Speaking Silence: Ordination of Women in Australia

Posted by Jenny on Mar 10, 2012 in Snapshot |

I love waking up to Classic Breakfast each morning.  A couple of mornings ago, (the morning before International Women’s Day), I was abruptly roused (in more ways than one) by the informational byte:

“What could we finally do [on this day in 1992]?  Women were finally admitted to the priesthood in Australia with the ordination of ten women by Dr Peter Carney.”

What the presenter (the delightful Emma Ayres) was referring to was the first ordinations of women by the Anglican Church in Australia.  However, what struck me was the implication that this was the first time women had been ordained in any church in Australia.  I realize that this segment (so often intriguing) gives just snippets in time yet 666 ABC Canberra also proclaimed “20 years of Women’s Ordination in Australia” and “It’s been 20 years since Australia’s first women priests were ordained in a ceremony in Perth”.   I would like to gently point out that there are more churches in Australia than the Anglican Church and other denominations have been ordaining woman for many decades previous to 7 March 1992.

In fact, women have held positions of leadership in the church from its inception in the 1st century. There were prominent women among Jesus’ followers as significant financial supporters, disciples (Luke 8:1-3) and the important first witnesses of his resurrection (John 20:1, 11-18).  Women continued to contribute in the early church: from Phillip’s four prophesying daughters (Acts 21:9), to Priscilla (who, along with her husband instructed the prominent evangelist and apologist Apollo, held a house church in her home and who Paul considered as a fellow worker Romans 16:3-5), to Junias noted among the apostles (Rom 16:7), to Phoebe the deacon (Romans 16:1), to Euodia and Syntyche, Paul’s fellow workers in the gospel (Philippians 4:2-3) and many other women such as Mary, mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12), Lydia of Thyatira (Acts 16:15), Chloe of Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:11), Nympha of Laodicea (Colossians 4:15) and Apphia (Philemon 2) who held house churches in their homes. Other women exercised leadership in first couple of centuries, such as Thelca of Iconium.   Historian Dr. Karen J. Torjesen concludes that up until the third century “Women were evangelizing, baptizing, teaching, interpreting Scripture, doing visitation, functioning as leaders of groups within the church and speaking out in the assembly. The Statutes of the Apostles show that women also shared in the eucharistic ministry.”    However, as the church became more public, organized, stratified and institutionalized, women’s leadership roles came under dispute in 3rd – 5th centuries.

In the increasing restrictions on women’s public participation and leadership in the church over the next millennia or so did not mean that women were no longer involved or even influential in the church’s life and ministry. They continued to make an impact as faithful grandmothers, mothers, sisters and wives, as patrons, and in the spiritual, charitable and educational work of female religious orders, as social and religious reformers, as contributors to the parish life and as intrepid missionaries.  Moreover, throughout church history dynamic new groups have often encouraged women as preachers, ministers and leaders – for instance the Waldensians (12th century), the early Anabaptists (16th century), the Quakers (17th century), the early Moravians (18th century), the early Methodists (18th century), the Salvation Army (19th century), the Holiness movement (19th century) and the early Assemblies of God (20th century: first women ordained in AOG USA in 1914). In the middle 18th century to the middle of the 20th century a number of the more established denominational groups began ordaining women (e.g. branches of the Congregationalists, the Presbyterians, the Wesleyan Methodists, the Nazarenes, the Mennonites, the Baptists, Lutherans etc, particularly in though not confined to the USA). However, the momentum towards women’s ordination slowed and even lost ground in the middle of the 20th century (following the two world wars) – as in fact did the women’s movement as a whole – until it gained new impetus from the 1960s onwards among many denominations worldwide.

What about Australia? Did women indeed have to wait until 1992 for the possibility of ordination?  This depends entirely on which branch of the church you belong to!

  • February 1881, the first woman Salvation Army officer (minister) Mrs Adelaide Sutherland was appointed to Australia (a year after the arrival of the first officer in 1880).  By 1884 32 new officers were commissioned (in all likelihood including women) as the Salvation Army has routinely ordained both married and single women alongside men from its inception by William and Catherine Booth in 1865 in Britain.  (In fact, by 1878 there were nearly an equal number of women officers (41) as there were men officers (49).)

One hundred and five years later, in 1986 Eva Burrows, an Australian woman (born in Newcastle in 1929) was elected as International leader of the Salvation Army. She was second woman to be appointed as General (or the world head).  The first woman elected in this position was Evangeline Booth in 1934.   On 31 January 2011, the Salvation Army announced that Canadian Linda Bond would be the next world leader.

  • 1909 Janet Lancaster founded the very first Pentecostal church in Australia at the Good News Hall which started numerous satellite congregations in Victoria and other parts of Australia during her lifetime.
  • Tuesday 14 June, 1927 Mrs.Winifred Kiek was ordained as a congregational minister in South Australia.
  • 8th October 1951 Rev Dr Hilda Abba was ordained at Pitt Street Congregational Church, Sydney to a Placement in a Theological College.
  • In 1969 Revd Margaret Sanders, was ordained by the Methodist Church of Australia (though ordination of women had been acknowledged in principle since 1929).
  • In October 1972 The Revd M.J. Thalheimer was the first woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church in Australia.
  • In 1973 Pam Bowers and Robin Haskell were ordained in Melbourne as first women ministers in the Churches of Christ in Australia.
  • In 1977 Lynn Holland was the first woman ordained in the Wesleyan Methodist Church of Australia.
  • In 1978 Marita Munro was the first woman ordained as a Baptist minister in Victoria.
  • In 1977 (at the time of Union between Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalists), the Uniting Church of Australia had 36 ordained women in ministry.
  • In March 1992, (10) women ordained to the Anglican priesthood for the first time in Australia.  By the end of 1992, 90 women were ordained in the Anglican Church of Australia and 2 others who had been ordained overseas were recognised – “92 in ‘92″

As you can see, the Anglicans were by no means the first church in Australia to ordain women to the ministry (minister/priest/pastor).  It would be more accurate to say that they were one of the last (though they do seem to have made up for lost time).  Whatever the theological and biblical issues might be about ordaining women, there is no denying the woman have had, and continue to have, a prominent, pivotal and influential role in the life and ministry of the church.


