Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The deaconesses of Sydney Diocese Part 1

I have decided to post a few small excerpts from a lengthly chapter on the deaconesses of the Sydney Diocese. I had been thinking of how the first women ordained in Canada came from a worthy tradition of women who worked for little pay in the north and marginal areas of Canada. These self-sacrificing pioneers took on some very physically demanding assignments and often served where a church could not afford male clergy.

From halfway down the page,

So, away from the arena of churchmen scheming on their perpetual subordination, how did the Australian deaconesses themselves perform ?

As well as their Christian outreach to the urban poor in Melbourne and Sydney, deaconesses played an important role in inland and overseas missions. The Bush Church Aid Society depended on deaconesses for much of its outback ministry. The main areas of operation were in Bathurst, the Riverina, Gippsland and Willochra dioceses. As Judd and Cable comment in their history of Sydney Anglicanism: “The most striking aspect of Bush Church Aid work was the crucial part played by women in the growth of the Society”

They pointed out that in Sydney, while “male lay readers and catechists could assist the clergyman, deaconesses could not preach but only ”address" the congregation and read services in his absence". In the Bush, the deaconesses were allowed to lead local worship. As noted in Chapter One, away from direct clergy supervision women in ministry were allowed more opportunities to develop their talent and demonstrate their resourcefulness.

The Annual Reports of the Deaconess Institution from 1920-21 included a section “Bush Deaconess Report”. In these reports, the formidable tasks being assigned to young female graduates of the Institution were recorded, items such as: “Sometimes a whole month is spent by the Deaconess riding on and on through scattered parishes... visiting, teaching in schools and holding services”.

Deaconess Winifred Shoobridge, assigned to Gippsland Diocese, was reported to have “her own pony and thus can work more expeditiously”. By 1937, Deaconess Shoobridge was “travelling in a little Morris Oxford which is equipped with a bicycle (which helps with the daily visiting), a lantern outfit, Bibles, supplies of Mothers’ Union magazines and other literature”. Deaconess Shoobridge noted that bush women would greet her with comments such as “I’m glad it’s a woman come instead” or “Come in, you’re the first woman I’ve seen for ten months”.

Sydney deaconess Dorothy Almond also worked in Gippsland, in the “Big Scrub” region in the East, stationed at Cann River District, working among “pioneer settlers”, the nearest doctor being “sixty miles distant”. Dorothy Almond in 1923 was written up in the Victorian newspapers for her heroic efforts to save a desperately ill woman in the remote Croajingolong area of Gippsland. She rode forty miles and then walked sixteen miles in stormy weather in order to bring medical aid to the patient. “Through her ministry, in conjunction with that of a doctor, who was able to come out later, the woman’s life was saved”.

Deaconess Agnes McGregor, working for Bush Church Aid in the Far West near Wilcannia, in the late twenties, commented: “One has so many experiences that it is hard to know which is best to relate - punctures on treeless plains when the temperature is 115oin the shade (but there is no shade!) or well down to the footboards in sand and having to use the spade for two hours (no one to give the needed push) or trying to find the track in a blinding duststorm.”

In Gippsland Diocese, it became practice to appoint deaconesses to areas which could not afford the stipend of a priest or a deacon, and which were too demanding for a trainee lay reader. Mrs. Edith Littleton, eldest daughter of Bishop Cranswick, recalled that the deaconesses “were very poorly paid but there was no other way we could staff the diocese in those days”. Underlying this statement was an admission that the Diocese of Gippsland was prepared to exploit women workers for the sake of serving the Church’s frontier areas.

The Diocese could not get male clergy to accept such conditions. The positive aspect was that these difficult situations allowed deaconesses to prove themselves capable of carrying out the duties of clergy. Yet, despite his progressive views on women, Bishop Cranswick, while allowing the deaconesses to be addressed as “the Reverend”, did not give them the right to sit in the House of Clergy in Gippsland Synod. They were not given clergy seats in the diocesan Synod until April 1949.

In time, the deaconesses in Gippsland were placed in charge of parochial districts, officially under the aegis of some remote priest. They were permitted to conduct funerals, baptise infants, preside at Parochial Councils (before women were allowed to be members of them), prepare and present candidates for Confirmation, conduct Morning and Evening Prayer Services and preach. So highly were the deaconesses regarded in Gippsland that Deaconess Nancy Drew recalled that she was appointed to succeed Deaconess Winifred Halter to the parish of Nowa Nowa in 1955 because the people had petitioned the Bishop for another deaconess even though a male priest could have been appointed. When Deaconess Drew left in 1963, the people again asked for a deaconess.

Formal Women’s Ministry : The Deaconess
from Freedom From Sanctified Sexism - Women Transforming the Church by Mavis Rose, pp. 56-75.
Allira Publications, 17 Cervantes Street, MacGregor, Queensland 4109, Australia.
Copyright: Mavis Rose 1996.


Lynne said...

Thanks suzanne. I'm actually in Sydney Anglican diocese, theologically trained and struggling with the system, so you can imagine how interesting I found this!!

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Thanks Lynne. I hope this can be some encouragement. I will post more tomorrow.

Peter Kirk said...

I was amused by your introduction with the words "perpetual subordination" because this seems to be what these deaconesses received. Although male deacons are usually ordained as such only temporarily until they are fully ordained as priests, women receive this "sub-ordination", ordination to a subsidiary role, as something perpetual.

But it is interesting that even in the quite distant past women could "address" the congregation and read services in Sydney diocese. Is this still true?

Lynne said...

it really depends on the individual church. In our own congregation, I preach regularly, because our minister doesn't believe that gifts are gender limited, but in the wider diocese it's a different story. In some churches not too far from ours, the role I play as a preaching, teaching (but unordained) pastoral assistant would be scandalous. But there is no absolute legal ban on women preaching, only on their being ordained. OTOH a very influential clergyman in the diocese, closely connected to the archbishop, has said that it is a sin for women to preach and a sin for men to listen to them!!! I have heard secondhand that in the denominational theological college when female students take their turn in chapel, those male students who feel it is against their conscience to listen to a woman, are allowed to get up and walk out.

Peter Kirk said...

Thanks, Lynne. In my church it is only women, no men, who get up and walk out when there is a woman preacher. Well, more precisely they stay away. There are only two or three of them in a congregation of 150.