In July this year, ministers and elders from every Presbyterian Church in NSW will come together to convene the General Assembly of 2023. One of the most pressing matters, to be discussed – again – in 2023, is the debate on women elders. Specifically, the vote to restrict the office of eldership to males only.
The current debate has been on the table since 2019 – but many will be surprised to discover that the debate is actually 70 years old.
In this season of More Than A Cake Stall, we’re going to consider the history of women elders within the PCA and the PCNSW. With a little help from past and present Assembly delegates, clerks, moderators, ministers and elders, we hope to better understand how the Courts of the Church have engaged this issue over the last 70+ years, and in doing so, find the answer to the question, how did we get here?
As the GANSW returns again to debate the inclusion of women in the eldership, we turn our eyes back – almost 80 years – to when this discussion first began.
As with most significant cultural changes in the 20th century, the debate began in response to the upheaval and changes triggered by the First and Second World Wars. As large numbers of men left their families, workplaces and churches to serve in the war, women stood up to fill in the gaps. Presbyterian Churches began to face the question of who would serve the sacraments and fill their pulpits. In some cases, Presbyterian Churches filled these openings with Deaconesses and missionaries – women trained and commissioned to serve in their communities. When the men returned from war, they found that the world had moved forward without them. In every sphere of life: family, workplace and church, communities had to grapple with the altered state of affairs.
For the Church, it meant wrestling with the question of women in formal offices. The women had proved themselves competent, but did that mean they should do the work? Should the Church allow women into the eldership and ordained ministry? By 1948 – only 3 years after the war ended - the GANSW debated (and rejected) the proposal to allow women into the ministry and eldership.
The debate came up, again and again in both the NSW and Federal Assemblies until 1959, when the GAA appointed the Church and Laity Committee to determine if ordination to Word and Sacrament – that is, the office of the minister – should be opened to women. The GAA meets every three years and so, the Church and Laity Committee went to work.
While they worked on their position for the federal Assembly, the GANSW continued to debate the issue, with an overwhelming ‘no’ vote to bringing in women elders in 1960.
When the Church and Laity Committee finally returned to the Assembly in 1962 to present their report, the Committee came empty handed. They explained,
It became apparent that it would be impossible for the Committee to present a united report on the subject… The possibility was then explored of producing two reports; but it was evident that more than two points of view were held within the Committee itself. …The Committee therefore reluctantly came to the conclusion that it cannot at this stage present to the Assembly a report which would serve any useful purpose… The question can only be properly discussed both in the light of the revealed will of God known to us in Scripture and as understood in the Church’s tradition, and in the context of an understanding of what is happening to men and women in their inter-relations in society today. The relation of the sexes throughout public life, as well as in marriage and in the offices to which men and women are called in the life of the Church has to come within any theological ethic. The Church is likely to continue to experience some frustration if she attempts to discuss in isolation the place of women in the ordained ministry of Word and Sacraments.” (Minutes of Proceedings of the Twenty Ninth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Australia 1962, Minute 106, 130. R Swanton, Convener.)
The division in the Church had become so deep and so wide that the committee couldn’t even reduce their position into two reports. The report also helps us understand that the Committee was undecided on how to connect God’s Word with the context of the day.
That same year, (1962) an overture was brought from the Presbyterian Church of Victoria to the General Assembly of Australia. They helped to clarify and refine the study that needed to be undertaken. Their overture asked the GAA
And so, the Federal Committee set to work again. This time their focus was centered just on the eldership. But then a strong North Westerly wind reframed the debate. You see, the Presbyterian Church’ass origins lie in Scotland, and when the Scots admitted women to the eldership in 1964, the Australian Presbyterians took notice. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Australia now had to decide – would we follow suit?
Convened by Reverend A Smart, The Committee for The Service of the Laity in Church and Community was instructed to focus on “the eldership, and the admission of women to this service in the church.”
“The key question to be decided by the General Assembly appears to be: Does the doctrinal position of the Presbyterian Church of Australia permit it to adopt the Church of Scotland’s view of the Eldership?”
When the GAA met again in 1967, they had their answer.
The Committee declared:
“This Committee therefore believes that there are no valid theological objections to the admission of women to the Eldership.”
On the principle that,
(1) Both Churches acknowledge the Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, to be the supreme standard.
