A church which celebrates women's leadership

General Secretary Colleen Geyer's address the NSW/ACT's Pre-Synod meeting Eco Day celebrating the leadership of women.

What can we learn from the above, for the challenge of making our relationship with the rest of Creation a core aspect of our identity, not just in words but in every aspect of our discipleship? 

Earlier in September I was at the VIC/TAS Synod in Melbourne and ran into Jill Tabart. We hugged each other and had a quick catch up. The first time I saw Jill was at a Qld Synod meeting, the first time we were to use consensus decision-making. I was a small group leader. I’d had my training and was a bit nervous. When we went into the main meeting, Jill was sitting at the top table. It was a revelation. I’d only attended one other Synod meeting and was taken by speeches that went on, power that was wielded through them and the processes. What I experienced with Jill and the move to consensus was something completely different.

Last year I met the World Council of Churches General Secretary Rev. Dr Olav Fyske Tveit. He thanked the Uniting Church for the gift of consensus decision-making – he said it took the ‘power over’ away and brought meaningful dialogue.

Jill Tabart - the first woman President of the Uniting Church – is someone definitely worth celebrating.

When I think of other significant practices in the Uniting Church – ones we take for granted – I think of the Sexual Abuse Misconduct Complaints Procedures and the Code of Ethics for Ministry Practice. And then I think of Noni Wales and Christine Cargill, both significant leaders of the Commission on Women and Men and then Gospel and Gender. It was during their time that these processes were developed, resourced, and rolled out with training across the country. They made us realise that policies and processes like these are important foundations for our Church as we continue to be the best we can be. I caught up with Christine this year in London where she lives and works as an Anglican Priest; Noni continues to teach organisations about good governance.

At my first meeting of Uniting Church General Secretaries when I began in this role last year, I asked them, “If all your dreams for the Uniting Church came true, what would the Uniting Church look like in 10 years time?” One of them said that people in Australia would be saying, “isn’t it amazing how the people of the Uniting Church turned that stuff about the refugees around. Thank goodness we don’t have offshore detention because of what they did.” Clearly there’s a lot of work ahead of us to achieve that. I can’t imagine our commitment to justice for refugees and asylum seekers without the absolute commitment and voice of Elenie Poulos. She called our church to come together with a common mind and a national position, and a passion to stand with marginalised and vulnerable people escaping danger in their homelands.

A couple of months ago I spent a few weeks in Canada with Congress leaders as part of the Moderator of the United Church of Canada’s Reconciliation Dialogue. I travelled with Denise Champion, an Adnyamathanha woman from South Australia, and an amazing Congress leader. Denise holds the language and ancient stories of her land in the Flinders Ranges, and shares these as a gift to us all, and as evidence of what we say in the Preamble to our Constitution: “The First Peoples had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in the land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony..”

Denise has wise words to say about reconciliation. She says reconciliation will happen when her children and grandchildren can sit down with my children and grandchildren and they will be able to speak to each other in their own language and be understood. In June 2015, Denise was also the first Aboriginal ordained into Christian ministry in South Australia; following in the footsteps of Liyapidiny Marika, the first Aboriginal woman to be ordained in the Uniting Church in September 1991 in Yirrkala in Arnhem Land.

And in our community services, the picture of Lin Hatfield Dodds striding fearlessly into Parliament House in Canberra, demanding better policies and outcomes for vulnerable people that are cared for in our services across Australia (just as Claerwen Little continues to do); Anne Cross, CEO of UnitingCare Qld, Telstra Business Woman of the Year, holding a massive agency to the foundation of its identity as being part of the Uniting Church.

Today, we have a female President-elect (Deidre Palmer - an educator, and advocator for justice, who embraces the potential of grace and hope for the Church) and Assembly General Secretary (me), four Moderators (until tonight… Myung Hwa Park, Sharon Hollis, Sue Ellis, and Thresi Mauboy) and two Synod General Secretaries (Heather den Houting and Jane Fry). Four of the six people in the Assembly executive team are women too.

This year is the 40th anniversary of the Uniting Church. At our inauguration there was only one woman in the national leadership group – Lilian Wells, the Moderator of the Synod of New South Wales.

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.

