Andrew Neaum

David Farrer was elected Bishop of Wangaratta over ten years ago. He was elected by a conservative Bishopric Electoral Committee composed of six clergy and six laity. This Committee, in its turn, was elected by a Synod whose lay members were largely ignorant as to the views of those they elected on the divisive issue of the ordination of women as priests.

The conservative stranglehold

In the Diocese of Ballarat I was a member of just such an electoral committee. This was the one that elected a successor to Bishop John Hazelwood on his retirement. Ballarat in those days was noted for being both Anglo-Catholic and against the ordination of women to the priesthood, which is to say that its clergy were.


For many years in the Diocese of Ballarat, as in Wangaratta, when the members of the Bishopric Electoral Committee were due to be elected by Synod, as they are every three years, conservative Anglo-Catholics priests, opposed to the ordination of women, ensured that a majority of candidates of their own persuasion were nominated and elected. They were able to do so by carefully selected nominations and a reliance upon the ignorance of more liberal and less Anglo-Catholic laity as to the views of many of those nominated. It was only towards the end of John Hazelwood’s tenure that some of the more liberal clergy in Ballarat diocese, myself a fairly new member of this strange minority, began to attempt to correct the imbalance and ensure that the committee was more representative of the diocese as a whole. I eventually initiated a similar reformation in Wangaratta diocese, with no small success, but for which I received no episcopal gratitude whatsoever.


The committee that elected David Farrer to Wangaratta appeared to many of us at the time to be overwhelmingly conservative on the question of women priests, as well as decidedly Anglo-Catholic. Several of its priest members have since happily turned their coats and are now resolutely in favour of the ordination of women priests. However, it is surely inconceivable that such a committee, at such a time, would ever have elected a bishop perceived to be in any way in favour of the ordination of women. David Farrer always and most strangely refused publically ever to declare himself on the issue, but the perception at the time was that he would not ordain women, not least because he had been elected by such a committee.


During his ten years as bishop he did little to alter the perception that he would not ordain women as priest. Any movement in that direction appeared to be very reluctant, under pressure and at a snail’s pace. No initiatives were ever taken by Bishop Farrer, nor inducements offered towards the goal. The status quo always appeared to be his favoured option. When at last his Synod made the ordination of women normative in 2006, it appeared to be far more in spite of him than because of him and he chose to resign as bishop, before retirement age, without ever having ordained a woman as priest. There appears, then, to have been a consistency of undeclared opposition, or at very least of undeclared reluctance rather than of even-handedness.

The refusal to declare himself

The intriguing question to ask or to speculate upon is what exactly lay behind his refusal to declare himself on so hugely important and divisive an issue in his diocese?


The only answer I ever heard him come close to suggesting was to do with an apparent conviction that to remain undeclared on a divisive issue such as this would ensure that he remained accessible, acceptable and open to both sides of the divide rather then merely to one. This surely is nonsense. It is far easier to relate to people whose views and positions are open and declared than to those whose views and positions are not. To be ignorant of where people stand on important issues makes it difficult either to deal with them or, sometimes, even to trust them. Over the past ten years many of us, on both sides of the women priest issue, came to question the bishop’s motives and actions. How much angst, argument, debate and time would have been saved had he only declared a position and then openly and vigorously defended and debated it.


To refuse to declare a position is usually politically counterproductive, at least broadly or generally speaking. From a narrower and more personal political point of view, though, such a refusal to declare oneself can be argued to be tactically advantageous as a way of keeping all one’s options open for preferment or whatever, but even this is debatable.

No position to declare?

It could well be, however, that a refusal to declare a position is a sign of there being no position to declare. In Bishop Farrer’s very first sermon to us, if I remember it rightly, he confessed to a certain difficulty in making decisions. This is often seen to be a peculiarly Anglican affliction: “on the one hand this, on the other hand that, maybe this, maybe that.......” We are so fair minded, so broad minded that we can never even identify our mind’s position on anything in order to make it up. We are able to see so many points of view we can never settle upon one. This could well explain what appears to have been a zealous preference for and preservation of the status quo over the past ten years. If you cannot come to a decision, if a position cannot be arrived at, then the status quo needs to be maintained at all costs. It is the only safe and comfortable place to be.


This is possibly the best explanation of the reluctance to move forward on the women priest issue, and of the delays, the obstructions, the total lack of encouragement, inducements and initiatives. It would also explain, at least partially, the conservative and unadventurous nature of all the important appointments made in the diocese over the past ten years.