(2) Both Churches hold as their subordinate standard the Westminster Confession of Faith…
(5) Both Churches, in their Ordinals, set forth the functions of Elders in identical terms:
“The duties of Elders are more particularly:
To set the example of a virtuous and godly life, and of regular attendance at public worship;
To take part with the Minister in administering the care and discipline of the parish;
And to represent their brethren in Presbyteries and General Assemblies, when commissioned thereto.”
I must admit, as I read their paper, I was a little bit surprised. It reads very differently to the positional papers currently put out by denominational committees.
Firstly, their description of the duties of Elders seems more focused on keeping up appearances and administration than spiritual oversight. And while they initially stated that the Word of God is supreme, and the Westminster Confession subordinate, there was very little theological engagement with the Scriptures that form the theological perspectives on either side of the debate. We’ve linked the paper so you can read it, and I think you’ll agree that the paper focuses primarily on non-scriptural sources. It’s an excellent paper - but not a thorough, theological treatise. The primary texts referenced are the words, practices and institutions created by John Calvin, John Knox and the Westminster Assembly.
Mark Hutchinson, author of Iron In Our Blood, explains that “what is remarkable in the whole debate is the degree to which biblical exegesis from both sides of the debate impinged upon Assembly considerations – an indicator that meanings could no longer either be assumed or even drawn from the Westminister Confession, but needed to be coined anew from the Biblical materials. In this sense, debates within the Church began shifting onto the homeground of neo-evangelicalism..”
I’ve brought in my friend, and former Church History lecturer, Reverend David Burke to help us get a better grasp on what was happening on the ground.
David– do you agree with Hutchinson’s statement? (above)
Yes, in the main I do. I think when we’re looking at those decisions of the 60s and 70s they just can’t be understood without the looming clouds (depending on how you see it) of the 1977 Church Union. At all levels the pre 1977 Church was dominated by people of (broadly speaking, there were exceptions) a more liberalising theological temperament and also people more concerned to follow the traditions of the Church of Scotland. It was kind of seen that what they did in Scotland was pretty influential for us.
Now the effect of that is there was less concern to take the Scripture seriously and they’re the decisions that reflected it.
After the Union, there were significant changes in two ways. One is that there was less concern to take follow the Church of Scotland – we had much more of a sense that we’re an Australian Church and do our thing under God. The second thing is there was a real concern to take the Bible far more seriously in our decisions. I’m sure, of course we read the Bible through hour personalities and contexts, and I’m sure we got it wrong, but we were at least trying to get back to the Bible.
Having lived through the 60s, can you describe the cultural climate of the PCA for our listeners. How different was it from today?
I was a teenager in the 60s, and it was a period when the Church was losing its foundation. There was a weakened view of the Bible inherited from the scholarship of the day – that came from the theological college into the minister’s study, into the pew, into the courts of the Church taking decisions.
The other big thing happening in that period is the glory days of Post World War II cultural Christianity. There was a time when a Sunday School of 300 kids wasn’t an exception in Presbyterian Churches, along with others. By the 70s, that’s well and truly going.
So you’ve got a Church where there are two things: the Church has lost its morings in its understanding of the faith and commitment to Scripture and it’s losing it’s cultural position. To use the helpful of Neibur, it was a Church that was ‘Christ in the World’ and so the Church was following the world more significantly than we might like.
It’s a very different climate today, to use Neibur’s phrase I think we’re in a situation of ‘Church Against the World.’ As we all know, the culture around us is changing. Christianity is seen, in some circles, as a dangerous idea, and at best the Church is tolerated or ignored and we’re facing a little bit of hostility in Australia.
So the culture has changed, but also the Church has changed. I think we’re less concerned now to follow the culture, we don’t want to be consumed with the culture which is a good thing when you consider the culture around us. We far more want to be in tune with God which is shaping how we make decisions.
How did that cultural climate contribute to the debates and decision making processes of the Assembly?
I guess, as I just hinted, it means the Church was far more open to be influenced by the cultural climate around it and to follow. It’s really a question of whose voice we’re listening to. Now, of course, we must listen to the world, that’s part of being in the world as Christ called us to do. And the world will raise issues which we wouldn’t always consider. The issue of women’s place in the Church – that’s one we probably would not have examined apart from the feminist movement. Now that’s probably a good thing that it’s made us look at it. So the world will cause us to look at issues and it will bring perspectives that we wouldn’t ourselves consider.
