Theme Christian Church Ministry

Written by Muriel Porter, Independent Scholar

Worldwide, religion was one area in which the equality of women was highly contested in the 20th century. It remains so in the 21st century. This is true for the world's largest religion, Christianity, despite considerable progress in some churches belonging to the Anglican and Free Church streams. In the other major world religion, Islam, women do not have access to leadership positions, nor was the matter opened formally during the 20th century.

The two major Christian churches- the Catholic Church and the Orthodox- still do not allow women access to the ordained ministry, where religious leadership is focused. (In the religious lexicon, the word 'ministry' has wider connotations than ordained ministry, but the term is used here to refer to ordained ministry only because, where women are banned from ordination, they have no access to formal church leadership.) In May 1994, the Catholic Church forbade even discussion about the ordination of women when Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic letter on the subject. 'Ordinatio Sacerdotalis'. In that document, the Catholic Church's position was summarised: '[The Church] holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons. These reasons include: the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God's plan for his Church' (John Paul II, 'Ordinatio Sacerdotalis').

Opponents of women clergy in other churches would, in the main, agree with this summary, although there would be varying nuances and emphases. The summary makes plain that opponents claim they are not free to admit women to leadership in the church, as it would be against God's will. This is an exceedingly high bar for proponents of women clergy to scale. They have received no assistance from Australian anti-discrimination legislation in changing the situation, as religious institutions are exempt from sex discrimination laws in terms of employment, thus allowing them to continue discriminatory practices without formal external interference.

Unlike other areas of society, the changes that have occurred in some churches have had to come about solely from within, without any outside pressure other than that of public perception. Internal change requires a decision-making forum where clergy and lay people, including women, can exert influence, as in synods or assemblies such as exist in the Anglican and Protestant churches. Such forums are absent from the Catholic and Orthodox churches, which are governed solely by male bishops. In 2001, according to Australian census data, there were 2,823 women who identified as ministers of religion, compared to 11,415 men (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2006). These could not all have been women ordained in the mainstream Christian churches, given that in 2001 there were only 416 ordained Anglican women, for instance. National figures for ordained women in the Uniting Church in Australia are not readily available, but it is unlikely there would have been many more than the Anglican numbers. The census figures indicates that women held just 20 per cent of self-described leadership roles in Australian religious bodies; the percentage of those in the top echelon would have been considerably lower.

This entry canvasses the issue of women and leadership in the three major Christian denominations in Australia-the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church and the Uniting Church. According to the 2001 census, at the end of the 20th century, these three churches together accounted for 55 per cent of the Australian population, and 81 per cent of the 68 per cent who described themselves as Christian.

The Catholic Church

More than one quarter of the Australian population claimed affiliation with the Catholic Church at the end of last century, and, as in the other Christian traditions, the majority of active adherents are women (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2004). Increasingly in the later decades of the 20th century and into the new century, in the face of a continuing shortage of priests, religious women have had to provide parish leadership. A recent study showed that, in 2010, 28 Australian parishes with no resident priest were led by religious sisters (Wilkinson, 2011). In many more, religious sisters provided vital parish ministry of the kind previously provided by clergy. In all, 200 of these sisters were ministering in 179 Australian parishes. This ministry, however, continues to be under the ultimate control and leadership of male clergy, themselves answerable to (male) bishops.

In 1993, a lobby group for women priests, the Ordination of Catholic Women Inc., was formed in Canberra by Marie Louise Uhr and Zoe Hancock. Uhr was the national convenor of the group until her death in 2001. Before the group effectively closed in 2009, it was a member of an international organisation, Women's Ordination Worldwide.

Women and the Australian Church (WATAC), founded in 1984 as a project of women and men's religious orders, has broadened to become a national organisation promoting Christian feminism ecumenically and in an inclusive fashion. Although its aim is 'to model new ways of being church, based on a "discipleship of equals"'(, it does not specifically lobby for the ordination of women.

The Anglican Church

Women first began assuming some limited lay leadership roles in the Anglican Church of Australia towards the end of the 19th century. Jessie Carter became a churchwarden in the parish of Salisbury in South Australia in 1895; a Mrs Henderson became a churchwarden in Brisbane Diocese in 1900 (Sherlock, 2008, 4). These two dioceses were exceptional in not having legislation denying women church governance roles. Because of such legislation in other dioceses, as well as the federal structural model of the Australian Anglican Church whose dioceses exercise considerable autonomy, women were allowed to take up lay leadership roles only in fits and starts across the country, depending on the rules imposed by individual dioceses. Women could be elected to diocesan synod in Perth from 1921, for instance, but not in Sydney until 1972. Women were not given access to all categories of lay leadership in all dioceses until 1978, when the Diocese of Sydney finally admitted women as churchwardens. Against this backdrop, their admission to ordained ministry was inevitably conflicted.

