Theme Christian Church Workers
Written by Anne O’Brien, University of New South Wales
Women church workers exercised leadership formally and informally, voluntarily and professionally, at home and in the world. They did so in a spiritual and intellectual context that was marked off somewhat from that of other women. Drawing on scriptural and traditional injunctions that women be 'silent', the church has long excluded women from the highest levels of its ministry and governance, elevating instead their responsibilities in the home. The anomalies flowing from this were heightened by the gendered duality at the heart of leadership in the church. While the pastoral work of the church was gendered feminine, as suggested by the parables of the 'Good Shepherd' and the 'Good Samaritan', imagery associated with 'Christ the King' coded institutional leadership masculine. In 20th century Australia, where national identity was associated with the rural frontier, the feminine coding of pastoral leadership heightened churchmen's sensitivity to accusations of effeminacy. This gave rise to a muscular clerical style-masculinism at worst-as churchmen tried to prevent the seepage of men from a church already attracting women in greater numbers.
Despite deep resistance to women's formal leadership, the boundaries of their exclusion were shifting and ambiguous, for the injunction that women be 'silent' existed in tension with the possibility that a woman was hearing the call of God. Men's acceptance of women's 'call' was influenced by pragmatic requirements, but also by women's initiative. As prophets and visionaries, women had long taken opportunities for leadership, with or without clerical authority. The 20th century was the century of women's professionalisation. Protestant women were employed as missionaries, deaconesses and sisters and, in the inter-war years, a steady trickle of women were ordained to equal ministry with men, most in Congregational churches. It was also the century of the voluntary society. In addition to parish societies, centralised denominational organisations were founded in the later 19th century and women were encouraged to combine marriage and motherhood with voluntary work for the church, particularly fund-raising. Women mostly worked independently of male authority in these organisations but, at moments of conflict, they were susceptible to intervention in ways most other groups were not, and they were not always compliant. Inter-denominational organisations such as the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) allowed women more opportunity to exercise untrammelled leadership.
The biggest shift in the history of women church workers' leadership took place in the later 20th century, in a context of rapid secularisation and renewed feminist agitation. An ecumenical feminist theology expounded more democratic understandings of leadership, and women began to work collectively and openly for equal leadership within the structures of the church. New understandings of the qualities that women leaders required flowed into older organisations as well, and, in some cases, affected interpretations of their own history.
The death of Serena Thorne Lake in 1902, the year of Australian women's enfranchisement, marked a shift in the nature of church women's leadership. Celebrated as the most effective female evangelist in later 19th century Australia, she had emigrated to Queensland in 1865 to establish Bible Christianity, the Methodist connexion founded by her grandfather William O'Bryan in 1815. She knew the female itinerants who had taken Bible Christianity to remote parts of England in the 1820s, and she witnessed their gradual marginalisation over the mid-years of the century, angry that the all-male conference of 1869 cheered when the last one resigned. In the 1860s, Thorne was one of a new generation of women evangelists, the most famous of whom, Catherine Booth, co-founded the Salvation Army. Unlike the female itinerants, female evangelists were paid to preach for short periods to save souls and raise money for local congregations; and they were employed on terms generally less equal and less responsible than the itinerants. But they could exercise considerable influence. When Thorne settled in South Australia in 1870, she was an immediate success as a preacher, filling the Adelaide Town Hall to its capacity of 1500 for three weeks, with hundreds unable to gain admission. The colonies offered her opportunities to lead through her skills as an orator, but, unlike the the women of earlier generations who claimed the call of God, Thorne's call was construed as exceptional, not one that sanctioned women's preaching generally. Commended by the Register for her 'chaste eloquence', she and her generation felt the impacts of the cult of respectability (Register, 21 November 1871).
The first years of Australian women's enfranchisement saw another shift in the contours of women's work for the church. Preachers such as Serena Thorne were eclipsed in the 20th century by women employed in more formalised roles within church structures as deaconesses, Sisters of the People and missionaries. They usually worked with women and children on terms less equal, less demanding and less independent than either evangelists such as Thorne or the earlier generation of female itinerants. Underpinning this departure was the maternalist ideology developed across the 19th century Anglophone world, which held that women were best suited to minister to women and that women's influence in the world was necessary for social progress. These new openings were prompted by the need for more workers in a context where the urban working classes were seen as increasingly indifferent to religion. Though never in positions of official governance, women were instrumental in these departures, particularly women in companionate marriages to prominent clergy. In Melbourne, Mary Moorhouse, wife of Bishop James Moorhouse, supported the admission of Marion McFarlane as a deaconess in 1884. In Sydney, Martha Archdall and her husband, Mervyn, agitated in the Anglican Synod for a deaconess institution from 1885. The figure of the female evangelist exerted symbolic pressure. The Church of England Messenger warned in 1884 that these were days of 'evangelists and Hallelujah lasses' and that if women were not employed 'under authority', they would do it anyway 'without authority' (Argus, 7 March 1884). Indeed, W.G. Taylor, superintendent of Sydney's Central Methodist Mission, was prompted to establish the Sisters of the People in 1891 when Laura Francis, a young woman from Grafton, threatened to join the Salvation Army if she could not get work with the Methodist Church.