By the Sixth Assembly in 1991, the Assembly resolved: That all Assembly Commissions, Boards, Committees, Task Groups, and Agencies be required to have a minimum representation of members of each gender.
(a) From 1991, as near as practicable, at least one-third of the membership;
(b) From 1997, as near as practicable, fifty percent of the membership.

Partly as a result of an investigation into women’s participation in the structures of the Uniting Church in the late 1980s, 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 (discussed earlier), 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) 

I heard about The Church Made Whole, was encouraged to attend Women Remembering the Future and was the Assembly worker organising Women Clothed with the Sun. At these conferences, we were inspired by Uniting Church matriarchs, Dorothy McRae McMahon, Janet Wood, Judi Fisher, Coralie Ling, and others. These conferences coincided with my theological study and my important introduction to feminist theology and feminist theologians. I realised that there was a different frame to understand my faith, the Bible and how the Church organised its beliefs. Today important women leaders, theologians and thought leaders contribute to the education and formation of our future leaders – Jenny Byrnes, Vicki Balabanski, Sally Douglas, Katherine Massam, Janice McRandal, Liz Boase, Helen Richmond.

When Hilary Christie-Johnson raised the issue of the presence of women at the Last Supper in her address to the Church Made Whole conference, I’m not sure she could have seen what would come from that. The Last Supper Project which asked four Australian artists, Margaret Ackland, John Coburn, Kerry Martin and Carol Ruff to consider a contemporary and inclusive image of the Last Supper, brought a new visual understanding of the place of women in the Church to the Uniting Church, to other Churches and to the public. Margaret Ackland’s painting, Last Supper No. 2 was the final painting, though the other drawings and paintings form part of the collection. While I was working for Gospel and Gender, we decided to bring the whole collection together and it now hangs at the Centre for Ministry at Parramatta. If you haven’t seen these influential works, it’s worth a visit.

So, a bit of the history, a few stories, the names of some of the women in leadership in the Uniting Church. A lot to celebrate. But definitely not an ending.

In 1997, at the 20th anniversary of the Uniting Church, Jill Tabart said:

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)

Even though we have a history, we still have more to do.

In case you’re thinking about the future, let me say that I’m with you. When I look to the future, I’m excited by the present, the young women leaders who are stepping up, to ministry, to membership of councils and committees, to leadership in their faith communities and workplaces, to study and training. Women like Candace Champion, Brooke Prentis, Bethany Broadstock, Emily Evans, Rhanee e Tsetsakos, Jessica Morthorpe, Rev Fa Matangi and others.

These are fierce young women who love our Church and want to make a difference.

They’re adding their voices to calls for justice, their gifts and skills to the mission of the Uniting Church, their intelligence and wit to dreaming of new ways for the Church to be about God’s call to transform lives and communities. We should encourage them, support them, resource them, believe in them, and sometimes the hardest thing of all, move aside and get out of their way.

So what have we learnt from these amazing women leaders that we celebrate?

  • Tenacity - they hang in there to achieve what they set their minds to
  • Fearlessness - it often takes a heap of courage to be the first, to be the voice for others, to hold the space for the powerless
  • Future focused - these women have looked to the future and to those that come after, and they’ve wanted to make a difference for them
  • Joy filled - women know how to find joy, to laugh and to encourage others to join in - this is an amazing gift when times are tough and dark
  • Champions of hope - seeing the best that is in people, what is possible, and what the love of God offers us

The Uniting Church has made national statements about the environment and climate change over the last 40 years, and these have their foundations in the inaugural statement to the nation.

We are concerned with the basic human rights of future generations and will urge the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment and the replenishment of the earth's resources for their use and enjoyment.

As part of my previous job with UnitingCare Qld, I led the organisation’s work in environmental sustainability. I was presenting at a graduate program for the University of Qld’s Business School about the work once, and someone asked me if I ever got tired because environmental work meant you had to be in it for the long haul. They were right, and we know this, we understand it.

The First Peoples of this land know this - their deep connection to the land and the Creator sing to us of this and we need to listen, and to honour and to work together to protect this land, God’s creation for future generations.

And to do that we’ll need to be tenacious, fearless, focused on the future - to see the joy in it all and to have an abundance of hope.