Woman Skuse, Jean

Ecumenical religious leader

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Jean Skuse was born in 1932. Her father was a minister in the Methodist Church in New South Wales. She trained in accountancy but from the 1960s began to build a career in the church, initially working for Methodist institutions where she became international secretary of the World Conference of Methodist Women and a member of the executive of the World Methodist Council. In 1971 she moved into the ecumenical arena. From her initial appointment as executive secretary of the NSW Council of Churches she advanced to become General Secretary of the Australian Council of Churches (ACC) from 1976 to 1988, the first woman to occupy that position, Vice-Moderator of the Central Committee on the World Council of Churches (WCC) from 1975 to 1983 and National Co-ordinator of the World Council of Churches Assembly.

These positions gave her a high public profile. Described as combining 'conviction with tact' and possessing 'a cheerful manner which endears her to her colleagues' (Sydney Morning Herald, 17 April 1975) she appeared frequently in the press as a spokesperson on issues such as racism, Indigenous rights, anti-war campaigns and gun reform. Defending herself against suggestions that such campaigns were beyond the scope of the Council she argued that 'if the churches were to be concerned about the powerless, and minority groups, then they had to be involved in political issues' (Age, 7 May 1976). 'If the poor of the world are to be liberated true development must start with the 20 per cent of the world' s population who control 80 per cent of the world's resources' (Sydney Morning Herald, 9 June 1975).

In 1974, in anticipation of International Women's Year, Skuse was given a grant to establish a Status of Women Commission for the ACC. Her aim was to 'shake up' women's acceptance of their place in the church so as to make it 'a live issue' to which the churches had no choice but to respond (Sydney Morning Herald, 22 December 1975). Arguing that the Bible had been used by churches 'to reinforce the second-class status of women', she criticised modern translators for uncritically reproducing the sexism of their times (Sydney Morning Herald, 2 April 1981). When such opinions encountered hostility amongst established church leaders Skuse was quoted as responding that 'it was necessary to use strong language to counter those who saw women merely as a "walking womb"' (Sydney Morning Herald, 11 March 1975). She played a similarly provocative role within the WCC warning member churches that they risked an 'exodus of women' unless 'issues of equality' were addressed (Windsor Star, 5 August 1983).

Skuse's administrative skills also brought her several appointments in the secular sphere, including membership of the NSW's Premier's Women's Advisory Council (1981-4), the National Advisory Committee of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (1983-5) and the NSW Home Care Advisory Board (1991-2). For her community service Skuse was awarded and MBE in 1979 and an Order of Australia in 1992.

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Jean Skuse interviewed by Hazel de Berg in the Hazel de Berg collection, 30 November 1977, ORAL TRC 1/1041; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources

Newspaper Articles

Online Resources