Women in the Uniting Church: By a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant Historian (to quote the immortal Jane)

This is the lecture that I gave on ‘Women in the Uniting Church’ as part of Uniting Church Studies at the Centre for Theology and Ministry. There is a lot more here than I shared on the day; the topic is so enormous that it could be a semester unit all by itself. I’d love feedback on which bits were most interesting/useful, and how to improve this for next year.

Why the topic should really be: ‘Men in the Uniting Church’

Topic really should be ‘men in the Uniting Church’, since men are the minority.

Most recent data I could find was from the 2001 National Church Life Survey, which found that 61% of church attenders are female, meaning that only 39% are men.

I don’t think that that would have changed much in the last decade, or that the Uniting Church would be bucking the trend – looking at my own congregations they’re very female-dominated.

So, women make up the majority of church attenders in Australia and have since at least the beginning of last century.

As historian Hilary M. Carey puts it: ‘Religion was part of the woman’s sphere and the Christian soldier, as some parodist put it, was happy to be represented by his wife.’ (Carey, p. 111)

Maybe today’s topic should be along the lines of how women as the church majority can make the church welcoming to men?

Given that it’s not, I’m going to talk a bit about the history, about the roles women played in the uniting denominations, and then in the Uniting Church, and at the end, since you have as much experience of it as I have, if not more, we’ll talk about the place of women in the Uniting Church today.

Women Workers

The majority of church attenders have been women since at least the turn of last century, and it was those women attenders have who kept the churches going

To illustrate, I want to read you extracts from a story written by L. M. Montgomery, the author of Anne of Green Gables, in 1902.

L. M. Montgomery

Montgomery was born and bred a Canadian Presbyterian, and would later marry a Presbyterian minister and spend the rest of her life in manses, so she was an accurate observer of the Presbyterian scene.

This story is Canadian, but it could just as easily be set in Australia.

Called ‘The Strike at Putney’ (1902)

Montgomery describes the Putney Presbyterian Church:

‘They were especially strong on societies. There was the Church Aid Society, the Girls’ Flower Band, and the Sewing Circle. There was a Mission Band and a Helping Hand among the children. And finally there was the Women’s Foreign Mission Auxiliary, out of which the whole trouble grew.’

The Women’s Foreign Mission Auxiliary have invited a female missionary to come and speak on a Sunday evening, and since there was going to be no evening service that Sunday, have invited her to speak in the church:

‘Then the thunderbolt descended on the W.F.M.A. of Putney from a clear sky. The elders of the church rose up to a man and declared that no woman should occupy the pulpit of the Putney church. It was in direct contravention to the teachings of St. Paul. To make matters worse, Mr. Sinclair declared himself on the elders’ side. He said that he could not conscientiously give his consent to a woman occupying his pulpit, even when that woman was Mrs. Cotterell and her subject foreign missions.’

So, the women decide to go on strike. The first intimation the men get of this is when the women say that they won’t be organising an ice-cream social to raise money for the new church carpet:

The men can get the money somehow, I suppose,’ said Mrs. Knox. ‘As for the social, why, of course, if women aren’t good enough to speak in church they are not good enough to work for it either. Lucy, dear, will you pass me the cookies?’

When Sunday comes, it’s even worse:

‘On Sunday morning the men were conscious of a bare, deserted appearance in the church. Mr. Sinclair perceived it himself. After some inward wondering he concluded that it was because there were no flowers anywhere. The table before the pulpit was bare. On the organ a vase held a sorry, faded bouquet left over from the previous week. The floor was unswept. Dust lay thickly on the pulpit Bible, the choir chairs, and the pew backs.’

‘Meanwhile the men who were sitting in the choir—three basses and two tenors—were beginning to dimly suspect that there was something amiss here too. Where were the sopranos and the altos’

‘Presently Frances Spenslow came in. Frances was organist, but today, instead of walking up to the platform, she slipped demurely into her father’s pew at one side of the pulpit’.

‘Sunday School that afternoon was a harrowing failure. Out of all the corps of teachers only one was a man, and he alone was at his post. In the Christian Endeavour meeting on Tuesday night the feminine element sat dumb and unresponsive. The Putney women never did things by halves.’

In the end, of course, the men give in; Mrs Cotterell is allowed to speak from the pulpit about foreign missions and the strike end.

Australian churches had the same sort of organisations, and of them Anne O’Brien writes:

Between 1915 and 1935, the Methodist auxiliaries supported ninety-three single-women missionaries out of 114. Of the remainder most were supported by the Young Women’s Methodist Missionary League and a few were supported by individuals. In the case of the Presbyterian Church the success of the Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Association at fund-raising was its own undoing. It quickly became co-opted by the Foreign Mission Committee, thereby losing control of where the funds went. (O’Brien, p. 74)

Women Leaders

Women weren’t just the willing workers in the background. They were also leaders.