Women were first appointed as deaconesses from 1884. While this is technically a lay role, generally providing assistance to (male) parish clergy, the role offered women a formal (if limited) paid and publicly recognised place in the life of the church. In some places, such as the Diocese of Sydney, their role was strictly circumscribed; in the Diocese of Gippsland, on the other hand, they were recognised as members of the clergy. There they were ordained using the same service used for male deacons, were termed 'Reverend Deaconess', and permitted to perform all the functions of the clergy save presiding at Holy Communion. Although there were never many deaconesses, they were an important factor as the ordination of women began to be debated in earnest in Australia in the second half of the 20th century, particularly after the Australian General Synod declined to give deaconesses clergy status in 1969. Its refusal to regard them as ordained deacons, as the bishops of the world-wide Anglican Communion had recommended the year previously at the 10-yearly Lambeth Conference, was a turning point in the ordination of women debate. Deaconesses were distressed to discover that they were not regarded as (female) deacons, as many of them had assumed. In particular, two leading deaconesses- Elizabeth Alfred of Melbourne and Mary Andrews of Sydney- began from that point on to campaign actively for women to be admitted to all three orders of ministry: deacons, priests and bishops. To further the cause, Elizabeth Alfred became one of only two women members of the recently created General Synod. She was later among the first women ordained as deacons and priests in Australia (Porter, 1989, 43-54; Alfred, 2001, 61-67).

The fight for admission was to be a long, vexed struggle. On one level, formal church bodies began studying and debating the issue of women's ordination; on another, women activists were soon campaigning to hasten the change. The General Synod Doctrine Commission, after undertaking a comprehensive study of the theological issues, reported in 1977 that theological objections did not constitute a barrier to the ordination of women to all three orders. Further, it recommended that the church take steps to ordain women. One of the twelve members of the commission was a woman, Janet Wyatt, a former missionary who was at the time a Canberra public servant (Ministry of Women: A Report of the General Synod Commission on Doctrine, Volume 1, 1977).

At the same time, lay churchwomen were beginning to agitate for change. In particular, Colleen O'Reilly and Zandra Wilson formed a lobby group, Anglican Women Concerned, in 1975. This group staged a demonstration outside Sydney's St Andrew's Cathedral at the opening service of the 1977 General Synod, which would be debating the Doctrine Commission's report. Their demonstration took the form of a silent but eloquent tableau depicting the severe limitations on women's role in the church. In the years after 1977, O'Reilly became a critical activist in the ordination debate in many capacities. She was a co-founder of the Movement for the Ordination of Women in Australia, a lay member of Sydney Diocesan Synod who played a key role in that Synod passing legislation for women deacons in 1989, and later became a leading activist in Melbourne Diocesan Synod and in the national church. O'Reilly has the strongest claim of all the Anglican Church's women activists to be styled the founder of the women's ordination project. By the end of the 20th century, she had been ordained deacon and priest in the Diocese of Melbourne, had become vicar of a Melbourne parish and would soon be a cathedral canon.

The Movement for the Ordination of Women (MOW), formed in Sydney in 1983 and based on an English lobby group of the same name, became a national body that for a few critical years helped the women's debate assume a high media profile. Its other co-founder, Dr Patricia Brennan, a former medical missionary in Africa, quickly became a media identity. By the end of the 20th century, she had developed an almost iconic status within MOW. MOW's major role was focused in the Diocese of Sydney, where the opposition to ordaining women was most concentrated, and remains so. Despite MOW's efforts, not a great deal was achieved there by the lobby group. Rather, women became deacons in Sydney not through MOW's efforts but through the work of individual synod members such as O'Reilly and a leading New South Wales legal luminary, Keith Mason QC, later president of the New South Wales Court of Appeal. It was in other dioceses that the struggle for the ordination of women ultimately bore fruit, with women progressing to both the priesthood and the episcopate.

The reality is that the ordination of women in the Anglican Church of Australia did not happen mainly because of the efforts of MOW, important as they were in giving churchwomen a voice and a role for a time. It was the concerted efforts of committed individuals, both male and female, within the formal structures of the church that ultimately brought success: it was bishops, priests, theologians, lay members of synods and church councils, working patiently over many years through the labyrinthine processes of church governance, who brought about the change in women's role. An objective study of the role and influence of MOW is warranted, as it is possible that- as some have argued about the role of militants in the struggle for women's suffrage ( the stridency of its activism may well have been counter-productive, certainly in Sydney.

