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Instinctively Egalitarian

Signs of encouragement from Australia

The people are immensely likable—cheerful, extrovert[ed], quick-witted, and unfailingly obliging. Their cities are safe and clean and nearly always built on water. They have a society that is prosperous, well ordered, and instinctively egalitarian. The food is excellent. The beer is cold. The sun nearly always shines. There is coffee on every corner. Life doesn’t get much better than this.

This is Bill Bryson’s description of Australia in his book, In a Sunburned Country. Like all generalizations, there is some truth in it, but only some. Melbourne, where I live, does have the best coffee in the world, but I have to admit the sun shines more in Sydney, Perth, and Brisbane. And when it comes to being egalitarian, something many Australians take pride in, one can question whether this is more myth than reality. There is an increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and despite the words of our national anthem, “For those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share,” our policies are far from welcoming to refugees and asylum-seekers who arrive here by boat. 

As to equality between men and women, it might look like we’re doing very well. Until recently, our prime minister and governor general were both women (our former prime minister, Julia Gillard, was deposed by her party—most people believe her gender had a lot to do with it). But women are not equally represented in Parliament or on company boards. Nor is their path always smooth in public life. And when it comes to the church, it is even more difficult to claim we are egalitarian. Still, all across our sunburned country, I see signs of hope. Let me bring you three stories from three different cities in Australia—Melbourne, Sydney, and Darwin.

Melbourne

I met Anthea for coffee at a cafe near Ridley Melbourne, an independent, evangelical Anglican theological training college. Ridley prepares both men and women for ordination in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, but also trains people from a wide variety of church affiliations for mission and ministry of many different kinds. Among students and staff, there are differing views about women and ministry, but in recent years, Ridley has become increasingly welcoming to women.

In 2007, Anthea, an ordained Anglican priest, joined the faculty as a lecturer in New Testament studies, and she has been warmly supported and encouraged by her fellow faculty members, including those who are complementarian. Her appointment has turned out to be very strategic and beneficial, especially for women. Anthea provides a model of confident, non-self-conscious ministry by a woman. “Female students frequently tell me how encouraging it is to have a woman on faculty teaching, leading services, and preaching in chapel,” she says. “Some students have never heard a woman preach or preside over a communion service.”

In 2010, the college produced a policy statement on gender and ministry, which affirmed that Ridley trains both women and men for ordination in the Anglican church to whatever orders were open to them (in Melbourne this means deacon, priest, or bishop). The statement also acknowledged the different views among faculty and students, saying, “We accept that a range of views can be held on such questions [as gender and ministry] without the integrity of a person as a biblically faithful evangelical Christian being called into question” and that “people are encouraged to read widely, question arguments, challenge exegesis and consider alternatives.” Three well-attended student meetings followed, creating, for the first time, space for open, respectful discussion about the issue.

Lately, women have increasingly found the college to be a helpful and affirming place to study on a practical level, as well. The school has developed more flexibility in the modes of study, adding online, intensive, and extensive courses, in addition to the regular weekly class model. These have helped women fit their studies into their lives, even as they juggle family and other responsibilities.

Anthea tells me that the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, too, is becoming more aware of and flexible about the needs of women. “Recently,” she explains, “a young mother who attended a three day pre-ordination retreat brought along not only her breast-fed nine-month-old, but also her mother and grandmother to help look after the baby. That’s a first, I think!”

Sydney

A thousand kilometers [about 700 miles] further north, in Anthea’s home town of Sydney, things in the Anglican Church are a bit different. Michael Jensen, a self-described apologist for the Diocese, says, “If there is any single issue with which Sydney Anglicans have found themselves identified, it is surely the matter of the ordination of women to the priesthood.” To them, this issue is the dividing line between Christians who stand under the authority of Scripture and those who do not. Women are excluded from ordination because it is believed that Scripture teaches that God has given men the leadership “role” and women the subordinate “role.” For the most part, women are excluded from preaching to mixed congregations based on a hierarchical reading of 1 Timothy 2:11–15. Until recently, dissenting voices—like that of Sydney rector Paul Perini, who established a CBE chapter in Sydney in 2012—were effectively marginalized.