Every archdeacon appointed has been a conservative. Until, that is, a few months before Bishop Farrer retired when, with a concerned eye on the worryingly severe financial difficulties being experienced by the new diocesan schools and the necessity for informed and talented care during the impending interregnum, John Pryor was announced “Archdeacon of Schools”. The Dean, another of David Farrer’s appointments, is a member of the conservative SSC, and is against the ordination of women as priests. The status quo appears to have been carefully maintained, albeit hopelessly, because inevitable change needs to be compromised with rather than laagered against.


Another agent of status quo preservation has been the diocese’s monthly paper, “The Advocate”. Over the last ten years this has been rendered so anodyne, so intent on promotion and putting a positive spin upon everything and anything happening in the diocese, so fearful of controversy as to refuse even to publish letters to the editor, that it has ceased to have any pretensions to objective journalism at all.

Catalysts for change

The catalysts that enabled the inevitable to occur in ten years rather than twenty or more, are many, varied and interesting. Early on in Bishop David Farrer’s tenure, Scott Moncrieff and myself sprang a motion without notice at Synod promoting hospitality in our diocese to women priests. The hostility this appeared to arouse from the Chair amazed us. Full frontal assault was unlikely to get us anywhere.


This being so I began a simple campaign of information-sharing with synod representatives. The first time was by letter, and because the addresses of synod representatives was not available from the diocese, I looked up their names in the Diocesan Year Book and, with the help of the internet, sent a letter to most of them informing them of liberal candidates worth voting for as such in important elections, if so inclined. This initiated the beginning of a change in the composition of important Committees such as the Parochial Nomination Committee, which heretofore had been dominated by folk intent on allowing only conservative clergy to be appointed to parishes.


At two subsequent sessions of Synod I attempted to disseminate information on candidates for elections similarly. Because of the time involved in looking up addresses, however, I simply placed the information upon synod auditorium seats. This raised much ire, and led eventually to a piece of legislation forbidding the practice, but by then the status quo had been mortally wounded.

Once conservative clergy ceased to dominate the diocesan portion of the parochial nomination process a more varied sort of parish priest began to be appointed in the diocese with eventual far reaching effects. The House of Clergy at Synod ceased automatically to block change.

The Revd. Dr. John Pryor

Possibly more important even than this, however, was the fortuitous or providential arrival on the diocesan scene of the Revd. Dr. John Pryor as Registrar. He just happened to buy a property in the diocese near to Benalla and so was able to succeed the conservative Archdeacon/Registrar James Brown. Up until this time the bishop relied for local advice and counsel upon an inner circle of his conservative appointments and congenial senior clergy. Once Dr Pryor became established. things were never quite the same again.


Dr Pryor is a highly intelligent, theologically literate, liberal Protestant originating in Sydney Diocese of all places, but too liberal to be acceptable there. Though in favour of the ordination of women to the priesthood and most emphatically no Anglo-Catholic, he came to be trusted by the bishop for his loyalty, decisiveness, ability and independence. Dr Pryor’s appointment began to free the so Anglicanly indecisive bishop from one-sided and extreme counsel. The old and powerful clerical cabal had been cracked if not destroyed and the possibility of at least cautious accommodation with inevitable change became more likely.

The Revd. Libby Gilchrist

Another catalyst for change was the Revd. Libby Gilchrist. For years she was a deacon in waiting for priesthood, beating her head in vain against the stone wall of the status quo. So capable, so priestly of demeanour, so well qualified it must have become more and more difficult to refuse her the priesthood, while still attempting to appear even-handed, undeclared and open to both sides of the debate. So it was that at last bizarre legislation was drawn up which attempted to allow us both to have our women priests and not have them. Libby was to be ordained outside of the diocese with her own diocesan bishop in attendance, but un-mitred and unrobed and with his priest-laying hands firmly, as it were, in his pockets.


It has been suggested that this concession was made with an eye on the vacant Archbishopric of Adelaide. The name of David Farrer was purported to appear on the short list for this appointment and so a sign that he was prepared to come down off the fence on the women priest’s side would make his election more possible. This suggestion is almost certainly malicious and unfounded. How could anyone with any political acumen possibly imagine that so small and carefully hedged a concession would have any influence upon an important election to a prestigious post?