In early British Methodism, a number of women served as Local Preachers.

Adam Bede by George Eliot, written in the late 1850s, set between 1799–1807 has a female Methodist preacher, Dinah Morris, as heroine:

Adam BedeWhile she was near Seth’s tall figure, she looked short, but when she had mounted the cart, and was away from all comparison, she seemed above the middle height of woman, though in reality she did not exceed it—an effect which was due to the slimness of her figure and the simple line of her black stuff dress. The stranger was struck with surprise as he saw her approach and mount the cart—surprise, not so much at the feminine delicacy of her appearance, as at the total absence of self-consciousness in her demeanour. He had made up his mind to see her advance with a measured step and a demure solemnity of countenance; he had felt sure that her face would be mantled with the smile of conscious saintship, or else charged with denunciatory bitterness. He knew but two types of Methodist—the ecstatic and the bilious. But Dinah walked as simply as if she were going to market, and seemed as unconscious of her outward appearance as a little boy: there was no blush, no tremulousness, which said, ‘I know you think me a pretty woman, too young to preach’; no casting up or down of the eyelids, no compression of the lips, no attitude of the arms that said, ‘But you must think of me as a saint.’ She held no book in her ungloved hands, but let them hang down lightly crossed before her, as she stood and turned her grey eyes on the people. There was no keenness in the eyes; they seemed rather to be shedding love than making observations; they had the liquid look which tells that the mind is full of what it has to give out, rather than impressed by external objects.


‘Dear friends,’ she began, raising her voice a little, ‘you have all of you been to church, and I think you must have heard the clergyman read these words: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.’ Jesus Christ spoke those words—he said he came TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. I don’t know whether you ever thought about those words much, but I will tell you when I remember first hearing them. It was on just such a sort of evening as this, when I was a little girl, and my aunt as brought me up took me to hear a good man preach out of doors, just as we are here. I remember his face well: he was a very old man, and had very long white hair; his voice was very soft and beautiful, not like any voice I had ever heard before. I was a little girl and scarcely knew anything, and this old man seemed to me such a different sort of a man from anybody I had ever seen before that I thought he had perhaps come down from the sky to preach to us, and I said, ‘Aunt, will he go back to the sky to-night, like the picture in the Bible?’

John Wesley

‘That man of God was Mr. Wesley, who spent his life in doing what our blessed Lord did—preaching the Gospel to the poor—and he entered into his rest eight years ago. I came to know more about him years after, but I was a foolish thoughtless child then, and I remembered only one thing he told us in his sermon. He told us as ‘Gospel’ meant ‘good news.’ The Gospel, you know, is what the Bible tells us about God.

‘Think of that now! Jesus Christ did really come down from heaven, as I, like a silly child, thought Mr. Wesley did; and what he came down for was to tell good news about God to the poor. Why, you and me, dear friends, are poor. We have been brought up in poor cottages and have been reared on oat-cake, and lived coarse; and we haven’t been to school much, nor read books, and we don’t know much about anything but what happens just round us. We are just the sort of people that want to hear good news. For when anybody’s well off, they don’t much mind about hearing news from distant parts; but if a poor man or woman’s in trouble and has hard work to make out a living, they like to have a letter to tell ‘em they’ve got a friend as will help ‘em. 

However, in Wesleyan Methodism from 1803 women were restricted to addressing women-only meetings.

That stranger, who was watching Dinah preach, at the end of the novel is visited by Adam Bede, to whom Dinah is now married:

‘I shall turn Methodist some day,’ he said, ‘when she preaches out of doors, and go to hear her.’ And I said, ‘Nay, sir, you can’t do that, for Conference has forbid the women preaching, and she’s given it up, all but talking to the people a bit in their houses.’‘

‘Ah,’ said Seth, who could not repress a comment on this point, ‘and a sore pity it was o’ Conference; and if Dinah had seen as I did, we’d ha’ left the Wesleyans and joined a body that ‘ud put no bonds on Christian liberty.’

‘Nay, lad, nay,’ said Adam, ‘she was right and thee wast wrong. There’s no rules so wise but what it’s a pity for somebody or other. Most o’ the women do more harm nor good with their preaching—they’ve not got Dinah’s gift nor her sperrit—and she’s seen that, and she thought it right to set th’ example o’ submitting, for she’s not held from other sorts o’ teaching. And I agree with her, and approve o’ what she did.’

The ban that wasn’t lifted until 1910.  From 1918 on, Wesleyan Methodism recruited and deployed women Local Preachers on exactly the same basis as men.

There were other leadership roles for women, beyond preaching

These usually involved women in ministering to other women, to children and to ‘the poor’.

There were some official ‘orders’ in which women worked, for example at Methodist Central Missions as ‘Sisters of the People’. In 1884 the Central Methodist Mission in Sydney set up a training home for them.

