‘Grab the cloaks of important men and interrupt them … ‘ (MOW at Lambeth 1988)
In 1988 members of MOW in Australia participated in a series of protests at the Lambeth Conference of Bishops – the last one at which all members were male! They created a good deal of attention in England and Australia.
Below are accounts of the event: an article by Janet Scarfe about the protest previously published in the MOW Magazine 2012, recollections by Eileen Baldry, then national secretary of MOW National who was there, and a precious photographic record by the late Diane Heath, then national treasurer and MOW’s press officer on the spot.
‘Grab the cloaks of important men ..’
(MOW National at the Lambeth Conference of Bishops 1988)
Those were the words of the Reverend Peta Sherlock, preaching at St James Church, King St, in Sydney in July 1988. The occasion was an historic one for several reasons. Peta was the first ordained woman officially granted hospitality (i.e. recognised) in the diocese where there were as yet no women deacons.
More than that, the occasion was the commissioning of women taking MOW’s protest to the Lambeth Conference of Bishops. ‘The uninvited guests’ (as they described themselves) were Patricia Brennan and her daughter Kate, Eileen Baldry and Diane Heath (MOW’s president, secretary and treasurer), Alison Cotes and Babs Kettle from Brisbane, Barbara Matthews from Canberra, Linda Walter and Christina Green from Melbourne.
And Lambeth ’88 would itself prove historic. It was the last Lambeth at which all the bishops attending were male. The next time it met, in 1998, there were eleven women bishops present.
In Patricia Brennan’s words, MOW was determined to ‘serve notice on the bishops that they are NOT the church’.
Both as MOW from Australia and as part of the Women’s Witnessing Community from around the Anglican Communion, they made a mark and attracted the media’s interest. With their large banner ‘Australian Women for Ordination’, they were highly visible as the bishops processed into Canterbury Cathedral for the opening service. Their pointed banner messages such as ‘Let the Bishops Listen’ (with its Australian flag) could not be missed in the huge procession to St Paul’s in London organised by MOW in England. They were featured in the religious and ‘secular’ press from England and overseas, winning a full page in the Paris daily Liberation. The ABC’s London bureau filmed them for ‘The 7.30 Report’.
Church Scene (the Australian paper) compared the warm responses to MOW’s banner in the opening procession from American and Canadian bishops, in contrast to the ‘stony-faced’ reaction of the Australian bishops. The group tried hard to engage the Australian bishops on a more personal footing but beyond a few like Owen Dowling, Bruce Wilson and David Penman, it was hard work.
However, other people were certainly engaged. Large numbers saw screenings of Gillian Coote’s documentary The Fully Ordained Meat Pie and attended the ‘Ordination Blues’ cabarets so well known at MOW conferences in Australia.
It was an extraordinary opportunity to network with MOW in England and with women priests from the United States and Canada. Li Tim Oi, ordained priest in 1944, was present. Betty Bone Schiess (one of the Philadelphia 11 ordained in 1974) and Barbara Harris (within months the first woman bishop) became close to the group. Betty celebrated a back garden eucharist for them. The eucharist was a divisive issue for the Women’s Witnessing Community. Some feared repercussions from presiding, others saw abstaining as a symbolic gesture, still others including MOW from Australia yearned for the eucharistic and pastoral ministry of women priests.
And did they have an impact? The press provided considerable coverage in various parts of the world. Reports in Church Scene, read by Australian Anglican leaders and opinion-shapers, were thoughtful and sympathetic. Individual bishops from the Anglican Communion including Desmond Tutu and Richard Holloway demonstrated their support.
Others present at Lambeth in varying capacities were also affected. Barbara Matthews recounted the impact of MOW from England and Australia singing ‘God shall reign’ in English and Hebrew outside the plenary hall before the debate on women bishops:
There was no doubt about our commitment to our prophetic mission. The expressions on the faces of the people who stopped to listen, and many did, was clear evidence that they were moved by our presence, our stand. Some seemed unable to continue on their way. An Orthodox bishop, transfixed, stayed for twenty minutes. Two women journalists (from N.Z. and the U.S.A.) stood awhile. Tears welling up in their eyes, they had to come and join us.
It is not possible to do justice to the group, its imagination, courage and witness in so few words. The images below from the late Diane Heath’s photograph collection capture something of the excitement and the exuberance the MOW presence at Lambeth ’88.
Recollections of MOW at Lambeth 1988
(read by Kate Brennan at the Sydney launch of
Preachers, Prophets and Heretics, ed Elaine Lindsay and Janet Scarfe, St James’s Church, Sydney, 2012)
What an extraordinary privilege it was to be in the midst of the fabulous, feisty, faithful MOW women at our beginning in 1982, throughout the 1980s and to be in the frontline of challengers at the 1988 Lambeth Conference. And how moving and evocative it was for me to see the front cover of Preachers, Prophets & Heretics: Anglican Women’s Ministry for the first time and see that telling photo of us, as we were twenty-four years ago, facing the full hierarchy of bishops, archbishops and primates of the International Anglican Communion as they processed into Canterbury Cathedral.