But there’s a big difference between listening to the world, and having the world shape our agenda, and especially having the world shape how we answer questions. That’s the trap to be of the world, not just in the world.
So the real problem in that period was who the Church was listening to. I’m sure that people back then did not consciously deny or defy God’s voice in Scripture. I don’t think there are many doing that. But I think we look back now and see the way they approached the Bible somewhat muted God’s voice.
So is that a hermeneutic approach, then, David?
There is a hermenutical issue of how you read the Bible, there was also the issue of how you saw the Bible – is the Bible “the Word of God”, or does it “contain the Word of God” to use the phrase that became popular in the period.
David, how should we approach these kind of documents as 21st century readers? How do we do source criticism well and avoid falling into (what C S Lewis calls) “chronological snobbery”?
I’m familiar to the report by A Smart, in fact I did know him when I was a much younger man. It’s a document that reflects its times and it certainly draws very much on the traditions of the Church and the pattern of the Church of Scotland.
Now the effect of that is the Bible gets pushed to the side, and there’s less of Scripture in that than we might hope for. And to some extent, and I say with respect, it looks like a conclusion looking for an argument rather than a question looking for a Biblically shaped answer.
I teach Church History at the Theological College, so I have quite a respect for the past and I certainly don’t think we should dismiss something just because its so 20th century/19th century. I think we have to respect the past and not engage in the chronological snobbery you describe. However, when we look at past documents it must always be with a critical eye, otherwise we fall into the trap of traditionalism.
So the big question is, what lens we’re using when we look back at the past. I think for evangelical, reformed, confessional Christians we want to look at the documents from the past with a critical eye, informed and shaped by the Scripture.
Now of course, we’re always going to read ourselves into that, but I think we come through the lens of Christianity. So, I think with those past documents, we need to sympathetically and empathetically understand them in their context, but with a critical eye, knowing that some day, they’re going to look back at us and do exactly the same.
Well, however we assess the paper, with our 21st century eyes, it appeared to convince the 1967 General Assembly of Australia.
Of the Presbyteries which voted, 31 favoured and 11 opposed the admission of women to the eldership, there being 773 votes for and 496 votes against the proposal.
Of course, this was all part of a much larger debate. They’re not called the “swinging 60s” for nothing – social and cultural change happened in radical, polarized swings. Populations radically multiplied and urbanization continued to spread. The church was grappling with the balance between evangelism and social work, attempting cultural relevance while struggling to keep up with the changes.
Encouraged by the GAA resolution on the matter, in 1967 the Presbytery of Canberra and Sydney brought an overture to the GANSW regarding the ordination of women as elders.
David, what is an overture?
Well, as you know we Presbyterians don’t like to do anything quickly, and at times that’s very frustrating but at other times it keeps us from the folly of ration. So an overture fits into that category of proceeding with caution. If I use an analogy, it’s a bit like you’re driving a car, you come towards a corner and you take your foot off the accelerator, you’re slowing down for safety.
So, here’s what an overture is. When people want to propose a major change to the regulations of the Church, [contained] in the book we call The Code, there’s a process whereby you draw up an Overture – that might be 7 people, or a committee or another court; they draw up this formal document that’s got a series of premises (we call them recitals) that lead up to a conclusion, and then you ask the Assembly to undertake a very specific action.
So the Assembly then will receive the overture, the Overturists get to talk about it, the Assembly gets to ask questions, then there’s a debate and the Assembly decides to do something, which sometimes means its sent down under a thing called the barrier act.
The Overture was received and approved in 1968, and was sent down to Presbyteries and Sessions under the Barrier Act.
David, help us out again - what is the Barrier Act?
I thought you’d never ask! If I go back to the car analogy, you’re driving your car along and you’re not sure which way to go, you stop, park the car and put the brake on, and then you call up your friends an chat with them about what’s the best way to get there. So that’s what the Barrier Act is. Then for example, after an Overture has been received, the Assembly thinks, “we think it’s good to go in this direction” and the proposal is sent to all the Presbyteries (this is for the NSW Assembly), every Presbytery gets to vote on it, and then those results will come back to Assembly the next year and if the majority of Presbyteries have approved the proposed action, the Assembly is then free to enact it. Or it might choose not to. So it’s talking to your mates before you make a decision.