Sisters of the People 1

The job included visiting homes, the prison, the hospital, emergency relief, and running programs for women and children.

Sisters of the People

Three examples of women doing this sort of early church work

Selina M. Sutherland


Immigrated from Scotland via New Zealand and arrived in Australia at the age of forty-four.

Shared a cottage in Little Collins St at the rear of the Assembly Hall with Mrs Maria Lord Armour (Honorary Treasurer of Scots’ Church in 1883).

With Mrs Armour a motivating force behind the establishment of the Scots’ Church Neglected Children’s Aid Society in 1881

Given the status of lady missionary in 1886 in recognition of her services to children, with a salary of ₤100 per year

At her request an Assembly Committee called The Presbyterian Society for Neglected and Destitute Children was founded in 1886. (This was combined with the Scots’ group in 1895 to form The Presbyterian and Scots’ Church Children’s Aid Society)

Resigned from the Society in 1894 following differences with Church officers and the Assembly

Died in 1909

Mrs Varcoe

Mre Varcoe 1

Methodist Biblewoman appointed to Wesley Church in 1884 by the Home Mission Society

By 1888 had the title ‘Chief Biblewoman’ (of the eight employed by the Home Mission Society in Melbourne

As a Biblewoman earned ₤50 per year (while male missionaries earned ₤150)

Worked among the brothels, and destitute women and children of Melbourne

Was a class leader at Wesley Church

With her family took a house on the corner of Richardson and Drummond Streets, Carlton, as a home for destitute children, initially without the approval of the Home Mission Society, in 1888 (the Temporary Home for Destitute Children)

From the Spectator December 4, 1891

Livingston House

Livingston Home

On 24th November 1891 a large crowd gathered alongside the Point Nepean Road at Cheltenham to witness the opening of the new Livingstone Home. It was a two storey double-fronted brick building facing Point Nepean Road. The fourteen rooms could now accommodate twenty five children; more than double the number at the North Carlton House.

The honour of opening the door went to Mrs. Hope Crisp who along with Mrs. Varcoe, had three years earlier, led the Wesleyan Church into the field of child rescue in opening the Home she said:-

May our Home now opened be the door through which many may be led to lives of, honour, virtue, and distinction on earth, and to life everlasting in our Father’s home on high.

Norah Semmens

Director of the Burnley Kindergarten, opened in the Presbyterian Mission Hall in Crown Street in 1906, supported by the Kew Presbyterian Church.

Apparently an inspired teacher who influenced the whole district.

Scholarship named after her at the Kindergarten Training College

Article from Richmond Guardian Saturday 20 April 1918.


With their uncertain footsteps guided by the assistance of kindly young ladies and keeping in time to a piano forte accompaniment, children of the Burnley Free Kindergarten, now housed in the Drill Hall, Swan-street, provide a pleasing sight for passers-by on any week-day morning. The coming of the ‘kinder’ marks a new era for the mothers of the neighbourhood. Hitherto their time was occupied in looking after the infants of the home, who were not old enough to attend a State school, and yet quite old enough to get into mischief if allowed to wander from out the parental eye. Things are different now. The ‘kinder’ starts at about 9.15 and finishes at noon. Thus for three clear hours in the morning the mothers are able to get about their housework, secure in the knowledge that their darlings are perfectly safe and well cared for at the ‘kinder.’

And as for the children – it isn’t school at all. As one of them went home and said after the first day, ‘It is just play, mummy, and all right play, too.’ This branch of the Kindergarten Union owed its formation originally to a number of ladies resident in Kew. It has progressed considerably. The kindergartens receive the child when the first glimmerings of intelligence begin to show themselves, and the little mind is as receptive to impressions, good or evil, as the sun-baked desert is to rain. The average age of the pupils attending the Burnley Free Kindergarten is from three to six years, but there are some who have yet to pass their third summer.

… The teachings of the kindergarten start with home life first of all. That is nearest and most familiar to baby’s comprehension. He is taught the relative importance and position of every member of the family. He is taught self-sacrifice; he must be as helpful as he can, to relieve mother of worry, to grow up a little man instead of a troublesome encumbrance. These teachings are paramount in regard to the future man’s battle with life keystones for a worthy career. Then comes instruction in other circles, all leading up to the later course.

The daily talks by the principals and her assistants are, perhaps, the greatest factor in the growth of the creative instinct in the child. The speaker selects a familiar -topic and presents it in story form. She gets the child’s thought concentrated on it and leads him step by step till he or she has grasped the subject. Then, by skilful questioning, she enables the child’s mind to progress unaided and form his own ideas on the matter. Some of them are very quaint.

