Monday, September 01, 2008

The Deaconesses of Sydney Diocese: Part 2

More from Freedom From Sanctified Sexism - Women Transforming the Church by Mavis Rose, pp. 56-75.

The Diocese of Tasmania also allowed considerable responsibility to their deaconesses but also, like Gippsland, assigned them to remote, pioneering areas. Such was the case of Tasmanian deaconess, Elvie Fraser, trained in Melbourne, who in 1982 was commissioned as Deaconess of the Furneaux Islands, centred on Flinders Island. Elvie Fraser commented:

I can do all that a priest can do except consecrate the elements at Holy Communion, officiate at weddings (because I cannot pronounce the Blessing) and pronounce the Absolution.... We reserve the Sacrament. As we have to pay the fare across from Tasmania for a priest to consecrate the bread and wine, and that is rather expensive, we try not to run out too often.... Because it is not always easy to get a priest to come when we need one for a wedding, I now have a licence to officiate at weddings.

Deaconess Marie Kingston, a rural dean, who ran seven centres in the isolated Tasmanian parish of Derby-Ringarooma, admitted that in spite of her heavy responsibilities, “my status is no different from that of layreader”.

One of the important functions of Deaconess House in Sydney was to train women for overseas missions as well as for the Australian frontier areas. The missionary course was shorter if the trainee did not wish to graduate as a deaconess. Non-ordained graduates were usually referred to as parish or missionary sisters. According to Judd and Cable, under the sub-heading “The Export of Women” (just as if trained churchwomen were commodities!), between 1892 and 1931, 70% of the Church Missionary Society’s 246 missionaries were women. Deaconess Mary Andrews, while Head Deaconess in Sydney after serving with distinction in China, acknowledged the limitations for deaconesses in the Australian urban situation under the close supervision of male clergy. In her opinion, “for those women who sought a more active church role in the extension of Christ’s Kingdom, there was only one option, missionary work, both overseas or in remote parts of Australia.”

The experience of Jacinth Myles illustrates how irksome service in an urban parish could be. After four years of training in Deaconess House, Sydney, Jacinth Myles was employed as a “parish sister” in a Blue Mountains parish. She recalled:

From the start the rector made it clear where I stood. “You are the employee, I am the employer".... My weekly program in that parish was drawn up by the rector and it was not open to negotiation. It did include some adult group work, but it did not include involvement in the services apart from reading the Bible.

Jacinth Myles found that it was in Australia’s rural areas that she was accorded more opportunities and recognition. In Armidale, in contrast with Sydney Diocese, she was advised that “the position would involve a fair amount of leading services and preaching”. When handed her weekly programme, she was not expected to adhere to it slavishly but was “completely free to follow whatever ministry the Lord wanted me to have”.


Peter Kirk said...

Interesting, but I suspect that Jacinth Myles' experience in her first parish after training would not be so different from that of many male curates in their first parishes, at least until the rector's annual leave.

Lynne said...

I think so too. I can't speak for other dioceses or denominations, but here there is definitely a subtly abusive treatment of assistant ministers. I have heard stories of minister's early years that were not justcases of close supervision of a newbie, but definitely crossed the line into abuse of power. And of course, so often, "Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return". Hierarchical thinkingin extremis doesn't only hurt women, it hurts everyone.

Anonymous said...

I was amazed to find this quote from me & I was also somewhat dismayed that it has really been taken out of context. I say this because my first year of ministry was 1973 (decades ago, though this was not stated) & this quote was taken from a chapter I wrote which was entitled, from memory, 'Almost The Rector'. I wrote the chapter in 1985 & in the last section of the chapter I described the position I held at that time. I had been appointed 'in place of a Rector' in a Sydney Parish. I held that position for 3.5 years. I have now held another position like this for 15 years, again in a Sydney Parish. In fact, my first year out of college, was the only time I have experienced such a lack of freedom in my 35 years of Parish ministry, all but 7 of which have been in Sydney Parishes. I was among the first 14 women to be ordained as a deacon in Sydney in 1989. Our synod decided last week to allow deacons to administer Communion without a priest being present, & given that I have led parishes in Sydney for over 18 years, there's now only 2 restrictions on me in Sydney Diocese - that is, I cannot be ordained as a priest & I cannot officially be a Rector. I wanted to put the above quote from me into its context but I mainly want to give glory to our amazing God who has opened the way for me to have incredible freedom as a woman in ministry for so long. Praise the Lord!