It’s talking to your mates who are ministers and elders and therefore members of the Presbyteries?
Yes, it’s only the Presbyteries who get a vote, not the congregation.
Finally, in 1969, the GANSW approved the overture, altering the Code to include women in the eldership. And this triggered significant cultural change on the leadership landscape of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. Many women were ordained to the office of elder, supporting their ministers and sessions in their work and using their many gifts to serve the Church. Women elders served in their Presbyteries and joined Assembly Committees.
For better or worse, the landscape of the PCNSW has significantly and irrevocably changed.
David, did the 1967 GAA and subsequent GAPCNSW make a mistake?
Well that’s the trap question, isn’t it? Because there is a rule if you reflect on a decision of the Courts of the Church without proposing to change it than you can be done over for something. Did they make a mistake? I think they were decisions that arose from the times and reflected them. Both the Church and the world around us have changed since then, and I don’t think we would take those decisions now, I think there’d be no possibility for that.
That being said, we are as a denomination struggling with the issue of female participation in leadership and decision makings, so the decisions we’ve taken have given us a different set of problems. To some extent, I fear we might find ourselves in a lose-lose situation.
We wouldn't take those early decisions again, but the decisions we have taken leave us with a problem.
I think it’s interesting that we currently have female elders, and yet as a denomination we’re still grappling with how we engage women in our decision making processes. I don’t think women elders has been the silver bullet we might have hoped it was.
A lot of these questions – which were also of raised in the GAA 1991 debate about women ministers – I can remember some of us thought we should be, as it were, cleaning up our processes of decision making in leadership, we should be tending to that first before we thought about who may or may not be eligible [for ministry]. But we took the decisions first and we’re playing catchup now.
And I notice as I’ve been reading through the reports in the Ferguson Library, almost everytime this has been discussed, the questions has been, “Well how do we better engage women in the courts of the Church?” and a list of proposals come out and nothing is really done about it. It looks like this is an age old…
Well, yes I distinctly remember in 1991, because I was part of proposing it, that we’d set up a committee to consider how we would widen the participation of women if we’re not going to have women ministers. The Committee was set up, and that was 1991, and we’ve still got Committees looking at the question.
So tell me, David, what have we gained through the inclusion of women in the eldership?
I think we have gained a lot. I’ve chaired Sessions with female elders, and in fact as an Interim Moderator at the moment, I chair a Session that is majority female and I do think quite sincerely that women add to the quality of discussions and decisions. A subtle theological comment here, within the absolute equality of men and women in creation, fall and redemption, there are very real differences between men and women and differences matter. There are things that you women see and notice that we guys just won’t see and get.
I’ll give a couple of examples. I chair the Reception of Ministers Committee that processes ministers coming into the Presbyterian Church from other denominations. We’ve now adopted a policy [to have] a carefully chosen woman who is a member of those panels, and that female member will see things and ask questions and add a perspective that we guys will never get. So our decisions are helped by having a woman interviewing people.
And in fact, I think when you [Sylvia] were being interviewed to see if you’d be approved as a Deaconess Candidate, my wife was on that panel and I’m sure she added to the Presbytery there. So that’s one thing: women will add to the quality with a different perspective.
And in most of our churches women are at least 50% - typically more so in Presbyterian Churches. Now the Church is not a popular democracy, but to have an organization for some tens of thousands of people where over half your membership is excluded by definition from your decision making processes... that should flick an orange light somewhere and make us think. That said, present moves to exclude women from eldership give a flip side to all of this. I hear some stories that there will be men who will be unwilling to be elders because women cannot also be elders; and there’ll be families who are very happy to be in Presbyterian Churches because we teach the Bible and hold the gospel dearly, but they won’t commit to membership because of what they see as the exclusion of women from decision making. Now of course, the reverse is always true there will be people who won’t join us because we have women elders, and that’s what I mean when I say we’re in a lose-lose conundrum.
And David, what have we lost?
I hear the argument that when women were allowed to step up into leadership positions as many have, that means we guys have stepped back. And I notice in the country where I now live, in Local Government there are many female mayors around because the guys just don’t want to do it – they’ll stay on the farm or go to the Footy. So there’s an argument that man have stepped back from Church leadership as women have stepped forward.
I appreciate that but I think there’s something bigger at stake in what we’ve lost.