The subject a few mornings ago was ‘Our Soldiers’-certainly a topical one, considering the surroundings and the khaki-clad men who passed from door to door while the lesson was in progress. The speaker traced their lives from their first drill in the hall to their entry into camp and departure to the front. Then she dwelt on the uniform, and the ‘different uses for his equipment. So one of the answers to a question: ‘Why do soldiers wear khaki?’ was a bit of a surprise. ‘Because they look nice in it,’ was the contribution of one little girl. Another answer which showed some thought was ‘So that we can know they are soldiers,’ and so on. Meanwhile the children squat like Indians in the fairy circle (to suggest unity) in the middle of the drill hall floor, and ponder the lesson with a graveness which is distinctly trying to the looker-on’s sense of humour.

Then come the games. Here again is evidence of a definite plan. The most popular games are nursery rhymes set to action by the principal. Thus, the habits and actions of different animals, ships, flowers and even feathers are made familiar to the children. A little object lesson of a soldier, marching and standing at attention, immediately produces straight backs and puffed-out chests. It is never too early for children to learn to deport themselves correctly. The children are taught the value of soap and water in maintaining a bright and neat appearance. Their health is the concern of a nurse, who attends once a week, and who also visits the homes and gives advice when required.

About 11:15 the children are given a few minutes in the yard to themselves, while the selected ‘housekeepers’ from each grade prepare the morning refreshment. This consists of milk and biscuits, tastefully arranged on low tables, with a white cloth and a vase of flowers complete. Six tiny chairs are drawn up by each seriously-minded housekeeper (often not much higher than the table) and six pretty cups, to be filled when grace has been said. Even during the important business of eating and drinking the training is not neglected. Courtesy at table is demonstrated by the pupil teacher in charge, and each strives to outdo his or her neighbour in politeness.

The hearty co-operation of the mothers has been a great help to the kindergarten workers. The training that the children are receiving will make their future up-bringing easier, and the mothers show their appreciation by helping the teachers in all sorts of unexpected ways … Miss Norah Semmens is the principal of the Burnley Free Kindergarten with Miss D. Carlile as chief assistant.

Orders of Deaconesses

The idea of an Order of Deaconesses arose in the depression of the 1890s


First Presbyterian deaconess was dedicated (not ordained) in 1905

Melbourne Training House set up by Rev. W. S. Rolland at the turn of the century

Training was a minimum of one year, with two years for those without educational or nursing qualifications

New South Wales continued to rely on Victoria-trained deaconesses until after the First World War


A ‘Wesley Deaconess Order’ and a United Methodist Church Order of Deaconesses were founded in the last 1800s, but there wasn’t any real effort to given the training.

As Betty Feith puts it in Women in Ministry (p. 9):

The Order of Deaconesses was founded by the Methodist Church in Australia as a result of an inability to put into practice the principle affirmed by the General Conference of that church that women should be accepted as candidates for the Methodist Ministry: that is, that ‘an unmarried woman called to the work of the ministry should be allowed to offer as a candidate’ for the Ministry of the Word and Sacraments. The question of Ordination of Women had been raised in the General Conference of 1929 when, by a vote of 68 in favour and 65 against, the question was referred to a committee (of twenty men) and the annual conferences of the different states and to the quarterly meetings and synods.

In 1935 the General Conference reaffirmed the principle of the Ordination of women, but because of the practical difficulties of the itinerant system of stationing ministers, it could not see its way clear to accept women candidates. An Order of Deaconesses was then suggested as an ‘acceptable and workable alternative’, which would offer ‘suitable opportunity for consecrated service’.

The first Deaconesses were received into training in 1943, and the first three Deaconesses were ‘dedicated’ not ordained, in 1946.

Methodist Deaconesses

Methodist Deaconesses

Those first three were Norma Anguey, Nancy Chinchen and Doris Scobie.

There was no contact between the organisational heads of the two orders in the early years of the Methodist Order. The Presbyterian Order not seen as a ‘model’ by Methodists, nor apparently was anyone authority in the Presbyterian Church asked for advice. (Feith, p. 16)

A Deaconess visiting

A Deaconess visiting

The deaconesses studied with the male candidates for ordination, but also had to take extra classes, and do the housework at the Methodist training home Esperanza. One deaconess told Betty Feith her frustration:

Why was it that these guys seemed to have all the personal and intellectual freedom in the world, while we were treated like little children? Why were opportunities given to these blokes, for study and university degrees, and why was the ministry in its fullest sense open to them, and not to us? For we held our own with them in exams. Pretty often we were at the top of the list. So it wasn’t our lack of brains. And they didn’t have to race back and light the boiler or clean the bath, or dash out to an evening course somewhere in the city … We weren’t supposed to have minds.  The reality, as it was increasingly brought home to us, was that we were cheap labour, working as circuit assistants in places which couldn’t afford a ‘real ministry’ and made do with us until they advanced to the point where an ordained man could take over (for example, in new development areas or in city missions), and until the time came when trained social workers were seen as a better option. Essentially we were seen as ‘gap-fillers’. (Feith, p. 19)

In 1963 it was agreed that Deaconesses in full membership could be ordained. In 1967 Rev. Bev Bellinger was ordained as a Deaconess, which leads us to the next section.