It seems, however, that the prevailing view is now being questioned, just a little, by Sydney Diocese insiders. Early this year Zondervan released Hearing Her Voice: A Case for Women Giving Sermons, by well-known and respected scholar, author, and apologist John Dickson. Although he maintains the official Sydney line in relation to the subordination of women and opposition to women’s ordination, he offers an alternative interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:12. He argues that Paul is forbidding only a specific type of teaching, which is fundamentally different from modern sermons. Thus, women ought to be allowed to preach.

There was, of course, a flurry of critique surrounding Dickson’s argument. But what I found most encouraging were the comments from Michael Jensen, blogging on the Sydney Anglicans website. He writes,

I am certainly still thinking through the implications of his argument, but there is a great deal in his book that is convincing. What he helpfully notes is that there is an inexact match between the various New Testament practices of speaking in the church—exhorting, teaching, prophesying and preaching—and our contemporary notion of the sermon. Minding that gap is crucial, lest we misapply the text, and theologise our habits and traditions.... [T]he New Testament features women in speaking roles in front of mixed congregations to a far greater extent than is often now practiced in Sydney Anglican churches. Some of the implementation of complementarian thinking about ministry has been over-zealous, to the point that it ignores what is plainly the case in the Bible. (emphasis mine)

Dickson and Jensen are far from egalitarian, but their honesty and openness to new ways of thinking about certain texts is a sign of hope for the future. Maybe others will also have the courage to rethink their views and question the official line. Perhaps women’s voices will indeed increasingly be heard in Sydney churches, even from the pulpit. 

Darwin

Our final stop is Darwin, on Australia’s northern coast. Home to a higher proportion of Aborigines than any other state or territorial capital in the country, Darwin is a good place to get a glimpse into the realities of gender and Christianity among Australia’s often-forgotten indigenous population. To learn more, I contacted Jude Long, the principal of Nungalinya College, a multi-denominational theological college in Darwin.

Nungalinya College provides education for indigenous Christian adults from remote communities. The college works in partnership with the local indigenous churches to provide the training needed to empower and encourage those churches. Unlike most theological colleges, the student body has a female majority. These women are often key leaders in their communities, trying to encourage and support their young people.

And the leadership of these women is crucial, as Aboriginal communities face well-documented challenges, such as violence, drug and alcohol abuse, welfare dependency, and sexual and domestic abuse. But according to Principal Long, this is not the full picture. “There is no doubt that God is at work in these remote communities. Many people do not realize that the majority of Aboriginal people in these communities have a strong faith in Jesus.” Long reports that many of Nungalinya’s students come because they want to read the Bible but have very low literacy.

“Fundamental literacy can be life-changing for students,” Long says as she recalls a particularly moving chapel service. “A young woman stood up to read the Bible. She said shyly, ‘I have never read the Bible before.’ Then an older woman stood up to share her thoughts on the text and started with ‘I have never done this before.’” According to Long, this sort of thing happens all the time. Simple things like reading the Bible in public, praying out loud, or sharing a song or a story are new and empowering experiences. “It is wonderful to see the joy on their faces. It is also wonderful to hear back from communities when these women (and men) return and become involved in more active ministry in their churches.”

True transformation of troubled indigenous communities, she explains, will only occur through the gospel. And as in many communities around the world, women deliver the gospel and serve as the agents of change and healing. “Many women are seeking to share the gospel with their communities, and particularly with the young people. As one woman said recently, ‘Why is it always the women who have to be strong?’ What we need now” Long exclaims, “is more men!”

Perhaps Bill Bryson’s description of our country as instinctively egalitarian is slightly optimistic. Whether in Darwin, Sydney, or Melbourne, there is work to be done when it comes to fully incorporating the gifts of women into the body of Christ. Life is not “as good as it gets” for women, but there are clear signs of hope. There is increasing openness, people are re-examining traditional ways of thinking, and female leaders are bringing the gospel to their communities. Let us thank God for the work being done here and around the world, and let us continue to share the message of the mutual service of Christian women and men.

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