must be essentially male. The majority view, however, seeing ordained ministry as essentially about gift, service and calling, increasingly recognised women in leadership, preaching and teaching, community building, pastoring, administering and ‘equipping the body of Christ for the work of ministry’.

Our histories tend to focus on the metropolitan dioceses, so the importance of the pioneering courage of Bishop Owen Dowling and his chancellor, Jim Monro, has often been overlooked. His advice to the bishop in 1991 was that there was a sound legal case for proceeding to ordain 11 female deacons to the priesthood without waiting for specific authorising legislation from General Synod. A date was set for 2 February 1992 which launched a series of legal challenges (one resulting in an injunction preventing the February ordinations), followed by an upsurge of public support, and special meetings of General Synod and diocesan synods, resulting in December ordinations across the country (preceded by ordinations in Perth, Western Australia having a different legal framework, in March of that year).

Those 11 pioneering women are all past (official) retirement age now (though some of us have declined to notice!), but have been followed by a steady stream of dedicated and called women. It is an extraordinary joy to see the ministry of women and men flourishing in partnership across the diocese. It’s also a joy that we’ve embedded in our culture (and indeed, our code of conduct) mutual respect, even where there are still areas of disagreement.

So where are we …?

As we take note of this anniversary (which was publicly honoured and celebrated at October’s synod, in the bishop’s Charge, and with women preaching at the synod service and leading the morning Bible studies), where are we? Throughout three episcopates since 1987, we’ve seen women flourish in every ‘department’ of ordained ministry, as rectors of parishes, as chaplains in traditional and pioneering sectors, training and selecting ordinands, and leading area deaneries and archdeaconries. At the moment four of the eight archdeacons, and three of the four clerical canons (those elected by the synod or appointed by the bishop under the Cathedral Ordinance) are women. In the past nine years alone (including those to be ordained deacon in February) 44 women have been ordained alongside 47 men. We’ve also seen the bishop appoint and license an episcopal assistant and consecrate the first woman in the Province as a diocesan.

And what do we hope for …?

In a time of huge social change, and with traditional models of ministry increasingly challenged by reduced resources, pioneering — involving risk-taking, personal sacrifice and acceptance that some endeavours might fail — needs to remain front and centre. We must go on talking about differences of opinion and outlook as we discern together God’s future for us, and model to a divided Australian community and church what respectful disagreement looks like, including those gospel characteristics of humility and honouring others above ourselves. It’s especially important when the stakes are high. The debate in the 80s and 90s was too often very personal and destructive, but there were moments of remarkable grace and kindness among people with different views. I recalled this morning that immediately after we were not ordained in February 1992 I was at a national conference of examining chaplains. Many of my colleagues were loud in their outrage at what had happened. But it was the bishop of Armidale, Peter Chiswell — not in favour of women being ordained — who intuited the spiritual and emotional shock of the injunction being granted when we were already on retreat in preparation for ordination, asked me how I was, and provided me with warm pastoral care. My deep hope is that this is what we will go on modelling in this diocese.

What made change possible in 1992 — in short, courage, perseverance, obedience, and faithfulness to the call to proclaim the gospel — is what enables the vision; and individuals and communities will go on being transformed by the love of Jesus.

by Reverend Canon Gill Varcoe