Christian historian Marcia Cameron has a painful memory of standing up and arguing against women’s ordination to the role of presbyter (priest) in the early 1990s.

The then principal of Moore College in Sydney, Peter Jensen, had asked Marcia to argue the anti-cause at the church’s annual council, called Synod.

This was at a time when women were being ordained as priests in other Anglican dioceses across the country, but Sydney continued to resist the tide.

“I said, ‘Oh, Peter, all right, I’ll do it for you, but I really don’t want to. I don’t want to spend energy on this,’” remembers Marcia.

Christian historian Marcia Cameron wades into the gender politics of the Sydney Anglican Diocese.

Christian historian Marcia Cameron wades into the gender politics of the Sydney Anglican Diocese. Marcia Cameron

An historian and lay preacher at St Swithuns, Pymble, Marcia says her speech cost her a lot because of the outcry it caused in certain quarters.

A long-time member of the Sydney Synod and of the wider General Synod, Marcia has since changed her mind and now supports women’s ordination as priests.

“The thing that changed me, really, were two things: talking at length with Donald Cameron. He was federal secretary of CMS, and had come to the view that women could be ordained to the priesthood.

“I was ill at the time with meningitis so I always said it was worth being ill just to have Donald visit me and talk it through.

“The other thing was we had a big crisis in our church, at St Swithuns, Pymble, and I reassessed everything at that point, and one of the things up for grabs was women’s ministry. I have friends who were becoming more and more sure that women should be ordained to the priesthood, people I really trusted and respected, and so conversations with them certainly moved me forward in that respect.”

“One of the saddest things is that the conservatives have shifted the goalposts and moved ground.”

She cites Graham Cole, d‪ean of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School at Trinity International University, Deerfield, Illinois, who summed up the pro-women’s ordination approach in the memorable words: “giftedness not gender”.

Marcia still, however, respects the opposite view and tries to put each position clearly in her new book, Phenomenal Sydney: Anglicans in a Time of Change 1945-2013.

“My book tries very hard to give a balanced view of it all and it says that there’s no watertight case for either position,” she tells Eternity.

She has tried to show “how the paddock has got smaller” rather than larger for women.

“I’ve also said that people who were anti women’s ordination and anti women in public ministry drew lines in the sand, and I point out chapter and verse there.

“And I think that one of the saddest things is that the conservatives have shifted the goalposts and moved ground.”

She says Sydney conservatives used to base their arguments on the “headship of men, subordination of women” principle espoused by Broughton Knox, former principal of Moore College. But now they depend on 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”

“So they just depend on one verse in the whole of Scripture. Now that’s methodologically unacceptable,” she says.

“I believe the Sydney Diocese is phenomenal in the sense that it may be the only Anglican Diocese in Australia that is growing.”

“In the academic context, normally people would say that’s not sufficient to make a case. You have to look at other verses and other arguments in other passages … but the Scriptures never talk about ordination anyway and one of the issues, of course, is culture.

“Women, generally speaking, weren’t educated back then and that was probably a major reason and it’s been argued that it would have been unproductive for the gospel back in New Testament times to promote women in leadership because it was probably socially unacceptable, so it would have hindered the gospel.”

Marcia says the main thing she has tried to show is “how the paddock has got smaller” rather than larger for women in Sydney through the influence of some prominent conservatives.

“I think the book will antagonise some and will also be exactly what others want to read. It will be contentious,” she says.

…the key to Sydney’s growth is the belief in the power of teaching people from the word of God.

As a Sydney Anglican herself, Marcia has plenty of good things to say about a Diocese that has been criticised as fundamentalist and “not Anglican.”

“I believe the Sydney Diocese is phenomenal in the sense that it may be the only Anglican Diocese in Australia that is growing.”

She believes the key to Sydney’s growth is the belief in the power of teaching people from the word of God to help them understand how to live and how to talk about Jesus to others.

“If you’re not doing that you’re just relying on tradition – you’re not going to grow and tradition doesn’t attract the younger generation,” she says.

She argues that the Diocese is classically Anglican in that it sticks with Reformation theology and the 1662 Prayer Book, but is experimental in traditionally Anglican areas such as liturgy and robes.

“Somebody has described them as radically conservative. We’re very conservative in our theological position but in order to indigenise Anglican Christianity in Australia we try experiments which horrify people, whether it’s music or dress, liturgy, where we meet, how we meet – all that is up for grabs,” she says.

“I think you cannot discount the small groups and Bible studies that meet during the week for personal fellowship and building up – they might be the most significant way people grow in faith.”

Areas in which she believes Sydney excels are training for the clergy, with Moore College’s very high academic standing, administration, strategic thinking, emphasis on the authority of the Bible, teaching laity and a “huge emphasis on mission in various forms over the years.”

Church planting has also been successful in some places, as have maintaining schools that are not just Christian in name and upgrading the Scripture programme in schools.

“Scripture teachers used to be just taken for granted and not seen as an evangelical tool but now Scripture is seen as very significant,” she says.

“Also the emphasis on good sermons: people are fed from the Scriptures in the sermon. And I think you cannot discount the small groups and Bible studies that meet during the week for personal fellowship and building up – they might be the most significant way people grow in faith.”

Marcia is passionate about small groups and has run a women’s Bible study fellowship for 25 years. She also preaches about once a quarter at both Sunday morning services and has been encouraged by the response of the congregation.

“I don’t think there was a single picture of a woman in there, except maybe the Queen.”

Unlike the 1987 book Sydney Anglicans: A History of the Diocese by Kenneth Cable and Stephen Judd, Marcia’s book honours the contribution of women.

“It’s quite different from the first history of the Diocese, Sydney Anglicans, because I don’t think there was a single picture of a woman in there, except maybe the Queen.

“So mine honours women in a way that they weren’t in the previous history and I do a little biography of Jacinth Myles, who ran a parish very successfully for some 15 years.”

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