On Wednesday evening last week forty one women gathered at Trinity College for an event organised by the committee for the Council for Australian Catholic Women (Perth). The Council was set up by the bishops of Australia to increase the participation of women in the Church. Three speakers addressed the meeting on the topic Women Prompting Change in the Church. The speakers described the difficulties women have had in being respected as equals in the Church and revealed how women have manoeuvred around this obstacle.

Dr Margaret Scharf OP discussed the changing role of women in the Church throughout its history. At first women were present but later became largely invisible. During the first three hundred years, women were very involved in facilitating the spread of Christianity. They were deacons, patrons and helpers as St Paul attested in his writings. In later times women were sent to monasteries before they married. Here they were educated. Some remained there as religious and become abbesses, teachers, scientists and spiritual advisers. Through the centuries many role models emerged including Scholastica, twin sister of Benedict, Hildegard of Bingen, Joan of Arc and two Doctors of the Church in Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila.  Semi-monastic lay communities also evolved such as the Bequines who did not take formal religious vows and numbered about 60,000. After the Second Vatican Council, many women and men completed theological studies. Some women felt the call to ordination but either left the Church or took up leadership positions in the health and education sectors and became spiritual directors, parish administrators and theology lecturers.

The Reverend Tess Milne shared her personal story as a woman journeying towards the priesthood in the Anglican Church. After 16 years of priestly ministry as a parish Rector, Tess is now practicing as a Spiritual Director and lectures with Dayspring. Tess converted to the Anglican Church as an adult and joined its evangelical wing. This gave her an excellent grounding in pastoral care, mentoring , discipleship and Christian ministry but she felt called to the priesthood. Through her bible studies she believed Jesus was not biased against women and came for all of us. Both Tess and her husband Bob were discerned as people to proceed to deacon formation. Bob was invited to be ordained a priest but he held back from ordination until Tess could also be ordained.  She was among 10 women who were ordained in Perth by Archbishop Carnley in 1992 becoming the first women priests in Australia. The intense media attention of those times taught her valuable lessons in media skills and self-control.  She derived great joy from listening to older women talk to her about things they had not shared before and believes she enabled many women to come to an adult faith during her time as rector. Tess blames the rigidity of Church constitutions and statutes for creating a culture of constraint restricting women in their creative ministry. This prevents the role of priest from being modified to adapt to a changing world. Cultural change is needed for women’s ministry to really flourish.

The final speaker was Scilla Stack a Parish Pastoral Councillor  and  Plenary Council Animator for Shenton Park Parish.  Scilla is also secretary for the Council for Australian Catholic Women and describes herself as a Roman Catholic feminist. She converted from the Anglican faith, married her Catholic husband and brought up three children in the Catholic system. While shocked by recent failings of Church governance this has not been a serious obstacle to her faith which entails a direct encounter with Jesus Christ. While studying history she became interested in feminist theology. Elizabeth Johnson and Sandra Schneider were especially inspiring for her but were not cited approvingly by male counterparts. She argues that Christian ideas and language about God is deeply influenced by male bias in scripture and patriarchal social structures. Church teaching suffers from the absence of women voices. Bishop Vincent Long argues that an elitist hierarchy is a far cry from the model of the Humble Servant that Jesus exemplified. What model might the Church follow going forward? Cardinal Dulles called for a model of Mystical Communion. She truly believes this communion of grace is evident today in the Plenary 2020 process.

A dynamic group discussion followed the presentations. Margaret was asked why women from the Church of the Indian subcontinent were not included and how are these women from history relevant today. Margaret referred to women of influence today such as Joan Chittister and Teresa of Calcutta and the many feminist theologians who had flourished since the Vatican Council who had been inspired by women from the past.  Scilla Stack spoke of the recovered religious history of Catholic women during the Catholic Reformation revealing mainstream Church histories to be biased and only partial accounts.  Women were marginalised and silenced and were not included in the governing structure of the Church to its detriment today. History can reveal truths relevant for today

The committee would like to thank Maria Stewart and Trinity College for the use of the staff room for the function.

An original article written by Kerry MacFarlane