By the end of the 20th century, there were 262 women licensed as priests in 19 of Australia's 23 dioceses and 154 women deacons in 20 dioceses (Australian Clerical Directory 2001). Women would not finally achieve full equality in the Anglican Church of Australia until a church court decision in 2007 opened the way for women to become bishops. The first women bishops were appointed in 2008 (Kay Goldsworthy was consecrated bishop in the Diocese of Perth on 22 May 2008; Barbara Darling was consecrated in the Diocese of Melbourne on 31 May that year).

The Uniting Church

The Uniting Church came into being in 1977, an amalgamation of the Congregational Union of Australia, the Methodist Church of Australasia and a large portion of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. These churches all admitted women to the ordained ministry, with the small Congregational Church having been the first to do so. Winifred Kiek was ordained for that church in Adelaide in 1927, followed by Isabelle Merry in Melbourne ten years later. After careful theological study, the Methodist Church followed suit in 1969, ordaining Margaret Sanders in Perth and Coralie Ling in Melbourne. The Presbyterian Church, which had first begun examining the issue in earnest in 1959, ordained its first woman minister, Marlene (Polly) Thalheimer, in 1974. By the time these churches united in 1977, 33 women had been ordained across the three churches: 13 in the Congregational Church, 13 in the Methodist Church and 7 in the Presbyterian Church. Not all entered the new church. The number of women clergy in the Uniting Church quickly grew to 101 by 1985 (Yule, 214-15). The continuing Presbyterian Church- the section of the church that did not join the Uniting Church- rescinded its permission for women to be ordained in 1991. However, a 2007 decision of the continuing Presbyterian Church's General Assembly to ban women from becoming elders as well failed to win the necessary level of support from the state assemblies (

In its Basis of Union, the foundational document for the new church, the Uniting Church stated that it would 'seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit to recognise among its members women and men called of God to preach the Gospel, to lead the people in worship, to care for the flock, to share in government and to serve those in need in the world' ( From the church's inception, women were accorded equal status with men in every area of church life. For the first six years of its existence, the Uniting church had in place an affirmative action policy to enhance the inclusion of women at all levels. Nevertheless, of the twelve national presidents of the union to date, only one has been a woman, a laywoman Jill Tabart (Lee).

Other Christian churches

Women have been ordained in the Churches of Christ since 1973, and in the Baptist Union since 1978. Again, the situation for women has been characterised by differences between the various state bodies. By the end of the 20th century, women clergy had been appointed in the Baptist churches in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia, with the majority of them in Victoria (Cronshaw, 1998). As was the case with the Anglican Church and the constituent churches of the Uniting Church, Victoria has been a centre of progressive attitudes to women within these churches as well. The Lutheran Church in this country does not admit women to ordained ministry, in comparison with Lutheran churches in Germany, Sweden and Britain, each of which has appointed women bishops.

Published Resources


  • The Australian Clerical Directory 2001, Angela Grutzner and Associates, Melbourne, Victoria, 2001. Details
  • Alfred, Elizabeth, Called to Serve: The Spiritual Journey of Elizabeth Alfred, Privately Published, Melbourne, Victoria, 2001. Details
  • Kerr, Edith, The historic place of women in the church, Presbyterian Bookroom, Christchurch, New Zealand, 1949. Details
  • Porter, Muriel, Women in the Church: The Great Ordination Debate in Australia, Penguin Books, Melbourne, Victoria, 1989. Details
  • West, Janet, Daughters of Freedom: A History of Women in the Australian Church, Albatross Books, Sydney, New South Wales, 1997. Details
  • Wilkinson, Peter J, Catholic Parish Ministry in Australia: Facing Disaster?, Catholics for Ministry and Women and the Australian Church, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 2011. Details
  • Yule, Jean, Women in the Church: A Memoir, Uniting Church Historical Society, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011. Details

Book Sections

  • McGrath, Sophie, 'Women in the Australian Church: An Historical Perspective', in Research Management Group (ed.), Woman and Man: One in Christ Jesus: Report on the Participation of Women in the Catholic Church in Australia, Harper Collins Religious, Sydney, New South Wales, 1999. Details

Journal Articles

  • Church of England in Australia. Commission on Doctrine, 'The Ministry of Women: A Report of the General Synod Commission on Doctrine', Reports to the General Synod of the Church of England in Australia, vol. 1, General Synod Office, Sydney, New South Wales, 1977. Details
  • Sherlock, Peter, '"Leave it to the Women": The Exclusion of Women from Anglican Church Government in Australia', Australian Historical Studies, vol. 39, no. 3, September 2008, pp. 288 - 304. Details

Resource Sections


Online Resources