The discourse surrounding the foundation of these organisations betrays the ambivalence underpinning women's leadership in the church. Mervyn Archdall believed that women should exert influence in the world but not if they showed 'any unwomanly or unreasonable ambition' (Deaconess, 6 April 1895). Further, the need to distance deaconesses from 'Roman' communities prompted Archdall to reassure his supporters that they would work in parishes 'in subordination to the pastor of the parish' (Archdall, 1922, 111) Over the course of the 20th century, most Anglican deaconesses preferred to work in organisations- for missionary societies, young people's societies or in women's or children's homes- rather than for a clergyman in a parish. The Bush Church Aid Society, established in Sydney in 1920, offered women greater opportunities and more independence than most other workplaces, enabling deaconesses to pioneer ministry in rural areas, driving themselves in the mission van, providing nursing care and taking services.
The ambiguities underlying women's leadership were complicated by the disjunction between the qualities expected of a woman in relationship with those to whom she ministered, and the qualities expected of her within the organisation. Church literature publicising women's work suggests that the ideal worker was expected to bring robust practicality, determination and courage- 'grace, grit and gumption' was one catchphrase- to her work with poor women and children, people in the 'outback' and Indigenous peoples (Kirkby, 1930, 19). Within the structures of the institution, however, she was expected be submissive. The clergyman who commended an aspiring deaconess for her real ability 'to undertake the role of second fiddle for Christ's sake' encapsulated the contradiction (Methodist Church, Deaconesses). Indeed, in literature trying to rally men and appeal to their desire for heroic leadership, women were openly depicted as lesser; a publication of the Church of England Men's Society complained in 1913 that the priest had 'only the women to help' him 'while needing the help of the strong' (Australian Men's Magazine, December 1913, 7). 'God's work' for men, then, was associated with strength and dynamism but, for women, with humility. This disparity translated into poor wages and conditions and explains at least to some extent (without excusing) the harsh treatment some deaconesses and sisters meted out to children for whom they were responsible in institutions.
These contradictions were reflected in the confusion over the formal status of deaconesses and sisters in the inter-war church. In 1929, the Methodist Church agreed in principle to women's equal ministry with men but felt prevented by practical difficulties from ordaining women. In 1935, it introduced an order of deaconesses instead. In the Anglican Church, the precise status of the deaconess had never been clearly defined since the order was revived in the 19th century, and, between 1920 and 1930, the Lambeth Conference retracted its interpretation. In 1920, the deaconess was considered as belonging to the same diaconate as men but the 1930 Lambeth conference rejected this. By 1940, Anglican deaconesses in Australia, conscious of what one described as their 'lowly and ambiguous position', formed the Deaconess Fellowship to provide mutual support and help (All Australian Deaconess Conference Report). For seven years, Sydney deaconesses were not allowed to join this organisation because Archbishop Mowll was concerned they might make resolutions without his permission. During those years, Deaconess Mary Fulton's correspondence with the archbishop demonstrated a style of leadership that was cool and respectful, independent and persistent.
New directions were taken in the theologically liberal, decentralised and markedly feminised Congregational Church, in which a small group of women were ordained from the late 1920s to the 1960s, though this was not the first time a woman led a congregation in Australia (Martha Turner was pastor of Melbourne's Unitarian Church 1873-1883). The Congregational women ministers were generally esteemed within the parishes that appointed them, but they often had difficulty securing second placements and their rates of pay were lower and their working conditions poorer than male clergy. Winifred Kiek, the first Congregational woman ordained in 1927, felt the ambiguity of her position. Though she believed in the equal ministry of women, she did not want her ordination to be regarded as 'merely another stronghold captured for women'. In her view, it was 'much too sacred to be looked at as merely another step up' (Argus, 14 October 1927). This not only distanced her from feminism but reflected the idea that work for the church was separate from and higher than the secular, an idea often used to keep women in their place. Kiek was also wary of 'undue publicity', conscious of the vulnerability of 'the woman preacher' to caricature. Journalists in these years warned of 'neurotic female evangelists'; at Methodist conferences where women's equal ministry was discussed, delegates had to be asked to avoid 'the usual levity' and 'humour' that accompanied the subject (Canberra Community News, 18 August 1927; Argus, 23 May 1935).
