Reflection for the 44th anniversary of the creation of the Uniting Church

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
Anticipating the 44th anniversary of the Uniting Church, 22nd of June, 2021

Note: This is a longer version of the Reflection. The spoken version given on Sunday morning is shorter.

You may have seen in the news last week that the Anglican Church of Australia has released a report into domestic abuse and the church. The National Anglican Family Violence Research Report, conducted by researchers from Charles Sturt University, found that members of the Anglican Church were more likely to have experienced domestic violence than the general community, and that 88% of those who did experience domestic violence did not seek help from their church. Horrifyingly the report found that “Christian teachings sometimes contribute to and potentially amplify situations of domestic violence”.

I would like to think that the situation in the Uniting Church is better, although we do not have any data on it. We know that the situation in many of our partner churches in the Pacific is much worse. One of UnitingWorld’s projects is ‘gender equality’ because, as UnitingWorld says, 95% of people across the Pacific identify as Christian and Christian teachings have a massive influence on people’s behaviour but around 68% of women and girls experience violence in their homes and communities. The reason I feel that I can hope that there is less family violence among Uniting Church members than there is among Anglicans is that the researchers from Charles Sturt University found that church teachings on equality, mercy and love could help empower victims. The Uniting Church has taught gender equality from before there even was a Uniting Church.

Every few years I give a seminar at Pilgrim Theological College on women’s ordination in the Uniting Church, and since we are celebrating the Uniting Church’s birthday today I am going to give you a tiny snippet of that seminar. The Uniting Church believes that the ordination of women is a matter of the substance of the faith. No one can become a minister in the Uniting Church without accepting the ordination of women; it is non-negotiable. In 1990 the Assembly released a report titled: ‘Why Does the Uniting Church in Australia Ordain Women to the Ministry of the Word?‘ The Church’s answer to that question was:

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.

Of course, there is nothing in the Bible that specifically says that women should be ordained, and some parts of Scripture that would seem to argue against it. The Uniting Church argues that despite this the Bible points us towards a new equality of male and female in Christ, and a new creation in Christ that transcends all the old divisions between human beings, including any division between male and female. And so in 1990 the Church said:

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.

This is the policy of the Uniting Church. We ordain women; we believe that ordaining women as well as men is of the substance of the gospel; anyone who wants to be ordained in the Uniting Church must accept this; and we hope that in time other churches will also see the light. How did we get here?

The theological answer is that we got here through the power of the Holy Spirit, which corrected that which was previously erroneous in our life by so clearly calling women to the ordained ministry and giving those women the gifts necessary for that service. Amen. But I am a historian, so my answer is, well, yes, obviously that is true; but also because of the lives and work of many women who proved themselves ready and capable for ordination to the ministry of the Word by already exercising ministry in places other than their ‘home churches,’ in the mission field or in the community, until the home churches of these women were forced to accept that God was calling them to ordination. I want to tell you some of their stories.

The question of the ordination of women was first put to the Methodist General Conference in 1929 and the Conference voted 68 in favour, 65 against. Of course a committee was immediately created. In 1935 the General Conference reaffirmed the principle of women’s ordination, but decided that it was impractical, and so instead created an Order of Deaconesses as an ‘acceptable and workable alternative’, which would provide ‘suitable opportunity for consecrated service’.[1]

Deaconesses 2

The first Deaconesses were received into training in 1943, and the first three Deaconesses were ‘dedicated’ (not ordained) in 1946. The deaconesses studied with the male candidates for Methodist ordination, but also had to take extra classes, and do the housework at the Methodist training home Esperanza. One deaconess later told historian Betty Feith:

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’.[2]

In 1963 it was agreed that Deaconesses in full membership could be ordained. In 1967 Rev. Bev Bellinger became the first ordained Deaconess.

The idea in 1935 was that being a Deaconess would satisfy women who wanted a ‘suitable opportunity for consecrated service’ – but not everyone was satisfied. Throughout the 1930s Lillian L. Scholes, M.A., B.D., DipEd., made her qualifications for ordination obvious. An article in The Herald in 1932 wrote of her:

Miss Lillian Scholes who was recently appointed organising secretary of the Methodist Home Mission Ladies’ League was the preacher at the Moonee Ponds Methodist Church last night. Miss Scholes, who is a daughter of the late Rev. Samuel Scholes, one of the ablest preachers the Victorian church has produced, plans to enter the ministry of the church, provided that the General Assembly passes the requisite legislation. She had a brilliant career at Queen’s College, where she took her Master of Arts degree and gained the Diploma of Education.[3]

And an article in The Australian Women’s Weekly in 1933 said:

In the Methodist Church in Victoria, services are frequently conducted entirely by women. Women’s choirs sing during the service, women announce the hymns, read the scriptural passages, and give the sermon. There is a growing demand for this type of service, and there are always a number of men in the congregation. The most recent of these services was held at Ascot Vale, when a women’s choir under the leadership of Mrs. R. Shofford gave a special programme, and the preacher was Miss Lillian Scholes. Miss Scholes is a master of arts and a bachelor of divinity, and is one of the best-known women speakers in the Methodist Church.[4]

Finally, on Christmas Day in 1937 another article in The Women’s Weekly said of her:

Lillian L. Scholes, M.A., B.D., DipEd., qualified to become a Methodist minister several years ago, and when the Methodist Church admits women to the pulpit she will be the first of her sex to be ordained. In the meantime she is working hard for the Women’s Home Mission League of the Methodist Church in Victoria, and has written several interesting books.[5]

Scholes was never ordained because of that 1935 decision that an Order of Deaconesses would be an ‘acceptable and workable alternative’.

