Second to None: A Tribute to Barbara Darling

Barbara Darling died last Sunday, 15 February 2015, aged 67. Like so many others, I am mourning the sudden and untimely loss of a friend, mentor, colleague and bishop.

For me, Barb Darling had always been there. She is the first person I remember outside the family, as she lived across the stairwell from us at Ridley College when I was three. Barbara the Queen’s Guide was there for my first day of cub scouts. Barbara the historian was there for my first book launch. Barbara the Senior Canon was even there to present me for installation as Lay Canon at St Paul’s Cathedral in a moment neither of us could have foreseen. To me it seemed only natural that Bishop Barbara was, if not my godmother, my Mother-in-God.

Because of who she came to be, Barbara’s life is inextricably linked with the extraordinary story of the ordination of women in the Anglican Church, a theological event that defined her vocation and ministry. Some twenty years ago I interviewed Barbara as part of research I was conducting on the early ordination debates. I am still struck not only by how ready she was to tell her story, but also by how articulate she was about what it all might mean.

Barbara was deeply conscious of being first. Yet, in a world obsessed with women who came first, it is worth recording that Barbara Darling often came second.

In 1986, she was in the second group of women ordained to the diaconate in Melbourne. The ceremony, held on Ascension Day, was mercifully free from the bomb scare that disrupted the first ordination of female deacons. And as this second ceremony was less likely to be subject to yet another legal challenge, Archbishop Penman was daring enough to whisper ‘and sisters’ every time he addressed the ordinands as ‘brothers’ .

In 1989 when she became deacon in charge of the parish of Ascot Vale, she was the second woman in Melbourne appointed to run a parish, following in the footsteps of Marjorie McGregor at Northcote. And finally, in 2008, she was the second woman to be consecrated a bishop in Australia, just a few days after Kay Goldsworthy was consecrated in Perth.

As I reflect on the years that led to these life-changing events, I see that Barbara was second to none in facing up to the great challenge of the first generation of ordained women. It is difficult to explain how profoundly challenging it was for these women to respond to God’s call on their lives when for so long the Church was unable to understand and then to honour that call. This calling flew against the received wisdom of both Church and world. Receiving a renewed wisdom required an extraordinary degree of openness, a preparedness to question assumed truths about the scriptures. This process of discernment pushed Barbara and her sisters into leadership roles for which there was no precedent.

Barbara was unusual in being willing to discuss her own struggle with the question of the role of women in the church with others in public. When the newspapers came around to Ridley College in 1975 and 1976 to ask why on earth highly educated women in their 20s were studying at theological college with no prospect of ordination, she was prepared to answer honestly their well-meaning but baffled questions. This honesty set her on the path to becoming a role model. This was a ministry she fostered and grew throughout her life, and an identity which empowered her to step up to new challenges for the sake of those who might follow.
In 1995 Barbara offered me this observation:
I didn’t have any role models of women within the Church, and I think that’s something about the whole early group of us … there were women around, but it wasn’t that you saw women in parishes … And I see that as one of my roles, of the roles of the others of us who were also first, to be role models, for the other, younger ones that are coming through. And that’s exciting.

Being a role model was at the centre of Barbara’s ministry. Since her death, many women have spoken of her encouragement, her support, and her criticism in the hard work of discernment. But crucially, Barbara understood that the Church was not a place to stand still. The point of being a role model was not to turn future generations of women into clones of herself, but to open the gate to new possibilities, new ministries, and new ways of proclaiming the gospel. Barbara was open to what the second, and third, and fourth generations of clergywomen might be called to be:

And they’ll be different, and they are. And they often want to go a lot further than we did, because we think it’s extreme to get to certain places and then they take that for granted and they want to go further on. That’s interesting.

I have no doubt that one of the most devastating aspects of her untimely death is the knowledge that the Church has lost a role model, a mentor, a great encourager of others. We know in our hearts that new generations of women – and men – will now be deprived of the benefits of her counsel, her challenge, her support.

Barbara’s commitment to being a role model flowed directly from her own experience. Like her sisters in ministry, she took an incredible risk to study theology full-time without knowing where it would lead. She was a school teacher and librarian with a promising career ahead of her, and yet at the beginning of 1975 she resigned her job to move to Melbourne, away from family and friends, to take up a place at Ridley College. As she put it:

It was a real step of faith … I was giving up a really good job with really good pay and nice holidays to go off to pay to go to College to learn about, you know, Sunday school stuff.

Within two years, she found herself with a ThL and on the first of a series of one-year contracts as a lecturer and librarian at Ridley, that led to another ten years working in theological education. As a staff member of the College, the Principal, Dr Leon Morris, expected and encouraged her to preach, a new experience for her – and for the College.