I think the big loss was the way those earlier decisions were taken. Because we sat lighter to the Scripture and closely followed the world around us, I think we set a bad pattern for how we decide these things. I remember, I think it was the late 80s, some of us had just an informal meeting with those we disagreed with on these women’s issues, and we observed that the kinds of arguments being used for women elders and their ministers – that there was a logic for those arguments that could play out for same-sex marriage, homosexuality, general issues of sexuality that were just starting to appear on the horizon in the 1980s. Now we argued that the structure of the arguments, the kind of arguments about women were going to take us down that direction. Now, we were mocked that and told ‘of course that’ll never happen’, but I really am sad to say that has proved to be the case. And so we look at the way some other churches handle issues around human sexuality and I think we see the disastrous impacts of the kind of way the decisions were taken in the 60s and 70s.
As David’s alluded, the inclusion of women to the eldership was seen by many as a Trojan horse – that it would trigger significant cultural changes and theological challenges to the denomination. And it was a mark of the deep division in the denomination between the more conservative and liberal camps.
In 1974, the GAA was voting on a key issue: union. It’s a little tangential, but very important background for our understanding of the whole debate and how it played out over the next two decades. ‘Union’ referred to the marrying of the Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist churches in Australia to make one big denomination – you might have heard it, the Uniting Church. In the 1974 GAA, the majority voted for Union. That means the majority of ministers and elders voted to leave the Presbyterian Church of Australia and join the Uniting Church. After they voted to leave the Presbyterian Church, they then moved on to the next point of business in the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. Obviously, this upset the remaining Presbyterians. How could these ministers and elders vote to leave the Presbyterian Church, and then continue to make decisions on their behalf? The Reverend Dr Neil McLeod moved a dissent against the assembly continuing to sit arguing that the ministers who decided to leave the Presbyterian Church should not be allowed to make decisions on her behalf. He led a group of fellow protesters out of the Assembly and they convened a secondary assembly, known as the Camberwell Assembly, of the continuing Presbyterians.
But while the remaining Presbyterians were absent from the formal proceedings, those who remained in the Assembly – that is, the ministers and elders who had decided to join the Uniting Church – they voted to include women to the office of minister – ordained to the Word and Sacraments. It’s probable that this motion would have passed if the continuing Presbyterians had remained in the room. And, more importantly, it made the issue of women’s ordination an incredibly painful point. For the remaining Presbyterians, those who had decided to stay in the Presbyterian Church and had moved into the Camberwell Assembly, the decision on women’s ordination felt like something that had been done to them, it was not an issue they were able to debate and vote on. It became a matter of urgent priority to undo this decision, because it was a decision made by the ministers and elders who were jumping ship! Not by those who were remaining Presbyterian. And although it came 7 years later than the inclusion of women in the eldership, the two matters became intertwined.
Union finally occurred in 1977, and was an awful experience for the remaining Presbyterians. Congregation were divided down the middle. Many churches lost their buildings to the Uniting Church and the battle over property: who got to own which building, which school, which nursing home, went all the way up to the Supreme Court. It was intense and took years to resolve. In many ways, the drawn out battle over property, and the pain and grief that brought mirrored the much slower battle that dragged out over doctrine – especially in regards to the ordination of women to Word and Sacraments (that is, the office of minister) and the eldership.
In 1979, a motion was brought to the GAA to exclude women from the offices of eldership and Word and Sacrament – that is, to remove women as elders and ministers - on the premise that this decision had changed the ‘doctrine of the church,’ but it did not have the numbers to pass through the Courts.
Overtures have continued to go back and forth between the state and national assemblies on the matter of women elders ever since.
In our next episode of More Than A Cake Stall, we’ll be considering the turbulent 80s and 90s. This was a very trying season for our denomination, and we are still dealing with the aftermath today.
This is the transcript of Season 4, Episode 1 of the Podcast More Than a Cake Stall.
** With thanks to Sue Pacey and Rev Bruce Meller at the Ferguson Library for their generous assistance and Rev David Burke for his effort and contribution.
In developing the script for this podcast, I've depended heavily on Mark Hutchinson's Iron In Their Blood; Burning or Bushed edited by Rev David Burke and Rev Paul F Cooper and Church History notes compiled by Deaconess Nicole Mannyx for Ministry Training Women.