Women’s Ordination


It was the Congregationalists who ordained the first woman in any of the Uniting Churches. The first woman was Winifred Kiek, the wife of Rev. Stanley Kiek, the Principal of the Congregationalist Training College in Adelaide.

The Register (Adelaide, SA) Tuesday 14 June 1927


FIRST WOMAN MINISTER. Mrs. Winifred Kiek Ordained.  

The Colonel Light Gardens Congregational Church was on, Monday evening the scene of an unusual and impressive ceremony, the occasion being the ordination of the first woman minister in South Australia. Mrs. Winifred Kiek, B.A. (Manchester and Adelaide), and B.D. (Melbourne) has been for a year in charge of the Colonel Light Gardens Church, so at her ordination service the building was filled by a congregation of people who had already learned to count her a real friend.

Rev. Principal Kiek, M.A, B.D. gave the exposition of Congregational principles. He said that Congregationalists attached much importance to an educated ministry, and believed that no person should be set apart thereto unless called by God in their own soul, and unless the call were verified by that of a recognised congregation. Until recently it had been customary for the ordained ministry to be a function exclusively of men, but there was nothing in Congregational principles or common sense prevent the ordination of women.

A statement on behalf of Colonel Light Gardens Congregational Church was then given by Mr. J. W. K. Beddome (church secretary). He said that Mrs. Winifred Kiek had just completed the first year of   her ministry to this congregation. It was the perfectly unanimous and enthusiastic conviction of them all that Mrs. Kiek had abundantly proved her gifts and aptitude for the office of a minister of the gospel. It was therefore felt that by her ability and her work she had proved herself called to the Ministry of the Word. The church therefore, cordially sympathized with its minister in her desire to be solemnly set apart for the work of the Christian Ministry, and it was their prayerful hope, that the Good Shepherd of the Flock of God would continue to use her greatly in the service of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Statement by the Candidate Winifred Kiek. B.A., B.D., simple and direct. She touched on the seriousness of the occasion and what it meant not only for the future but as affecting her work in the church for the past year. She gave an outline of the influence of the past in her resolution to take up this work, and said she felt a deep indebted ness to the church at Colonel Light Gardens for its courage in making the experiment which might seem to be a risk. It would be her aim to keep religion always close to life, and stress the social as well as the personal aspect of the gospel.

The service concluded with a hymn, and the Benediction was pronounced by the Rev. Winifred Kiek.  

Merry Rev. Isabelle Merry was ordained in 1937, the first woman ordained in the Congregationalist Church in Victoria-Tasmania.

Isabelle Merry 1Isabelle Merry 2

Paul D. Chandler, in Making a Difference: Croydon Uniting Church: the First 100 Years, said this of her:

Isabelle Merry 3

Rev. Isabelle Merry was inducted at Croydon on 12th December 1936, the first woman to be ordained as a minister in any denomination in Victoria, and Belle served there for nearly seven years. Subsequently, Belle left to pursue studies in Social Work and was then appointed as the first full-time Chaplain of a public hospital—the Queen Victoria—where she served for 30 years. She continued her association with the Gifford Memorial Church, and later the Gifford Group, until her death. In 1976 she was awarded the OBE for her chaplaincy services.

However, Merry was not a feminist:

In discussions leading to the formation of the Uniting Church, Isabelle Merry, who had been ordained in the Congregational Church in 1937, was asked to work on a research project about women’s ministry with Coralie Ling, one of the first women ordained in the Methodist Church in Victoria in 1969. She refused on the grounds that Ling was a feminist. (O’Brien, p. 237)


With  little  prior  debate,  the  General Conference  of  1966  supported  a  recommendation  by  the  General Truth and Order Committee that the laws of the church be altered to allow the admission of women into the ordained ministry.

At the General Conference of May 1966 the vote was 132 in favour and 18 against proceeding with the Ordination of Women. (Feith, p. 31)

Coralie Ling

Rev. Dr Coralie Ling, a deaconess, was ordained in 1969, the first woman ordained in the Methodist Church in Victoria-Tasmania, and the second in Australia.


From: ‘Why Does the Uniting Church in Australia Ordain Women to the Ministry of the Word?

In 1962 a Presbyterian Committee reported to the Presbyterian Assembly that it was of the opinion that the whole discussion of the place of women in the ministry of the Church had to be put into a wider context.

A committee was established on the Service of the Laity in the Church and Community, which reported in 1964 that special work had been done by the Revd Alan Smart BA, BD specifically on the place of women in the ministry of the Word and sacraments.