I am in Chicago having just presented a paper challenging our governments to address the great injustice of the thousands of Australians, too many of them Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, with mental and cognitive disability who spend much of their lives in prison. Just so, we, who were so fortunate as to accompany each other to the other side of the world in 1988, challenged the injustice of patriarchal church structures keeping women from expressing and exercising their full membership of Christ’s community in the Anglican Church in Australia.
I dedicate this panorama of MOW Australia at the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, to the most wonderful friends, provocateurs and travelling companions our group could have wished for: to my very dearest friend Patricia Brennan, to my very dear friend Diane Heath; and to another who was not with us on that trip but also a dear friend and leader in MOW, Pam Albany. All three of these splendid women died in 2011, and all three are so very, very sorely missed.
Patricia always sensed which events would be pivotal and infused the rest of us with energy and urgency to bring our full attention to them. The 1988 Lambeth Conference was one of those events. Anglican women, ordained and lay, from the global community were attending what was in effect the Alternative Lambeth Conference, to make their presence felt and MOW Australia had to be there – we had to be upfront and to be counted. Many dioceses such as the USA, HK, NZ and Canada had women priests attending and they were up to the next step, that of women Bishops. In fact that was the key agenda item at the Lambeth Conference. We met and spent time with the then Rev Barbara Harris, a most impressive black American woman priest, who had been nominated and the following year (1989) was made the first woman Anglican Bishop. So the recalcitrant, laggardly Australian Anglican Church had to be held to account in front of the world. We made a splash and were given front row banner position on the day the Bishops processed.
But this was no leisurely garden party. Our partners, parents, friends, extended families, church communities and work colleagues assisted by helping pay airfares, care for children, feed pets, do chores and cover work tasks and they loved, supported and prayed for us while we confronted the, at the time, entirely male phalanx of bishops. And of course it rained but not all the time.
We had no extra money for accommodation so, in true Aussie beach mission camping style we hired a caravan and set up tents in the local Canterbury caravan park and hired a minibus. For a week we were a local phenomenon – those noisy, laughing, irrepressible Australians in the caravan with the funny banner.
Diane, our magnificent press officer immediately set up shop with her trusty portable typewriter in the caravan park and telexes were quickly flying from local post offices and via friendly journalists and MOW UK members.
We bought lengths of cloth, wooden dowel rods and marker pens, took over local unsuspecting fellow travellers’ lounge rooms and got to work on banners – Alison, Barbara, Patricia & Diane (and I suspect Kate but she’s not in the photo) were the artistically talented; the rest of us did the carrying in London to St Paul’s and in Canterbury. The London Bobbies were somewhat bemused that they were called out to manage a crowd of enthusiastic but always polite MOW supporters. Babs Kettle confounded them even more by handing out white carnations.
We were utterly thrilled at a service in London to find it packed to overflowing with ordained and lay women from all corners, all of a mind to bring to reality: ‘there is neither … male nor female…’
We celebrated in all kinds of unlikely places – Holy Communion presided over by Rev Betty Bone Schiess (USA) in a supportive priest’s back yard, and with a drink in a local British pub. The publican wondered what had hit him.
We protested and sang in all sorts of places with both the talented Christina Green and Australian Bishop Owen Dowling (Canberra Goulburn) providing musical accompaniment. Many bishops openly supported us. Bishop Brian Kyme (Assistant Bishop of Perth) came to one of the Canterbury meetings
Patricia, with absolute delight given her time spent in Africa as a young doctor, gravitated to the African women, some aspiring priests, some bishops’ wives.
The local MOW women opened their homes in both London and Canterbury and we met with women from around the globe to hear of their advocacy, to pray and to celebrate. This was truly a band of determined women.
Patricia, ever aware of the deep patriarchy never far away, found evidence at the Canterbury Ducking Stool site, last used just 180 before. We shared a few hilarious jokes and stories about who should next be ducked – I’ll leave that to your imaginations.
Linda, Diane and Patricia (in deep and apparently shocking conversation with Caroline Davis President of MOW UK) shared experiences and ideas. We all talked and listened and grew in our understanding of where the Anglican Church as a global communion was positioned. Many of us felt deflated by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s non-committal stance regarding the Anglican Communion’s commitment to women’s ordained ministry. Nevertheless there was some consolation at the Lambeth decision that ‘each province respect the decision of other provinces in the ordination or consecration of women to the episcopate.’
But when in despair, put on a cabaret. Some of you may remember the Ordination Blues Cabaret Patricia, Alison, Sandra, Diane, I and various others performed at a number of MOW conferences and meetings. Well we treated Canterbury to the cabaret too and poor Christina tore her hair out trying to accommodate our peculiar musical talent. To assist, Patricia and Diane tried the didge approach.
The week in Canterbury was fast, furious and full of elation, despair, new friends, disagreements and forgiveness. Staying in such close quarters (the caravan was really tiny) was taxing. I won’t mention the snoring, the banishment to the outer tent, the disagreements about tea making, driving, banner making, singing, the invading of obliging MOW UK members’ homes at all hours (and I’m sure their utter relief when the mad Australians finally took off again for the far side of the planet) and where to go for dinner. I will mention the magnificence we found in each other, the large doses of hilarity, the strength to stand with and for women and argue the right to ordination and my enduring amazement that we shared that moment in history together.
Photographs of MOW at Lambeth 1988 from the collection of the late Diane Heath (with thanks to Gail Poynter)