On Ascension Day 1986 (8 May then, 2 June this year) 10 women and 2 men were made deacons in the Church of God by David Penman, the Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, at St Paul’s Cathedral. These days, such an event merits a picture in the diocesan Anglican newspaper, TMA, and maybe an interview with a couple of the ordinands. Back then, there was a photo in The Age and clips on the TV news, for the first Anglican ordination service including women – if we exclude the ordinations of hundreds of deaconesses since 1884 – had only taken place in Melbourne in February that year. The difference between this service and the one in February was that these women were not long-serving deaconesses whose orders were finally being recognised, but women who had graduated from theological colleges in the 1970s and 1980s, often without a clear sense of where God was leading them.
The service went off without a hitch (no bomb threats this time), and the Archbishop courageously whispered ‘and sisters’ every time he had to address the prospective deacons as ‘brothers’, as required by the service used in those days.
For me, aged 13, it was a slightly confusing event. My father had been ordained priest in the same Cathedral, with much less attention, in December the previous year, and now it was my mother’s turn. My brother and I were thus among the inaugural members of the clergy couple kids’ club. For the next decade it was regularly assumed that I would be ordained too, just because my parents were.
It took six long years before the crisis over the ordination of women as priests was overcome by a further round of ordinations, for deacons who were leading parishes and taking on increasing responsibilities. And it was another twenty-two years before women were consecrated as bishops.
Two things should be recognised. First and foremost is the joyous service of those 12 women and men, who include two bishops (Barbara and Greg), a dean (Peta), an archdeacon (Heather), and many faithful deacons and priests. Some are now retired or on the verge of retirement, and others have died.
Second is the extraordinary change that has been wrought in the Church. Even with a backlash in swing against the ordination of women, even with the failure to achieve consensus on this matter in Australia or the Communion, even with the blunting of the radical edge of the Christian feminist movement, no-one blinks an eyelid these days when a woman walks down the street in a clerical collar, or uses the title Reverend, or takes a wedding or a funeral, or sings Evensong at the Cathedral, or binds up the broken-hearted, or pronounces absolution for the penitent, or makes a speech in synod about the mission of the Church. Gone are the male-only councils, the 1950s attitudes that rested on the sometimes-thanked service of a woman behind the scenes, the boys’ club of the urinals at synods, and the stunting of the vocation of the whole people of God that resulted from repressing the movement of the Spirit in our midst. All this, and more, is worth celebrating.