In his recent article on the tenth anniversary of the Australian General Synod’s vote for women priests, Allan Reeder, editor of the independent Anglican monthly MarketPlace, points out that in all the celebrations following that Synod, ‘the sheer closeness of the vote was overlooked’. Indeed, if either two more clergy or two more bishops had voted ‘no’, the so-called ‘Clarification Canon’ would have failed. In order to pass, the legislation needed 66 votes in the House of Clergy; it received 67. It needed 66 votes in the House of Laity; it received 69. It needed 15 votes in the House of Bishops; it received 16, with two bishops voting informally!

It had been a long process. After twenty years of debate, this was the Synod in which the proponents were successful. What was it about 1992 that won over the small handful of swinging voters?

Never say No

First, there was an absolute determination on the part of the liberals that it was ‘now or never’. In a Melbourne pre-Synod meeting, a senior priest, noting the beginnings of a backlash against extreme feminism in the wider community, told delegates that the fight had to be won in 1992 as there was never likely to be more support for women priests than there was then.

Second, there was the Dowling/Carnley factor. Owen Dowling, Bishop of Canberra-Goulburn, announced that he was prepared to go ahead of General Synod legislation and ordain anyway. He was prevented from doing so in February 1992 by a court injunction, two days before the ordinations were to take place. But in March, Peter Carnley, Archbishop of Perth (now Primate), went ahead anyway. This willingness of proponents to act without what everyone previously considered was the necessary consensus of General Synod demonstrated that even a ‘no’ vote would not prevent the purported ordination of women to the priesthood.

Third, there was the negative impact of the court case. Most of us still believe that Bishop Dowling left no alternative to those who in all conscience thought he was wrong. (What is not generally appreciated is that the July refusal of the NSW Court of Appeal to decide on ‘internal church matters’ changed the nature of the Anglican Church of Australia. Until then, Anglicans believed that their church’s Constitution had the force of law. Such a claim is now impossible to make.) The media treatment of the court case gave the proponents of women priests, and especially the eleven women who were to be ordained by Dowling, the kind of underdog status that politicians would kill for in an election campaign. I agree with Muriel Porter’s claim that this adverse publicity was responsible for the surge of public opinion in favour of women priests.

The ‘Mainstream’

Fourth, the English General Synod, meeting just ten days before the Australian General Synod, voted to support the ordination of women. This was seized upon by Keith Rayner, then Primate, in his presidential address. Now that the ‘mother church’ of the Communion had voted for women priests, he said with considerable force, we will be seriously out of step with ‘mainstream’ Anglican life if we do not follow suit.

Fifth, proponents spoke of the legislation as necessary in order to preserve the unity of the Anglican Church of Australia. To oppose women priests, they said, was to accept responsibility for whatever schismatic actions would be taken by the women and those who were intent on ordaining them. If ever there was a gun held at the head of synod representatives, this was it. Peter Hollingworth, Archbishop of Brisbane, pushed this line unremittingly, as did Bishops McCall of Willochra and Chiswell of Armidale, both of whom at that time claimed to be opposed to the ordination of women, but urged support for the Canon on the basis that it would preserve the greatest possible unity within the Church by allowing each diocese to make up its own mind on women priests.

Sixth, the secret ballot allowed swinging voters to anonymously switch sides. There was an attempt by Sydney representatives to ensure that the vote was public, with members walking to opposite sides of the chamber. ‘The time has come for everybody in this Synod to stand up and be counted,’ said their leader, Bruce Ballantine-Jones. Synod adjourned for afternoon tea, during which a well-known Anglo-Catholic helped to persuade the Sydney strategists that a public vote could work against us. I was part of that conversation and disagreed. I believe more firmly than ever that we would have narrowly won had the vote been public. Following afternoon tea the Sydney people backed down and the vote was taken secretly. The rest, as they say, is history.

Not like England

One of the differences between events in England and the way things unfolded in Australia was that orthodox Evangelicals and Anglo Catholics had no time to work out a strategic response to the new situation. By Christmas (in other words, within weeks of the vote) there were already 60 women priests in Australia, and their numbers rapidly grew over the months that followed. The liberals were euphoric in victory and began making very large claims for what they had done, including the silly notion that the ordination of some women had set all the church’s women free!

It became obvious that despite pastoral sounding platitudes leading up to the vote, no practical support was to be provided for orthodox minorities in liberal dioceses. A handful of parishes began to use neighbouring or retired bishops for confirmations and other episcopal ministry. Most liberal bishops turn a blind eye to this, but they have no intention of entrenching the right of the orthodox to an orthodox bishop. Their plan is for us to die out. That’s what they mean by a ‘process of reception’! Indeed, in some dioceses bishops and their advisors have been relentless in their open persecution of those who still oppose the ordination of women.


During these tenth anniversary celebrations, women priests have been complaining about the lack of full-time ministry opportunities open to them. It is true that many parishes whose representatives voted for the legislation in their diocesan synods are not keen on a woman rector. It is true that some bishops who ordain women are, in their day-to-day dealings with people, quite sexist. But it is also true that outside Sydney and a handful of scattered parishes elsewhere (by and large those parts of the church unaffected by liberal theology and still proclaiming the Gospel!), the 1990s has been a decade of ageing and rapid decline for the Anglican Church of Australia. In city and country alike, parishes are being amalgamated, money is drying up, and more and more clergy – male and female alike – are part-time.

All the spin doctoring in the world cannot change these basic facts. Yet, instead of addressing them, we are now being bullied along the road to women bishops. Sounds like playing the fiddle while Rome burns!

David Chislett is Rector of All Saints’, Wickham Terrace, Brisbane.