Some women quietly took leadership rather than waiting to have it bestowed. When the Sydney Morning Herald claimed in 1928 that the prominent English church feminist, Maude Royden, was the first woman to speak from an Australian pulpit, a newspaper correspondent noted previous instances of this- one was a clergyman's wife who preached when her husband was sick, another was a medical missionary. It is not clear how frequently women took such initiatives but they may not have been uncommon, though, in some contexts, they elicited considerable opposition. When, in 1914, Mrs Mary Jamieson Williams preached in churches in the Tamworth district where her husband was a Presbyterian minister, the Presbyterian Messenger warned of women who did not know their place 'taking men's roles and money' ( Emilsen, 1990, 32).
Despite the belief that the father was head of the Christian household, the wife and mother was responsible for its smooth running, for the training of children and for influencing her husband for good. All was considered work for 'the church', and the responsibility of women for the home was embedded in 20th century Christian discourse. For Serena Thorne, 'the influences of home were influences that moved the destinies of the world', and they included not just 'domestic management' but 'the cultivation of sympathies'; the mother drove discord from the family and cultivated her children's intellectual powers (South Australian Register, 18 February 1871). This was a view of leadership based on influence rather than command, role modelling rather than prescription. And yet mothers were also expected to 'enforce obedience', as Gilbert White put it in an address to the Mothers' Union in 1903 (White, 1908, 7). A long line of clerics held mothers and wives responsible for social standards. In the inter-war years, when women's equal ministry was subject to discussion, churchmen reinforced the importance of women's leadership in the home. Wives were expected to provide 'calm, loving guidance and support' to men returned from war, according to the Mothers' Union's magazine in 1919. In the face of 'an entirely new order of the world' wrote the dean of Newcastle in 1927, good women were found in the home, recognisable by 'their grey hairs, their hard hands, their smiling faces, underneath which they hide so often their weary hearts' (Mothers in Australia, March 1919, December 1927). Women's experience of leadership in the home is in need of sustained research but one case study shows the importance of mothers in priming leaders of women's organisations. Sarah Hinder, who had eight children of her own and boarded fifteen students from East Maitland Boys' High School, where her husband was headmaster in the 1880s, ran her large household with 'regularity, care and exactness', according to her daughter, Eleanor (Brignell, Australian Dictionary of Biography). In the 1920s, Eleanor Hinder worked for the National YWCA of China and was organising secretary of the Pan Pacific Women's Conference in Honolulu in 1928; her sister, Marie Farquarson, was a senior office bearer with the National Council of Women (NCW) of New South Wales 1925-1943.
Belief in the importance of motherhood did not extinguish belief in the power of women's voluntary work, particularly fund-raising. Large-scale efforts such as catering for Sydney's Easter Show- which in 1920 required of the Presbyterian Women's Missionary Association 60 waitresses waiting on 40 tables seating 400 people for 9 days and 3 nights- needed organisational proficiency, financial acumen, aesthetic judgement and collaboration. Women had considerable opportunities for leadership in the centralised women's organisations formed in all the major denominations at the end of the 19th century: Protestant women formed missionary societies; Anglican women formed the Mothers' Union and the Girls' Friendly Society; Catholic women formed social, charitable and political societies. The ethos of all these was slightly different in different states.
Strong-minded leaders shaped the direction of voluntary societies. Melbourne's Catholic Women's Social Guild (CWSG) began in 1917 as an organisation committed to women's rights, including equal pay, reflecting in large part the influence of an unusually talented cohort of women graduates led by the lawyer, Anna Brennan, and its organising secretary, Maude O'Connell, a member of the Trades Hall Council. After that group moved on in the 1920s, however, its ethos became more conservative. The changing focus of the WCTU also reflects the leadership of key individuals working with like-minded friends. Its commitment to the rights of Indigenous people in the late 1930s and 1940s reflected the influence of Phyllis Duguid, who, with her husband, founded a mission at Ernabella station in South Australia that sought to respect tribal custom. South Australia's Constance Ternent Cook was also influential in this field of WCTU work. The YWCA's interest in the women in the Asia-Pacific region reflected the initiative of Constance Duncan and Eleanor Hinder in the 1920s. The reformist focus of women such as these reflected and shaped the political landscape. Given their interdependent relationship with denominational and parish organisations, their influence was wide-reaching.