Mr Smart’s interim report provided information from contacts made with overseas groups studying this question, namely, the Church of Scotland, the United Presbyterian Church in the USA, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the World Council of Churches.

The Committee defined the general problem as ‘Does the gospel through its very nature require masculinity in the ministry?’

In 1970 the Revd Alan Smart presented a third and final report. The report confined consideration of the issue to ‘the fundamental biblical and theological problem of whether a Reformed Church, which is under the authority of the Word of God contained in Holy Scripture, may admit women to the ministry of Word and sacraments?’

To the question with which this report began, namely, ‘whether a Reformed Church, which is under the authority of the Word of God contained in Holy Scripture, may admit women to the ministry of Word and sacraments’, we can now answer with a decisive ‘Yes’.

A Reformed Church not only may, but ought to admit women to the ministry of the Word and sacraments in the light of the present day understanding of the Word of God contained in Holy Scripture.

The first women ordained in the Presbyterian Church Marlene (‘Polly’) Thalheimer in 1974.

She became Minister at Romsey and Lancefeld and was there when Union took place.

Uniting Church

The Methodist Church was discussing women’s ordination at the same time that the vote for Union was getting close. During the discussion the Rev. Dr Eric Osborn argued the ‘no’ case, saying he feared that passing this motion would hinder ecumenical relations and damage the delicate negotiations concerning Church Union.

But as Betty Fieth writes:

the most tireless, silver-tongued and able advocate for Church Union the Rev. Dr A. Harold Wood who had campaigned for Union along with World Peace, in and out of season, spoke in favour of the motion, and ‘did not think it would hamper ecumenical work’. It would be a bold ecumenist who would dare to disagree with Dr Wood on his own ground!

The three uniting denominations came into Union all ordaining women, and the ex-Methodist Deaconess Rev. Bev Bellinger was the first woman ordained in the Uniting Church.

The best thing I can do is share with you part of the Report ‘Why Does the Uniting Church in Australia Ordain Women to the Ministry of the Word?’ released in 1990 by the Assembly Standing Committee.

It’s not a discussion document; it is the position of the Uniting Church:

We ordain both women and men to the Ministry of the Word because we believe ordination without discrimination on grounds of gender is a fundamental implication of the gospel of God’s love in Christ for all human beings, without distinction. For this our understanding we appeal to Scripture as testimony to the living Word, which is Christ. (Theology for Pilgrims, p. 566)

Very firmly, the report says:

We remind the members of the Uniting Church, ministers, candidates for the ordained ministries and, in particular, Presbyteries — which have responsibility for the act of ordination — that the Basis of Union affirms the ordination of women. The Basis of Union articulates the nature of the Uniting Church including its understanding of ministry. Paragraph 14 reads:

The Uniting Church, from inception, will seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit to recognise among her members men and women 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.

Candidates asking the Church to ordain them as ministers in this denomination must understand and affirm the Basis of Union in total before their ordination can take place. If they cannot in good conscience affirm the ordination of women or work together in joint settlement with women ministers, we believe it would be wrong to ordain them to a ministry in the Uniting Church. It is true that: To adhere to the Basis of Union is understood as willingness to live and work within the faith and unity of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church as that way is described in this Basis. Such adherence allows for difference of opinion in matters which do not enter into the substance of the faith.

We would argue that the matter of the ordination of women would be as close to the ‘substance of faith’ as for example, the ordination of black persons. (Theology for Pilgrims, p. 567)

After going through the necessary Biblical exegesis and examination of church history, the report concludes:

We believe God intended movement in the direction in which the New Testament pointed. We believe this direction is towards the new equality of male and female in Christ, and toward a new creation in Christ transcending all old orders including that of male and female. (Theology for Pilgrims, p. 600)

We acknowledge that the later New Testament writings reflect a steady drift towards the subordination of women, but we maintain that the very signs of this drift throw into sharp relief the mighty impulse in the opposite direction which the Christian movement received in its beginnings from Jesus himself. (Theology for Pilgrims, p. 613)

We therefore declare, without reservation, our belief that the practice of the Uniting Church in Australia in ordaining both women and men to the ministry of the Word is fully in accordance with the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we beseech those members of other Churches, or even of our own Church, who have not yet reached this conclusion to think again. (Theology for Pilgrims, p. 614)

Post-Women’s Ordination

The fact that the Uniting Church started its life ordaining women does not mean that we have been a beacon of gender equality.

In 1974 a letter appeared in the New Spectator written by the then Dorothy McMahon, pointing out that of the group of 70 who were going to put together the Uniting Church Constitution, there were to be six Presbyterian women, four Congregationalist women, and two Methodist women.

