Woman Tabart, Jill
- Lay leader and Medical practitioner
Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne
The daughter of a Methodist lay preacher, Jill Tabart was born in Melbourne in 1941. Enjoying what she describes as 'a childhood full of ideas and creativity', Tabart knew from a very early age that she wanted to be a healer, and set her sights on becoming a doctor (Interview). She also recognised, through her strong commitment to church activities, that faith had the power to heal as well. From an early age the link between her professional and spiritual life has been inextricable; it's her view that she would not have been nearly as effective as either a doctor or a church leader if this hadn't been so. 'A whole person's capacity should be considered', she thinks, when evaluating people for leadership roles in the church. 'Not only their life in the church … We need a Theology of Work' (Interview).
In 1991, Jill Tabart made history when she was the first woman to be elected President of the Uniting Church in Australia, a position she took up in 1994 and held until 1997. It came at a time of widespread feminist resurgence in Australian church life and was the result of a long and diverse engagement with Uniting Church activities and key figures from other denominations. As a school girl (Methodist Ladies College, Kew), medical student (University of Melbourne 1958-1964), a general practitioner, health administrator, wife and mother of four children, she remained connected to the church with varying degrees of activity, depending on the pressures of family life and work. Her formal role in church administrative matters increased after her family (she married in 1966 and had four babies in five years) moved to Tasmania in 1969 for her husband, Ken, to pursue work opportunities as a civil engineer. After a short stay in Hobart, the family relocated to Launceston where they stayed for thirty-four years.
'Living in Launceston', says Tabart, 'was like living in a big country town' and, as the local doctor who was also active in the local church, she became well known in the community (Interview). In the 1970s and early 1980s she served in various roles in the Tamar-Esk Presbytery. Prior to the formation of the Uniting Church in 1977, her administrative involvement was at a very local level. The prospect of union attracted her to widen her involvement; she admired the vision of the Document of Union that governed the establishment of the Uniting Church, especially the principles of equity, respect and recognition of individual rights and responsibilities that underpinned it. It was a pleasure to be involved in the administrative processes guiding the coming together of the constituent denominations. In 1982 she was elected as the lay representative of the Presbytery to the Third Assembly in 1982, her first involvement in the national life of the church. That same year, she was invited to visit China as a member of an Australian Council of Churches (ACC) delegation, an eye-opening experience that taught her much about the value of consensus and cooperation between churches; what churches united could achieve. She began to think that leadership through bodies such as the ACC could achieve more as a collective than leadership within a particular church might. 'Churches working together can stand more strongly' (Interview).
In 1983 Tabart became Moderator of the Synod of Tasmania (1983-84). She gained wide experience in the Uniting Church and the national and international ecumenical movement; by the time she was elected President-Elect of the Uniting Church in 1991 she had already worked closely with many of the then-current leaders of other denominations. She suspects that her performance in a variety of contexts on the national stage is what gave her a profile and made her electable. For anyone interested, her track record was there for all to see.
Tabart's election to the role of President came during a period of significant achievement for Christian women in Australia and the World Council of Churches' Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women (1988-1998) provided many opportunities for reflection on this achievement., Even though she was the first woman president, Tabart believes that it was her status as a lay-person, even though there had been one before (Sir Ronald Wilson) that was more 'eyebrow raising' (Interview). She nevertheless understood the important symbolism attached to her role as the first woman president, especially in ecumenical settings. At the welcoming ceremony for the Pope's visit to Australia in 1995, the Sisters of Mercy expressed their heartfelt gratitude to her for her attendance as a woman head of church. It reminded her of the importance of role models of positional leadership to women who were searching for acceptance as leaders in their own churches and congregations.
The lag between being elected and filling the role of President allowed Tabart time to consider what she brought to the leadership role. Her Presidency coincided the Uniting Church's decision to adopt consensus decision making as official policy. Given that Tabart's philosophy as a church woman and as a doctor focused on the importance of consensus as a fundamental part of healing, the church could not have found a more suitable leader. Indeed, her skills in facilitating change through consensus became world renowned. She has worked with the World Council of Churches, the World Alliance of Churches and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches to devise meeting procedures, write manuals and provide mentoring and guidance as they adopt consensus decision making practices.
Another hallmark of Tabart's tenure as leader was her firm commitment to the Reconciliation Movement in Australia., Counting a Tasmanian indigenous woman elder, Aunty Ida West, amongst her personal mentors, Tabart learnt a lot about the potential for healing that came from consensus and reconciliation and applied this learning to leading the Uniting Church to coming to terms with its historical relationships with Indigenous Australians. The Church's apology to the Aboriginal people of Australia 'for all those wrongs done knowingly or unknowingly to … [Aboriginal} people by the church' was offered in 1994 in a Covenanting Statement signed with the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, and included reparations.(Pittman) It was a significant moment in the history of the Uniting Church, and came fourteen years before the Australian Government offered an apology in 2008.
Leadership has made it possible for Tabart to have experiences 'beyond her widest dreams' (Interview). She has spoken at an interchurch women's peace forum in Bougainville, and influenced the agenda at the World Council of Reformed churches meeting in Ghana. She has been a foreign observer of free elections in the Philippines and has had opportunities to advance the cause of reconciliation in Australia by virtue of the public profile her position permits. Any number of professional challenges have arisen as she worked to find a path where the people she leads feel they have a say in the final destination. But the biggest challenge she faced, one that all women who take on leadership roles will recognise, was 'juggling her time', combining work, family and her church responsibilities (Interview). She believes that she could not have taken on the presidency role if she had a young family. She certainly could not have done it without her supportive husband, who she says has borne the bulk of the personal impact that has come with her career in the church. 'It has asked a lot of him', she says, 'but he has always been supportive' (Interview).
Jill Tabart has had a remarkable career in the Uniting Church and was a role model to Christian women seeking leadership roles, at a time when feminist church women were making great gains. She regards her opportunities to lead in the Uniting Church as 'a special privilege' especially because she believes her own calling 'was never to ordination but to medicine' (Interview). But she was obviously called to be a leader in the church and she is proud to have had the chance. 'If it has benefited others', she says, 'then I am glad' (Interview).
National Library of Australia Oral History Collection
- Tabart, Jill, Coming to consensus: a case study for the churches, WCC Publications, Geneva, Switzerland, 2003. Details
- Pittman, Julia, 'Feminist Public Theology in the Uniting Church in Australia', The International Journal of Public Theology, vol. 5, 2011, pp. 143-164. Details