Denominational societies were more vulnerable to clerical intervention than interdenominational societies such as the WCTU and the YWCA, though, for most of the time, they worked independently of clergy. In cases where there was conflict, however, women were forced into various defensive forms of leadership-resisting, evading, appealing to and living with male authority, as the following case studies show. When, in the 1890s, the Presbyterian Women's Missionary Union (PWMU) in Victoria became so successful at fund-raising that they were asked to raise funds for the whole church, the PWMU committee appealed to the church to retain control of the funds, sought representation on the church committee and, when neither of these worked, would 'forget' to send the proceeds. In the Mothers' Union, leaders emerged at parish level who ignored the ruling introduced in 1920 to exclude divorcees even if they were the 'innocent' party; others dissolved the branch or decided not to establish one. For eight months in 1919 leaders of the CWSG resisted Archbishop Mannix's insistence that they disaffiliate from the NCW in Victoria, a remarkably long time given the pressure they were under to obey.
The leadership of church voluntary organisations became more democratised and more educated as the 20th century progressed, with more input from women from lower middle-class suburbs and from university graduates. In the Anglican Church, the bishop's wife continued to lead women's organisations. Minutes of the meetings of the Mothers' Union make clear Dorothy Mowll's authority; often the meeting would conclude with a summary of her views. At the outbreak of war in 1939, she founded the Sydney Diocesan Churchwomen's Association, which organised 9000 volunteers to staff the canteens and hostels of the Church of England National Emergency Fund and raised money for it. The clergyman's wife was expected to lead women's groups at parish level but, for them, there was a fine line between leadership and overwork. Known as 'unpaid curates', they formed support groups to assist each other: in Sydney a Congregational Ministers' Wives Association was formed in 1898 and a Presbyterian Ministers' Wives Association formed in 1920; oral history and social surveys show that they remained overworked until the 'rebellion' of the 1970s.
All voluntary societies were run by committees and, since discussion was their lifeblood, good leaders were convincing speakers. Given the weight of cultural practice pitched against women's public speaking, voluntary societies provided on-the-ground training. Some organisations for young people prepared girls for public speaking, particularly the inter-denominational Christian Endeavour, which insisted that members speak at meetings; oral histories attest to the importance of this experience in later life. Informal mentoring also helped aspiring leaders. Lillian Wells, the first moderator of the New South Wales Synod of the Uniting Church in 1977, recalled Edith Warlow Davies, 'a daughter of the manse', telling her to 'never be afraid to speak out and say exactly what you mean' (Lillian Wells, interview, 7 November 1999). Leadership was exercised through raising morale, for which humour was invaluable. As a long-standing cook and counsellor at Methodist girls' camps, Alice Mofflin's signature joke was that, when 'called to higher service', she would be asked by St Peter if she had bought a cooked tongue (Stella, Australian Dictionary of Biography).
Leadership meant more than committee work for Indigenous women church workers. It meant keeping an open house for extended family and community, as Norah Wilson did for young Aboriginal service men and guests from rural areas; and it also meant fostering children in need, as Annie Rankine did at Point McLeay. It involved 'white' work too. Wilson was a founder of the Aboriginal Lutheran Fellowship and played the organ in the Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Adelaide. Rankine taught and healed the community and cleaned the church and school at Point McLeay. Rankine, who was awarded the MBE in 1970, described her style of leadership as having 'just worked along quietly' for her people (Raftery, Australian Dictionary of Biography).
By the 1960s, new styles of leadership were emerging among church workers. Their reform agenda now included the governance of the church itself and their own leadership was at issue. Clergy wives started to articulate their anger about being taken for granted in the church. June Wright, the wife of a Methodist minister, wrote in the Methodist Spectator in 1965 of 'The Christian Mystique' as 'an insidious slavery masked by the … platitude that women are mysteriously different' (Feith, 1990, 28). A new generation of Christian feminists emerged, formed by the changing religious landscape as well as the international women's liberation movement. Many were children during the religious revival of the 1950s and early 1960s, when religious practice and community nourished their formative years. As young adults in the later 1960s and 1970s, they experienced the liberation of new theology and social justice movements. Different problems faced Indigenous women as they asserted their rights to leadership in the church from the late 1960s- problems of ill-health and overwork. Nancy Dick was ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church in North Queensland and Lyapidiny was ordained a priest in the Uniting Church but both met untimely deaths. Connie Nungulla McDonald, who worked for the Church Army in the 1960s and 1970s, wrote in her autobiography of being subjected to racism in the church but also of becoming overworked and overwrought as people sought her help at night as well as during the day.