Barbara took up the task of preaching with a humble authority, willing from her earliest sermons to reveal her own hesitations. On 22 August 1976 she preached at Ridley College Chapel on 1 Corinthians 12, and took as her theme the role of women. She reviewed the well-known New Testament texts on the role of women in the Church and home, and on the relationship between husbands and wives, men and women. It is one of the earliest surviving records of her theological reflection on the issue of women’s ordination. This is what she recorded in her speaking notes:

I can see a role for women helping men by exercising gifts of preaching, teaching, and encouraging others and to me this does not go against the great Biblical principles of Genesis 1:22 and Galatians 3:28 – that we have been created by God in His image and that we are all one in Him. I can see a role for team ministry – but husbands have authority over wives – wouldn’t deny that – but joint together in Christ. Not denying Pauline passages within a family situation. Need for the freedom to trust and submit. Therefore culturally and socially I together with many others wouldn’t like to see a woman over men in control of a parish single handed – but no theological reasons against it.

Barbara’s views on these matters continued to develop and change in future years, not least before she herself first accepted the call to be in charge of a parish, single handed and with authority over men. The significance of this sermon is that Barbara was willing to express her doubts, to criticise her own cultural assumptions and to work through a rigorous theological process, even in the earliest days of her preaching ministry. As she put it on that occasion, ‘Still thinking this through – pray you will do so too.’

Barbara was passionate about searching out and proclaiming the gospel – the good news – for women and for men. Her sermon on the role of women began and ended with this passion, providing the context for her consideration of the New Testament injunctions concerning women in the Church. This is how she began:

[We are] created male or female – like to look tonight at the gifts God has given the church: to men and women – for upbuilding of church.

And this is how she ended:

Pray that above all we may be united in the spirit, working together to build up God’s kingdom using the talents or gifts God has given us.

The challenges faced by Barbara and her sisters are evident in the story of her 1981 selection conference for the Diocese of Melbourne. Melbourne had been selecting women as ‘candidates for ministry’ since 1974. The problem was, no-one really knew what they were being selected for, and what they would do once the period of training was completed. As Barbara put it:

I really prayed that by that stage the diocese might encourage and tell me where to go. Then I had a sense of call but didn’t quite know what it was, and they didn’t quite know what it was either, so in the end I became a trained woman worker which as we tell people is better than a “licensed lady” which is what they were going to call us … It was a two-day selection conference, and they really didn’t quite know what to do with the women … I remember going to see the Archbishop … and he said “well, what are we going to do with you?” and I said “well I was hoping you’d tell me that” and he said “I was hoping you’d tell me that”. So we sat and looked at each other and he said, how about trained woman worker.

Ordination was not possible for another five years. The faithfulness of Barbara and her generation is exemplified in this willingness to enter uncharted waters, confident only in the belief that God called all people to build up the kingdom using their gifts no matter how strange or new the means.

After ordination as a deacon in 1986, and accepting the parish of Ascot Vale in 1989, Barbara faced a period of waiting. She waited for the Church to decide if and when it would ordain women as priests. She waited for the day when she no longer had to call on a team of ‘rent a priests’, male priests who could say the ABCs (absolution, blessing, consecration) at the eucharist. In the end she waited for four years, displaying an incredible patience with the Church she loved.

Barbara was proactive in this long period of waiting. Besides taking her part in synods and councils, making the case for change, she made waiting useful. Barbara learned how to be a leader, a team player, an enabler of others, a focus of unity. The visitor to Ascot Vale had no doubt about who was in charge, even as the awkward shuffle took place at the holy table every Sunday when the vicar briefly stepped aside for the male priest. She rejoiced in the fact that the campaign for the ordination of women brought together Christians of a wide variety of backgrounds – feminists and traditionalists, catholics and evangelicals, men and women – who discovered a deep unity in Christ as they changed the way the Church did business.

Throughout her faithful ministry as a trained woman worker, as a deacon, priest, and bishop, Barbara showed us that the ordination of women truly was God’s gift to the Church. Barbara’s greatest gifts were her willingness to take risks, to expose her hesitations, doubts and struggles, to encourage and enable others to find and grow into their calling, and always to be hopeful, focussed on the gifts and talents God was giving to the Church. Admitting women to the priesthood and episcopate made it possible for an even greater abundance of talents to be offered in the service of God, and opened an astonishing, unexpected avenue for giving glory to God.

I will miss her terribly. While we wait to meet her again with all the saints, I know that the best way to honour her memory is to follow her example: to wait fruitfully, to encourage others, and above all to be open to the amazing new things God is doing through us and around us every day of our lives.



Filed under Anglican Church, theology, women

3 responses to “Second to None: A Tribute to Barbara Darling

  1. Fay Magee

    Thanks, Peter; a great contribution to processing sadness and grief.

  2. Thank you for sharing your memories and reflections, Peter.

  3. Margaret Tembo

    Thank you Peter, my memories of Barbara are full of love and care and hospitality, I shall miss her friendship, Margaret Tembo

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