Women’s ordination and the Anglican Church of Australia

As the Anglican Diocese of Perth welcomes its first female archbishop, Peter Sherlock reflects on the history of women’s ordination in the Anglican Church of Australia.

On Saturday February 10, 2018, the Anglican Diocese of Perth will welcome Bishop Kay Goldsworthy AO as its eighth Archbishop, the first woman in Australian history to hold this title.

The Most Reverend Kay Goldsworthy. Image via the University of Divinity, courtesy of the Gippsland Times.

The Most Reverend Kay Goldsworthy, as she will now be known, has had over thirty years’ experience in being the “first” woman to do something new. Each of her ordinations – as deacon (1986), priest (1992), and bishop (2008) – marked the first occasions upon which women had been admitted to these respective offices in the Anglican Church of Australia. Most of her previous roles in Melbourne, Perth and Gippsland have involved being the first woman, whether as vicar, school chaplain, archdeacon or bishop, and the attendant pressures of high expectations (and suspicions), as well as public fascination.

Despite decades of controversy over the ordination of women in the Christian church, media interest in this latest milestone remains high. Goldsworthy has been predictably described as “smashing through the stained-glass ceiling”. Given continuing debate over gender roles, including equal pay, sexual harassment, and assault, together with the church’s failure to protect children and vulnerable people from sexual abuse, such interest is perhaps unsurprising.

Yet the history of reporting on “female firsts” in the Australian church is long and complex. In 2001, my article “Australian Women Priests? Anglicans, Feminists and the Newspapers” was published in Lilith: A Feminist History Journal. My aim was to demonstrate the impact of media reports on Australia’s Anglican debates about the ordination of women in the 1970s.

Mary kneeling at the annunciation, at St Alban’s Anglican Church, Five Dock, New South Wales, Australia. Photograph by Tony Hudson. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Two issues stood out, and seem to remain contemporary concerns. First, unlike most Anglican participants in those early debates – almost all of whom were male – newspaper reporters simply assumed that there must be Anglican women who wanted to be priests. So they went to theological colleges, such as Melbourne’s Ridley College, where they found women studying theology and asked them about their calling to ordination. For women (like my mother), such questions were often confronting, and forced the issue to the forefront. Why were they studying theology and ministry, if not to become a priest, even if ordination was still impossible?

Second, the newspapers were sometimes more astute at seeing the vast implications of the prospect of ordaining women. If a vicar or bishop could be a woman, holy in the sight of God and the church, then maybe there was a more surprising side to feminism – than a secular struggle for equality with men, or sexual liberation alone. And if the church continued to deny ordination to its own committed members, what might that say about Christian attitudes to the Bible, tradition, ministry, and the contemporary world?

Then, as now, image was important; it challenged assumptions about both women and the church. Would female clergy be “ministering angels” in time-honoured fashion, or “sexual temptresses” distracting male worshippers from their prayers? As a seemingly surprised Melbourne journalist wrote in a 1976 Herald report about a group of female theological students: “These were no straitlaced, narrow, religious zealots, but five attractive, calm-eyed girls, very much a part of the outside world, with a refreshing certainty about their faith, and a capacity to laugh out loud.”

While the modern obsession with images can confine and restrict women, in the church’s case the fascination also made it possible for people to start imagining that a woman could be a priest or even an archbishop. As Archbishop Goldworthy knows too well, images of a woman being ordained, wearing priestly vestments or episcopal robes, and exercising sacred authority are powerful. Images – along with sounds, such as a woman preaching or singing divine service – transformed the half-thought possibility into reality, making the theoretical into the theological.

Yet there was an even deeper history to these debates, extending fifty years or more before the 1970s. It was only in the early years of the twentieth century that lay women were even permitted to vote in Anglican church elections – for bodies such as parish vestries or diocesan synods – and allowed to stand for membership. As I have argued elsewhere, these early-twentieth-century ecclesiastical debates paralleled contemporary political controversies about woman suffrage.

But in an age when Anglican synods and councils were deemed to have a social importance they have long since lost, churchmen’s conversations were reported in depth in secular newspapers. Their words reveal that, even as the church struggled with the idea that a woman could vote, take up the collection, or join a committee alongside men, its members began to contemplate the unthinkable – that one day a woman might be ordained.

Large group of women outside St. James Anglican Church, Toowoomba, 1928. Image via John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.

Thus it was that in 1922 the Rev. T. S. Brewer told the Western Australian Anglican Provincial Synod that it should not proceed to allow female synod representatives, for he “foresaw the day when the State would have a lady Premier and a lady Archbishop”. The then Archbishop of Perth interrupted the reverend gentlemen to suggest that when that day arrived, “You will be dead.” Brewer narrowly lost the debate, 21 votes to 17, and the way was opened for the Perth Diocese in 1925 to elect Edith Cowan MLA to the Provincial Synod, perhaps confirming Brewer’s fears of an ecclesio-political alliance of enfranchised women.

In February 2018, what was an unthinkable event a century earlier, and what was a nascent sign of hope and longed-for change forty years ago, has come to pass. Alongside the Anglican church’s intense theological debates and cultural transformation, the role of the press in holding it to account and helping it to imagine a different future should not be underestimated.


For the full article, see: Peter Sherlock, “Australian Women Priests? Anglicans, Feminists and the Newspapers,” Lilith: A Feminist History Journal 10 (2001): 137-152.


Peter Sherlock is the Vice Chancellor of the University of Divinity. His research interests include cultural and religious history in early modern Europe and twentieth-century Australia.

Follow Peter on Twitter @TheProseClerk.


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