The Revd Gail Bryce

Once the Libby Gilchrist concession had been made and women priests were legislatively permitted in Albury Wodonga, Wangaratta and Shepparton, I decided to widen the breach and attempt to have the Revd. Gail Bryce appointed as Associate Priest in my parish of Shepparton. She had been for many years a widely respected deacon-in-waiting at Shepparton, but because she lived over the Goulburn River in Mooroopna, which is a part of the diocese of Bendigo, she had decided eventually that enough was enough, and applied for ordination to the priesthood in Bendigo Diocese. She was accepted, and at the time I made my bid to ask her back to Shepparton Parish she was part time Priest in Charge of Pyramid Hill Parish in Bendigo Diocese. She travelled miles and miles to get there each week from her home in Mooroopna.


Having sounded her out I wondered how best to put her case to the bishop and so I rang the Rector of North Albury, Liam Matthews, to talk over the best approach. Liam was out and so I left a message on his answering machine telling him what I wanted to talk to him about. As luck would have it, he walked into his office with the Bishop in tow, pressed the button on his phone’s answering machine and so the bishop heard what I was planning! Liam tells me that his reaction was immediate and negative: “I won’t grant her a licence!” Well he had to in the end because he could offer me no reason worthy of the name not to. Indeed she has in her possession a letter from him written on her departure to Bendigo diocese assuring her of a welcome back should she ever wish to return!


When you take into account some of the damaged, dubious and downright incompetent male priests that have been charitably licenced or priested down through the years, the reluctance over Gail is hard to explain unless it is simply yet another example of being wedded to the status quo, a status quo only dinted by Libby Gilchrist’s ordination, not destroyed.

“The Bridge” and Fr Matthew Healey

One of the greatest catalysts for change was growing impatience and frustration on the part of the majority of the diocesan laity. The status quo ruled, stagnation prevailed, nothing was happening. With the diocesan paper largely closed to controversy of any kind, public debate and information on what many perceived to be a burning issue was non existent.


In response to this situation a group of enterprising laity in the north of the diocese, concerned for the welfare of women with vocations generally and for the welfare of Libby Gilchrist in particular, began to produce an informative and always charitable journal called “The Bridge” to express views and news that would otherwise have no currency. This journal sometimes rattled the bishop and certainly antagonised the conservatives, but it was never polemical and was all the more effective for that. In an informed and articulate way it helped make the diocesan establishment take note of the growing impatience of the laity.


Another key figure was Fr. Matthew Healey. He, with the Revd. Libby Gilchrist, was an articulate and committed proponent of women priests on a divided Committee formed by Synod to produce acceptable legislation that would both allow women priests to become normative, but also satisfy those opposed to them with at least some form of “alternative episcopal oversight”. He agreed to withdraw a motion at the crucial 2006 Synod in order to allow Paul Dalzell’s far more satisfactory motion to replace it. A magnanimous and crucial gesture.

The Revd. Dr. Paul Dalzell

The final important catalyst for change was the arrival in the diocese of the Revd. Dr. Paul Dalzell. An intelligent, articulate, liberal catholic he was appointed to the largely hopeless task of Evangelism Officer to the Diocese as well as being appointed Priest in Charge of Alexandra.


The great danger of the bizarre legislation that Synod had passed to allow us to have women priests and yet not really have them, was that should Synod ever pass the “Enabling Canon” that would make women priests in our diocese normative rather than exceptional, then the legislation allowed for conservative priests to be granted their very own conservative bishop to minister to them and their parishes in most important ways, rather than their diocesan bishop. This would in effect split a tiny diocese into two minuscule ones and no diocesan bishop worth his salt would ever countenance it. Bishop Farrer too would deem it unacceptable, although most concerned to accommodate conservatives as far as possible. After all, one of the purported reasons for him not personally ordaining women was to remain technically acceptable to the conservatives!


We needed to find a way forward to make women priests normative without the provision for a conservative bishop coming into effect. Paul Dalzell was the person ideal for this task because not only does he have a sharp mind, he also had the ear and trust of the bishop and so was able actually to see and discuss with the bishop exactly what he would legislatively be prepared to sign off on as bishop and what not. It all paid off. Folk like myself played possum and Paul brilliantly pulled off a compromise that was really no compromise, Synod passed the “Enabling Canon” and Wangaratta came back in to the mainstream of the Australian Church.


Bishop Farrer is likely to be remembered above all else for the one thing that was achieved more in spite of him than because of him: the ordination of women as priests in the Diocese of Wangaratta.