The argument was made in response that people should be elected on merit, rather than because of their gender, and Dorothy wrote again:

I would be the first to agree … we must be elected according to merit, not because we are women . . . in the total Australian church, men have 99 times more merit than women; in the Methodist Church 9 times more merit, and in the Uniting Church 11 times more merit … what is going to happen to give women merit in the eyes of the Church … Congregational women obviously have it! Indeed, one of them said recently ‘We Congregational women are afraid that the Methodists and Presbyterians are going to drag us back 50 years. (quoted in Feith)

Whether or not it was the result of Dorothy’s letter, steps were taken to ensure the full involvement of women in the new Uniting Church.

The Regulations legislated that for the first six years of the Uniting Church’s life at least one-third of the lay representatives of presbyteries would be women unless circumstances made it impossible, (Regulation 3.4.15(f)) and told each synod to take all reasonable steps to ensure that one-third of the lay representatives to assemblies held within the first six years were women. (Regulation 3.6.2)

In 1986 and 1987 a survey was conducted to discover the extent of women’s participation in the structures of the Uniting Church. The results of the survey were published in 1989.

Partly as a result of this investigation the Assembly Commission for Women and Men was established in 1990. (Bentley, The Uniting Church in Australia, p. 22) Its mandate included advocating justice for women in the Church, educating about sexual harassment in the Church, and developing resources using inclusive language. (Fisher and Wood, pp. 12-15) Three national Uniting Church women’s conferences were also held: The Church Made Whole (Melbourne, 1990); Women Remembering the Future (Adelaide, 1994); and Women Clothed with the Sun (Brisbane, 1996). (Fisher and Wood, pp. 13)

In 1997, at a gathering to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia the then President, Dr Jill Tabart, reflected on the achievements of the Church. She referred to the Basis of Union’s recognition of the importance of the gifts of all members:

Jill TabartThis has been the springboard for exciting movement in the life of the church, including recognising the need for young people in decision-making processes, and the place of women in leadership – and I recognise with awe that I stand in this position of first female President on the shoulders of some fervent sacrificial work by women of vision in the past. Although each of our former denominations was ordaining women prior to union, progress towards ready acceptance of the gifts of women and leadership has had a hard road, and still in some places in our church needs careful nurturing to break persisting patriarchal patterns of the past that deny the mutuality required by the gospel. (Tabart, p. 23)

In 1999 the Commission became ‘Gospel and Gender’: an agency of the Assembly promoting just relationships among women and men. (Fisher and Wood, pp. 116)

Gospel and GenderIn 2002 Gospel and Gender was disbanded.

Is that because there’s no longer any need for such a group?


Areas where there still might need some work to be done:


The eighth recommendation of ‘Why Does the Uniting Church in Australia Ordain Women to the Ministry of the Word?’ was:

8. Invite other denominations to consider the theological position of the Uniting Church in Australia on the ordination of women and authorise those who represent the Uniting Church in ecumenical dialogues to use the document as an exposition of that position.

How far are we doing this? See, for example:

Guidelines for Establishing Shared Ministry between Congregations of the Uniting Church in Australia and the Lutheran Church of Australia (2009)

To satisfy LCA requirements a minister or pastor called to provide pastoral and sacramental ministry to cooperating LCA-UCA congregations must be male and not be in a same gender relationship. To satisfy UCA requirements the minister or pastor must be willing to work with and support women and men, both lay and ordained, as colleagues in their appointed ministries. The minister or pastor retains oversight of liturgical leadership within the cooperating congregations.

In calling a Pastor/Minister each church needs to be sensitive to the formal processes of the other. The Uniting Church needs to be sensitive to the issues affecting the Lutheran Church, for example, male only ordination, and ordained presidency. Likewise, there needs to be an awareness of differences in theology and ecclesiology around the ordination of women, and greater lay involvement in leadership.

Are we being overly-ecumenical, or is the balance right?


At a gathering to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Uniting Church, a young Pacific Islander Australian woman told the church:

This church community has failed me. This church community fails me when it remains silent, failing to challenge and question tradition, values and teachings which prevent women from participating fully in the life of our church as leaders. (Richardson, Tahaffe and Wales)


In our own cultural contexts, our men are given the authority to speak on our behalf as if we had no voice or place at all in the whole enterprise of living. (Richardson, Tahaffe and Wales)

That was in 1997. Is it still true?

The Church as a Whole

Of course, Anglo-Celtic members of the church do much better on women’s equality than CALD parts. (Sarcasm).

