A pioneer who sees reconciliation
The first female Aboriginal Anglican priest on calling, burnout and walkabout
There was a lot of hype when Australia ordained its first female Aboriginal Anglican priest, Gloria Shipp, in 1996. It was a bold move by the Bathurst Diocese as it came amid vocal opposition to women priests in some parts of the church.
Yet Gloria believes once the move was made, the powers-that-be didn’t know quite what to do with her. She was in her 40s, married with two sons, when she felt God calling her to go into ministry.
‘Gloria, I wouldn’t sign that if I was you because you don’t know what lies ahead.’
“I was reading Jeremiah that you don’t have to be educated, you just have to obey his calling,” she remembers.
So when she was handed a petition opposing the ordination of women in her home diocese of Dubbo, she was doubtful. “A lady said ‘Gloria, I wouldn’t sign that if I was you because you don’t know what lies ahead.’ So I didn’t sign it.”
When Gloria approached her priest to tell him of her calling, he rebuffed her, more because she was a woman than an Aboriginal, she believes.
“Anyway, he spoke to the Bishop, Bruce Wilson of Bathurst Diocese, and he said, ‘I want to hear it from Gloria’s mouth, not yours.’ I always got on with him and so I told him and … he just took control of it and sent me off.
“I went back to TAFE then for 12 months to do more study to do my Year 10 certificate, and then I went to do theology in Darwin. It was ’93 when I was deaconed and ’96 when I was ordained. I was 48. I’ll be 70 this year.”
Gloria spent the next decade travelling all over Australia speaking in churches and, eventually, she was given a church, St Luke’s in Dubbo, to manage.
“I went walkabout for three years to get myself back to where I was.” – Gloria Shipp
“There isn’t a state in Australia I haven’t been and done public speaking,” she says. “And then trying to build up a church here … but, anyway, after that there was so much pressure on, but I managed it all; but in the end after 10-12 years of doing it, I ended up collapsing.
“I had a breakdown and I just left the church for a couple of years. I went walkabout for three years to get myself back to where I was. I think it was burnout. For ten years, non-stop travelling everywhere and doing public speaking and, in the end, I just collapsed under it all, and then I just went walkabout. I spent a lot of time in the bush just getting connections back.”
After three years, Gloria established what has come to be called Walkabout Ministries, reflecting the wisdom she gained during her time away. The ministry, which is supported by the Anglican Board of Mission, encompasses chaplaincy at the Orana Juvenile Justice Centre in Dubbo, women’s camps, men’s camps (with husband Eddie), an elders’ outreach group, women’s dinners and ‘Women of the Bible’ days, an annual Christian rally and Reconciliation lunch, as well as a bread run that delivers to families in need.
On top of all that she is honorary priest at Dubbo Anglican Church and chairperson of NATSIAC (National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Anglican Council).
Gloria, who now has 12 grandchildren and two greatgrandchildren, says she always felt different from the rest of her family.
“I can actually see more Aboriginal recognition happening within the church …” – Gloria Shipp
“When I was a kid growing up in Nyngan, the church was our refuge. I’d spend many hours because they had a library there and I used to love reading and I used to sit on the floor of the rectory and just read books,” she says. “So I went to church, but I wouldn’t say I was a Christian. There’s a difference between religion and religiously going to church because I didn’t really know who Jesus was until I moved to Dubbo.
“Then I learnt more … I had a very good friend and we went to church together and we wanted to be baptised in the Holy Spirit and be born again. My husband loves football, so when he watched football I’d go to my friend’s house and we’d spend many hours in the Bible, just praying, sharing things. She had three daughters and I had three sons, so we became really like sisters. Our kindred spirit was very close. I had a lot of healing take place. I also had a lot of spiritual stuff that needed healing.”
Gloria is encouraged to see how many Aboriginal women clergy there are now, especially in the Northern Territory. When she went to study theology at Nungalinya College in Darwin, she broke the mould of Aboriginal women simply doing textiles or community work.
“I think there’s still a long way to go, but now I can actually see more Aboriginal recognition happening within the church and especially in this diocese.
“We have a priest here now who has put an acknowledgment on the pew sheet and wants to do some of the altar cloths in Aboriginal material. I’ve bought the material. There’s a little group now that want to know how can we make the church more welcoming to Aboriginal people.
“In church I got up and said – through tears because I can’t talk without crying – I have waited for 20-odd years for this to happen and I’m just glad I’ve seen this change in my lifetime.”