A number of Christian feminist groups emerged between the late 1960s and the early 1990s. They were counter movements rather than primarily fellowship or support groups. They had overt political agendas and they saw the struggle for equality in the church as part of a wider struggle against the oppression of women. The women who formed Christian Women Concerned in Epping, New South Wales, in 1968-including Marie Tulip, Dorothy McRae-McMahon and Jean Skuse-were well placed to bring together women of different generations and, in a context where women's liberation was seen as threatening to families, to make feminism more widely acceptable. Many were graduates and mothers. In 1974, they formed the Commission on the Status of Women of the Australian Council of Churches, which became a focal point for the feminist energy and activism of the 1970s and 1980s. At its first conference in Coogee in 1974, middle-aged women spoke of having the sense of 'breaking free' (Magdalene, 5, 1974, 3).
Women's leadership in the church was on the agenda. In these changed times, the 'practical difficulties' that had barred women's ordination in the Methodist Church in the 1930s were no longer considered insurmountable and the first Methodist woman was ordained in 1967. Similarly, the Presbyterian Church accepted that there were no theological barriers to women's ordination in a Reformed Church and the first Presbyterian woman was ordained in 1974. However, despite strong support for women's ordination in the Anglican Church, the battle for ordination was long and bitter. It produced new leaders with a new style who were willing to use the media to support their case. Their most visible leader was Patricia Brennan, who performed very well in the media and drew much public support for the ordination of women. Like the earlier generations, she was an able public speaker: 'talking to me was an act of freedom', she commented later, but it was talking in a more open way and not all women were comfortable with it. For some, even the name 'Movement for the Ordination of Women' was too direct. Unlike earlier generations of women church leaders, Brennan was not reluctant to provide leadership that involved creating a public persona, but this came at a cost. She recalled a 'terrible' moment when a male supporter of ordination called out before Synod: 'Get off television, Patricia Brennan! Every time you speak we lose more votes' (Compass, 'Vale Patricia Brennan', 22 May 2011).
Christian feminists sought not just women's ordination but more democratic governance in the church as a whole. They were strongly influenced by the work of international feminist theologians, particularly Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza. Her idea of an 'Ekklesia of Women'- a democratic decision-making body- encapsulated the desire to replace patriarchal power with the creative tension between leadership and community. Her ideas, and those of many other feminist theologians including non-Christians, reached a committed readership through the feminist journal Women-Church founded by Erin White in 1987, edited through the 1990s and beyond by Elaine Lindsay and Camille Paul, and employing the skills and energy of a loose collective of women. Women-church published articles on Indigenous, Jewish, Islamic and Hindu traditions and alternative spiritualities. Feminist theology recognised 'multiply oppressed women', particularly women of colour, but some Indigenous Christian women had an uneasy relationship with feminism, seeing its totalising tendencies and its dominance by the white middle class as not helpful to them.
Older women's groups reflected the changing times in a variety of ways. In 2012, the national president of the Mothers' Union, the Reverend Libbie Crossman, is an ordained priest. The YWCA describes itself as a 'women-led organisation' with 'a history and foundation in the Christian faith … sustained by the richness of many beliefs and values' and open to people of all faiths. Women church workers are conscious of the need to mentor the young, an urgent task given the low levels of church attendance among young people, and they are internationalist in outlook. Formalised training in leadership, for example, is provided by the ecumenical body, Australian Church Women, through the Winifred Kiek Scholarship, for Christian women in 'Multicultural Australia, Pacific Island Nations and countries of the Asian Church Women's Conference'. Indigenous and Torres Islander women have taken leadership roles in church organisations; four of eleven commissioners of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ecumenical Commission (NATSIEC) in 2010 were women.
Not all women church leaders in the late 20th century identified as feminists. Eva Burrows, general and world leader of the Salvation Army 1986-1993, was 'never in the feminist movement' though she thought that feminism 'helped a great deal in Western culture'. But her reflections on her own leadership are telling of the deep shifts in women's sense of self that 20th century feminism advanced. In an extended interview in 1998, she said that knowing her ability to lead came from 'my parents, from God and from my own hard work' made her neither proud nor bashful but 'uncompromising about the fact that I have been given this ability to lead'- a position quite different from Winfred Kiek's avoidance of 'undue publicity'. The website of the South Australian Branch of the Catholic Women's League suggests that underlying shifts in the preferred qualities of women church leaders are quite widespread. Its short biography of the branch's founder, Abigail McMahon Glynn, notes that when she died in 1930 she was praised for her 'tactful and gentle manner' and her charity, 'no one even heard her say an unkind word about anyone'. The present leaders of the CWL declare, however, that 'looking back, it is her energy, her generosity and her courage that inspire us'.
Additional sources: Deaconnesses, Applications for training, Uniting Church (New South Wales Synod) Church Records and Historical Society, Archives and Research Centre.
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