Relevant Links:










Dr. Roy B. Blizzard, “THE ROLE OF WOMEN in First-Century Judaism and the Church”  http://webbpage.bravehost.com/Yavo/1_4_Bliz_WomensRole.html

Mimi Haddad Women Leaders in the Early Church in Sojourners 16-02-2009  http://sojo.net/blogs/2009/02/16/women-leaders-early-church

Jone Johnson Lewis, “Abbesses in Women’s Religious History” in About.com – Woman’s History  http://womenshistory.about.com/od/medievalchristianity/a/abbess.htm

Rev. Kathryn Riss, “Women in Church History WOMEN PASTORS IN THE EARLY CHURCH” in God’s Word to Women http://godswordtowomen.org/pastors.htm

Dr. Karen J. Torjesen, “Early Controversies Over Female Leadership” Issue 17 in Christian History Magazine http://www.christianhistorymagazine.org/index.php/past-pages/17womens-leadership/

Ruth A Tucker, Daughters of Eve, http://daughtereve.blogspot.com.au/

David Woodbury, Foundation of the Salvation Army in Sydney 1882-83 in Dictionary of Sydney,  2011  http://www.dictionaryofsydney.org/item/56096

  • Share/Bookmark

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,


  • A great post, Jenny. The ABC will need to think twice before messing with you again!

  • Kathy Harris says:

    Great post Jenny! Some fascinating history here and really just a laugh that the media only sees the issue for the Anglican church! I was really interested to see the info on the Salvation Army!

  • Jenny says:

    Thanks Sheridan. I did email a letter to Emma Ayers (substantially the same as the Speaking Silence post) but have not had any response as yet. I not sure the ABC has noticed me yet :)

  • Jenny says:

    Thanks Kathy. Yes, I was rather startled at the (I’m sure inadvertant) equation Anglican = Australian church which would be more understanable in 1812 (when the Church of England was virtually the state church in the newish colonies of NSW and Van Dieman’s Land) than two hundred years later in 2012! I went back and listened to the podcast to make sure I had heard correctly in my half-awake state.

    Catherine Booth was a gifted preacher and cofounder of the Salvation Army (SA) along side her husband William Booth which is one reason why the SA ordained women from its inception. Dennis Bratcher, in the introduction to Catherine’s article in defense of women preachers written in 1859, says of her, “Catherine Booth was not an activist by modern criteria of activism. She was more of a determined leader who had a vision and worked prayerfully toward what she felt God had called her to do in the world. Yet, she was well able and willing passionately to defend her role in the church, seeing the challenge to women in ministry as a challenge to God’s work in the world and to the teachings of Scripture, as well as to her own calling.” http://www.cresourcei.org/cbooth.html And interesting and inspirational woman of faith!

    Cheers Jenny

  • Meg Haig says:

    I attend Kingsley ustralia, have just obtained and passed my certificate 4 at Kingsley and its hard being in a wheelchair to receive people’s approval to become a lay preacher, at the moment I can’t get to church because of trains not working on every 2nd weekend on st Albans line, but I’m not having fellowship and the ministers don’t seem to realize I need bible study fellowship, which I need. Pray for me, I’m going to continue studies to become a acknowledged and licensed lay preacher and chaplain. With Gods help He will help me to re knew fellowship but the ministers say they can’t allow bible studies or house church in my home, I don’t understand. Have I committed sin for being disabled

  • Jenny says:

    Hi Meg. I’m sorry to hear of your difficult situation. It is certainly not a sin to be disabled though I can see that it makes getting to different places difficult for you. I will certainly be praying that your situation improves. May God bless you and I wish you all the best in your studies and your goal to be a lay preacher and chaplain. As Paul says “Each time he [God] said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me.” 2 Corinthians 12:9. Jesus also said “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.” Mark 10:27 May God work great things in your life and ministry. Jenny

  • Amelia Koh-butler says:

    Rev Dr Hilda Abba was ordained in 1952 by the Congregational Church. She was the first woman to be ordained to a Placement in a Theological College. Hilda was the person who advised me ‘the Church will be the poorer if we leave theology to the boys’.

    Vale Hilda – we still miss you!

    Rev Dr Amelia Koh-Butler
    Executive Officer, Mission Resourcing
    Uniting Church in South Australia

  • Amelia Koh-butler says:

    Sorry – 8th October 1951 at Pitt Street Congregational Church (now Uniting)

  • Jenny says:

    Hi Amelia

    Thanks for that information :) I’ll add it to the list :)

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags:' <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Copyright © 2011-2018 Jenny's Thread All rights reserved.
Desk Mess Mirrored v1.5.1 theme from BuyNowShop.com.