First UCA President, J. Davis McCaughey

First UCA President, J. Davis McCaughey

Second UCA President: Winston O’Reilly

Second UCA President: Winston O’Reilly

Third UCA President: Rollie Busch

Third UCA President: Rollie Busch

Fifth UCA President: Sir Ronald Wilson

Fifth UCA President: Sir Ronald Wilson

Sixth UCA President: H. D'Arcy Wood

Sixth UCA President: H. D’Arcy Wood

Jill Tabart

Seventh UCA President: Dr Jill Tabart

Eighth UCA President: John Mavor

Eighth UCA President: John Mavor

Ninth UCA President: James Haire

Ninth UCA President: James Haire

Tenth UCA President: Dean Drayton

Tenth UCA President: Dean Drayton

Eleveth UCA President: Gregor Henderson

Eleventh UCA President: Gregor Henderson

Twelfth UCA President: Alistair Macrae

Twelfth UCA President: Alistair Macrae

Thirteenth UCA President: Andrew Dutney

Thirteenth UCA President: Andrew Dutney

and coming soon:

President-Elect: Stuart MacMillan

President-Elect: Stuart McMillan

(The fourth UCA President, Ian Tanner, isn’t shown.)

Is the ratio of 13:1 male:female heads of the Uniting Church a problem?


Carey, Hilary M., Believing in Australia: A Cultural History of Religions, St Leonards, Allen and Unwin, 1996.

Feith, Betty, Women in Ministry: The Order of Deaconesses and the Campaign for the Ordination of Women within the Methodist Church 1942-1977, Glen Iris, Kyarra Press, 1990.

Fisher, Judi and Janet Wood (ed), Colours True and Splendid: the decade of the churches in solidarity with women, Gospel and Gender, National Assembly of the Uniting Church in Australia, Sydney South, 1999.

O’Brien, Anne, God’s Willing Workers: Women and Religion in Australia. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2005

Richardson, Robyn, Katalina Tahaffe and Nonie Wales, ‘Sing About Life, Sing About Possibilities: Women and the Uniting Church’, in William W. Emilsen and Susan Emilsen (ed.), Marking Twenty Years: The Uniting Church in Australia 1977-1997, UTC, North Parramatta, 1997, pp. 224-36.

Tabart, Jill, ‘What I Know Now’, in William W. Emilsen and Susan Emilsen (ed.), Marking Twenty Years: The Uniting Church in Australia 1977-1997, UTC, North Parramatta, 1997, pp. 15-25.

West, Janet, Daughters of Freedom: A History of Women in the Australian Church, Sutherland, Albatross, 1997.

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14 Responses to Women in the Uniting Church: By a partial, prejudiced, and ignorant Historian (to quote the immortal Jane)

  1. PaulW says:

    Thanks Avril. How interesting that Marlene Thalheimer was at Romsey and Lancefield, I hadn’t known. (Of course, you missed the Most Important Fact about Winifred Kiek: she was a Yorkshirewoman.)

    • avrilhj says:

      Sorry, Paul! I hadn’t picked that up. And, yes, Polly’s first placement was my first placement; I was so excited when I found that out!

  2. Bob Faser says:

    Avril, it’s interesting you mention a 61-39 gender ratio in the UCA (from the 2001 NCLS). In the UCA congregations I know, the percentages of men attending worship are far lower than that.

    • avrilhj says:

      One of the students in the class had access to the most recent NCLS stats (I wasn’t willing to pay money for them) and found that membership of the Uniting Church, which isn’t quite the same thing as church attenders, is now 60% women 40% men. But it would be good to get some accurate details from the Assembly or Synod. Whatever the numbers, I think we’re still looking at a situation of women being the majority in the pews and the minority in leadership.

  3. RK says:

    Thanks for this Avril, especially for my favourite passages from Adam Bede.
    Interestingly, a report came through NSW/ACT last year identifying characteristics of congregations most likely to grow. One was having men well represented in the membership (sorry, no references). Rachel

    • avrilhj says:

      I guess it’s like any other group – get in a reasonable number of them and the congregation will seem welcoming to others of that demographic. As with children and teenagers.

  4. Pastor Geoff Battle says:

    Thanks for the article Avril. Just some information on our congregation at Forster Tuncurry Uniting. Whilst I am the current pastor ( and male) our last two ordained ministers in placement have been women. Our two lay presiders are women and both our worship teams are facilitated by women. Of our 9 church council members, 6 are women and three are male. Possibly times have or are changing.

    • avrilhj says:

      That’s good to know, Geoff. I think the Uniting Church is streets ahead of most denominations when it comes to the equality of women and men. I’m very proud of us, even though there are areas in which we can improve. So it’s lovely to hear about another church that is benefiting from women’s leadership. Thanks!

  5. Weep for we Catholic women! Kaylyn Taylor

    • avrilhj says:

      The Catholics will get there. the Church is 2000 years old and most protestant churches have been ordaining women for less that 5% of that time. The Catholics and Orthodox will catch up, eventually.

  6. Pingback: Ramping up the rhetoric, generating guilt and provoking panic: the failed strategy of conservatives in the UCA (part I) – An Informed Faith

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