Woman Darling, Barbara

Bishop and Teacher

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

When Barbara Darling was appointed Melbourne's first female bishop in April 2008 (Australia's second by eight days to Barbara Goldsworthy in Perth) feminist and Anglican lay-person, Muriel Porter, opened a bottle of champagne and 'wept tears of joy' (Zwartz). Thirty-two years after Darling preached an ANZAC Day sermon that some men refused to attend, Porter could rejoice in the fact that that there was no longer an office of the Anglican church closed to women. She praised the appointment of the committed, hard-working, generous-spirited and loving Barbara Darling to the role. 'She's borne the heat and burden of the day from the beginning of the struggle for women's ministry', said Porter. 'She's a truly fitting appointment' (Zwartz).

Born in 1947 and raised in Sydney, New South Wales, Darling's family life centred around the church, although it was of more importance to her than her parents. Whilst it would be wrong to say that Darling always harboured ambitions for high office within the church, she nevertheless recognised that she was always interested in taking on any leadership roles that came her way. Whether they were as a Sunday school teacher, a group leader in the Girl Guides, an administrator in the Interschool Christian Fellowship or a leader at Scripture Union and Pioneer Camps, she recognised these roles as challenges that helped her to see just how much a girl in the 1950s and 60s could achieve. They were also important experiences that informed and guided her bible studies, helping her to communicate the lessons to others. As a leading woman in the Anglican Church, she never set out to trail blaze, but she can see how the various bits of her childhood and adolescent experience helped her to do so once she found herself holding the torch. Experience was a teacher and communicating experience was a form of leadership. Reflecting upon this learning curve, she says that one of the most important experiences she had as a girl came from winning the opportunity to travel overseas through the Girl Guides. Travelling with young women from different cultural backgrounds and then, on her return, having to report back to an audience of 2000 people at Sydney Town Hall, was one of her most formative experiences.

Educated through the New South Wales public system, she graduated from Sydney Girls High School and attended Sydney University as a bonded student, studying arts and knowing she would be a teacher once she completed her degree. Darling had always wanted to be a teacher; she loved 'being able to see something click' in the youngsters she had taught in Bible classes and looked forward to that experience in a school context (Interview). She was not a radical student at University and was generally uninspired by the formal education she received there. Nevertheless, university provided her with opportunities for thinking critically about her faith. Membership of the Evangelical Union exposed her to new encounters with theology as she read the work of Karl Barthes, Bruno Bauer and Louis Berkhof for the first time. Excited and inspired, she came to the conclusion that she might need to do some more study, eventually. But first, she set off to teach.

Her first posting was as a teacher librarian at Wauchope in the mid North Coast region of New South Wales where she stayed for three years, before returning to teach in Sydney at Hornsby Girls High School. At this point, the need to study theology became irresistible. She made enquiries about pursuing part time studies at Moore College in Sydney and began studying by correspondence. Her preference would have been to study full time, but that wasn't financially viable. She eventually decided to take leave of absence from teaching and look beyond Sydney for options. She was accepted into Ridley College in Melbourne and made the move in 1975.

Why Ridley? - Because Leon Morris was the college principal. His status as a scholar, and his role in the transformation of Ridley College from an institution on the brink of collapse to one of international repute impressed her. It had an international cohort, was coed and offered great support to both students and staff. But, ultimately, it was the opportunity of being exposed to Morris' intellect that persuaded her to switch careers, something she really hadn't been sure she should do when she first arrived in Melbourne. When she completed her study and was then offered a series of short term teaching contracts at the college, she decided to make her relocation more permanent. She left the NSW Department of Education and stayed at Ridley, where she eventually became the first woman at the college to be awarded a tenured position. Darling then combined work with postgraduate study in the Department of History at the University of Melbourne.