Winifred Kiek 1

At around the same time that Lillian Scholes was qualifying herself to become a Methodist minister, the Congregational Union was ordaining its first women. The first woman to be ordained was Winifred Kiek, B.A, B.D., the wife of Rev. Stanley Kiek, the Principal of the Congregationalist Training College in Adelaide. She was ordained in 1927 into the Colonel Light Gardens Congregational Church after having been the minister in charge there for a year. Her husband, Rev. Principal Kiek, explained at her ordination 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 to prevent the ordination of women.[6]

Rev. Isabelle Merry was ordained in 1937, the first woman ordained in the Congregationalist Church in Victoria-Tasmania. The Age wrote of her, ‘with fair, wavy hair and smiling eyes Miss Isabelle Merry provides a happy picture of a woman pastor’ and explained that her experience as Head Prefect of University High School and in the State Savings Bank would stand her in good stead in her ministry.[7] When she attended the Congregational Assembly in Queensland in 1947 Merry was seen as so unusual that the Bowen Independent newspaper wrote an article about her with the headline: ‘Minister uses lipstick’ and the opening sentences: ‘To young, happy-faced, wavy-haired minister of religion Isabelle Merry, lipstick, scanty clothing, and perfumes were not the inventions of the devil. Neither were powder and permanent waves—she used them herself.’[8] Ordained women were apparently still to be seen as a novelty, not to be taken seriously.


Only eight women were ordained in the Congregational Union of Australia before 1960, and while their own communities appreciated and respected them, they suffered lower rates of pay and poorer working conditions than male clergy. They often had difficulty getting second placements. Nor were they necessarily helpful to the women who followed them. In discussions leading up to Union Isabelle Merry was asked to work on a research project about women’s ministry with Coralie Ling, who was one of the first women ordained in the Methodist Church. Merry refused on the grounds that Ling was a feminist.[9]

The Methodist Church, having decided in 1935 that there were no theological grounds against the ordination of women, it was simply a matter of practicality, suddenly, in 1966, it decided that there were no longer any practical issues either. With little prior debate the General Conference 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.[10] The final vote was 132 in favour of the ordination of women and 18 against it.[11] Three years later the first two women were ordained: Margaret Sanders in Perth and Coralie Ling in Melbourne. Incidentally, Margaret Sanders had received the highest marks in Australia in the ordination exam. Both women had been deaconesses before ordained as ministers of the Word.[12]

Coralie LingMargaret Sanders

Finally after many, many, committees, the Presbyterian Church, too, decided that women could be ordained. In 1962 the General Assembly established a committee on the ‘Service of the Laity in the Church and Community’, which reported in 1964 that special work had been done by the Rev’d Alan Smart BA, BD specifically on the place of women in the ministry of the Word and sacraments. The Committee defined the general problem as ‘Does the gospel through its very nature require masculinity in the ministry?’ In 1970 Smart presented a third and final report which said:

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 was Marlene ‘Polly’ Thalheimer in 1974, who said that “[f]or too long women in the Church have been asked to make the tea and do the jobs none of the men wanted”.[13] She became Minister at Romsey and Lancefeld and was there when Union took place.

The Methodist Church was discussing women’s ordination while the vote for Union was getting close. During the discussion the Rev. Dr Eric Osborn argued the ‘no’ case, saying that he feared that allowing women’s ordination would hinder ecumenical relations and damage the delicate negotiations concerning Church Union. But as historian Betty Feith writes:

the most tireless, silver-tongued and able advocate for Church Union [was the] the Rev. Dr A. Harold Wood, who had campaigned for Union along with World Peace, in and out of season. [He] 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 Rev. Bev Bellinger, who had been the first woman ordained as a Methodist Deaconess, was the first woman ordained in the Uniting Church. As I said at the beginning of this snippet of a seminar, in 1990 the Uniting Church made it clear that the ordination of women is non-negotiable.

At Pilgrim Theological College I have an hour and a half to go into this history, and so I talk about continuing issues of gender equality in the Uniting Church. Ordaining women does not automatically make a church a beacon of equality. However, it is certainly a good first step. Some Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) communities in the Uniting Church are still ordaining their first female ministers, and every such ordination is to be celebrated. I do not know whether having women ministers and taking the ordination of women for granted does mean that members of the Uniting Church are less likely to be the perpetrators or victims of gendered violence, but I pray that that is the case. On this, our forty-fourth birthday, I hope that the ordination of women is something we can share with other churches as we continue to ‘beseech those members of other Churches, or even of our own Church, who have not yet reached this conclusion to think again’. Amen.

[1] Betty Feith, 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, p. 9.

[2] Betty Feith, Women in Ministry, p. 19.

[3] The Herald (Melbourne), Monday 21 November 1932, p. 9

[4] ‘Church Services Conducted by Women’ in The Australian Women’s Weekly, 23 September 1933, p. 26.

[5] The Australian Women’s Weekly, 25 December 1937, p. 37.

[6] The Register (Adelaide, SA), Tuesday 14 June 1927.

[7] ‘Woman to be ordained,’ The Age, Saturday, 18 December 1937, p. 15.

[8] Bowen Independent (Qld), Friday June 1947, p. 8.

[9] Anne O’Brien. God’s Willing Workers: Women and Religion in Australia. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2005, p. 237.

[10] Betty Feith, Women in Ministry, p. 28.

[11] Betty Feith, Women in Ministry, p. 31.

[12] The Canberra Times, Saturday, October 25 1969, p. 20.

[13] The Canberra Times (ACT), Tuesday 20 August 1974, p. 1

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