Working with Morris helped her to reconfigure her sense of the place of women in the church. His theological understanding of women in leadership positions helped her to see that women can be involved in ministry. He had confidence in her ability to preach and encouraged her to do so. He had 'no doubt in her capacity to be the equal of men in that regard' (Interview). She thrived in this supportive environment, and as the political mood within the Anglican Church began to evolve throughout the early 1980s, she set up her career to take full advantage of the changes. She was one of the first trained women workers, a position the Melbourne diocese set up to prepare for women's ordination, and then one of the first of these workers to become a deacon when the general synod permitted this in 1986. Six years later, in 1992, she became one of the first women to be ordained and then in 2008 continued her trailblazing when she was appointed Bishop. The role she took upon this appointment was a pioneering one, too. Rather than run geographical regions, she was responsible for diocesan services, looking after education and chaplaincy, hospital chaplaincy, youth and children's ministries, and the multicultural ministry.

The road from willing worker to bishop was rocky, because church women in traditionally male leadership roles were not always well received. People reacted to her preaching before she even opened her mouth. There was a bomb threat at the ceremony at which the first women were appointed deacons in 1986. Taking charge of her first parish as a deacon in Ascot Vale was a bitter sweet experience because she was still not permitted to lead everything and had to 'rent a priest on Sunday' to administer communion (Interview). There was a good deal of conservative resistance to her ministry at a parish level when she was ordained a priest, but she took heart from the support she did receive and found the strategy of leading her Sandringham congregation by example - 'teaching people that women have something new to add to ministry' - to be the most effective (Interview). Facets of her own style and personality, such as patience, a consultative approach and a preference for imparting leadership through education equipped her to take on the tasks, although she admits to having to 'sublimate her own anger' at times during the campaign for the ordination of women as frustration about the obstacles thrown in the way boiled over (Interview).

Darling recognises that her promotion into leadership roles would never have been possible, no matter how well qualified she was, without the support of influential male figures in the church (Archbishop David Penman, Bishop John Wilson, Charles Sherlock), supportive laity and colleagues (the Ridley Women's Group) and, of course, the Movement for the Ordination of Women, in particular Muriel Porter and Patricia Brennan. 'The importance of their activism on behalf of women who wanted to be ordained was crucial' she says. 'They were leaders in the church; they just weren't called to be ordained' (Interview). Without this strong support, the continuing project of opening up leadership roles for women in the church can never advance. Once she moved into positions where she had influence, she did what she could, using incumbency committees to bring in a 'critical mass of women who can then work at bringing about cultural change' (Interview).

Darling believes that change is happening as people see the benefits of twenty years of women's ministry. For instance, she has no doubt that the presence of women has made it easier for individuals to reveal their stories of sexual abuse by members of the clergy. Many victims of abuse did not feel confident in coming forward with their complaints to men. They were more inclined to believe that women priests could be trusted to take their complaints seriously. Once their credibility in this area of chaplaincy was established, women's right to 'work with God on behalf of the Christian Church' was questioned less (Interview). Acceptance is progressing, although she does warn that advances need to be guarded carefully. She is saddened by the theological conservatism of some of the younger curates, as they come under the influence of theological positions favoured in the United States, and concerned about the push back from many new university graduates, particularly those from the Australian Fellowship of Evangelical Students. It frustrates her that 'problems I thought were solved are back on the agenda' (Interview).

Despite the challenges that taking a leading role in the Anglican Church constantly throws up to women, the feeling that one must be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week being a significant one, and the constant fight not to lose the hard won gains, Bishop Barbara Darling is happy in her position. The satisfaction she gets from teaching, preaching and 'helping people to see God and transform their lives' makes it worth it (Interview).

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Barbara Darling interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project, 14 June 2011, ORAL TRC 6290/9; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources

Book Sections

  • Darling, Barbara, 'Some leading women in the history of the Anglican Church in Australia', in Australian and New Zealand Religious History 1788-1988: A Collection of Papers and Addresses from the 11th Joint Conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Theological Schools and Society for Theological Studies, Australian National University (ANU), 1988, pp. 147-156. Details

Online Resources

See also