Struggling to Fly

Sharyn Steel works in radio now, but she began her working life as a print journalist forty years ago, at a provincial newspaper in Whangarei, New Zealand. At that time there were few women in the profession, unless you count the ladies responsible for writing the "women's pages" who were not based in the general newsroom of the Northern Advocate. So when Sharyn arrived fresh from a sheltered education in Dunedin, she was regaled with smart remarks, sexual innuendo and physical intimidation that made her new career extremely challenging and at times unsafe. I heard an interview withSharyn on a National radio podcast yesterday, and immediately went out to order her book, Struggling to Fly - the account of the first twenty years of her career, breaking the ground for women in journalism in New Zealand. I found it is not in the bookshops yet, but that I could order it online, and have done so.

Why was I so quick to decide I want to read this autobiography, after hearing the brief interview on Mediawatch? Well. it is clear that Sharyn, whether she realised it or not, was a pioneer for her gender - and so was I, albeit in a different vocation. She started out in 1969, which is the year I started my university training, so it was another six years before I actually began practising my profession as Presbyterian minister, one of the first six in New Zealand and, I think, the first married one. And because I spent about eight of the next ten years at home with babies, my experiences confronting the gender prejudices of Northland didn't occurr till a decade later. But yes, I too faced opposition based simply on the fact that I am female, and hearing Sharyn talk about her challenges reminded me of mine.

I need to say here that many of the men and women I met, especially in Auckland and Dunedin where I studied, did not react negatively to a teenage girl's story of a clear call from God to offer for the clergy. In student days, at St Davids in Auckland, my minister Owen Baragwanath , (later the Very Rev) was utterly supportive, and even gave me chance to preach to the 500-strong morning congregation. My lecturers at Knox Theological College treated me, and the other female in our class, just the same as the ten men. My classmates were generally accepting too, in contrast with some nasty gender conflicts that occurred at Knox a decade later, though do I recall first meeting one of my colleagues in Auckland three years before, and that he had at that time told me seriously that what I was doing was not Scriptural. He later revisited that view!

Early into our marriage, my stint as hospital and rest home chaplain went by relatively uneventfully too. People were surprised to find a woman acting as chaplain, but I was relatively self-confident, and simply explained to them that I was the same age as my husband and other housesurgeons who were literally taking their life in their hands. The only funerals and weddings I conducted were for people from the hospital context, who knew me and had therefore consciously decided that a woman celebrant was okay. This was long before the current bountiful supply of civil celebrants existed; it was the registry office or church. In fact we Presbyterian ministers had to have special policies for how we would respond to wedding couples, and there were plenty, who came stipulating that they wanted "no religion" in their service; however that is another story.

Sharyn Steel's account of the Northern Advocate newsroom reminded me of my experience of moving to Dargaville, 56 km away from her in Whangarei. There in the Northern Wairoa, there were not only no women ministers, but no female elders either. Elders are the group of up to thirty lay leaders that govern a Presbyterian congregation, in conjunction with the ordained minister, who moderates their "Kirk Session" meetings. I had been set apart as an elder at the tender age of 21, in an evangelical parish in Dunedin. I wasn't well known to them at the time, having moved down from Auckland only the year before, but the parish acknowledged that as a student for the ministry, I had leadership gifts that had been affirmed by the wider church, and that it would be good experience to do some pastoral visiting and to see how a Session operated. And it was, it was a great introduction.

However, in the Presbyterian Church, just because a person has been an elder in one parish doesn't mean they automatically join the Session of another, and so when I arrived in Northland, with my husband who had taken a job as a GP there, the parish didn't quite know what to do with me. I was in fact both an elder and an ordained minister, something they had never met in a woman before, but I was at that time home-based, caring for what would rapidly become our family of four children. I was immediately recruited to teach the Bible Class, but I am grateful that the parish minister also had the foresight to tell the (all male) eldership that it would be proper etiquette to invite me to attend Session. This they did, and I attended, at times in company with the latest breastfed child, and I made a good contribution to discussion and decision. After seeing me in that context for about four years, they faced up to the question (not asked by me, at least explicitly) about other women leaders joining the leadership group, and when one woman was identified as suitable, they paid me the compliment of asking me if I would like to be inducted to the Session as well. This was of course all topsy turvy in Presbyterian polity, but I took it as a gesture of good faith and validation of the role I had been, ex officio, playing. I was duly commissioned, and took on various new roles such as leading the Mission Committee and establishing a Girls' Brigade; I was already , at that stage, the Sunday School Superintendent. Later, after a change of minister, the possibility of my being appointed as honorary associate was raised. This category was useful in that era to recognise trained nonstipendiary ministers we would now call Local Ordained Ministers. I was delighted to accept and never knew, till much later, that there was a bit of a fight at the church meeting over whether the step should be taken. Over all this time, I had planned and directed numerous family services, read the scriptures and conducted prayer times, played the piano and led the choruses, and contributed to the governance structures of the church. But I hadn't done much preaching or conducted the sacraments, and in fact when the parish was vacant, I had been slightly piqued at the effort and expense it took to arrange a retired minister to drive from Whangarei and preside at communion.

So it was sometime in the early eighties, when I was the official Honorary Associate, that I first took a communion service in that church. I suppose I should have been prepared for a reaction, since the first time I had simply served bread and wine - a task undertaken by the elders in a Presbyterian Church - someone who usually participated turned her face away. (A lot of opposition to women ministers came from women themselves.) But this time I was the celebrant, and when I stood up behind the communion table, there was a little flurry near the back of the church, and a man about my own age (early thirties) stood up, mumbled something, and quite deliberately walked out. Being the ultimate task-oriented professional I just carried on, but later when I processed his reaction, I realised how hurt I was feeling. Over the years I had sensed a call from God, had submitted to the proper processes of discernment by the church, and had been approved for ordination studies. I had completed the required six years of university education, theological study and pastoral training required, and graduated well. I had worked in several ministry roles in another Presbytery, and now I had served alongside this man and his friends for eight years. But he couldn't accept the Lord's Supper from me. What was that about? It still galls me.

That wasn't the end of the opposition. The minister and I met monthly, to talk about how, as his associate, I could support him. When he realised how much I enjoyed preaching, he offered me a once a month slot. These days, no one would turn a hair at that, but in a rural congregation with fixed ideas about the tasks of ministry, it became clear that Sunday preaching was the main component in their expectations of the stipended minister, especially if the alternative was a woman in the pulpit. We had to swiftly cut back my turns on the roster to a more acceptable pattern - even though we both knew I am the better preacher! Some years later that minister left, and I became the part-time supply minister. That was not without its complexities either, for many of the elders expected me to do it for free, "for the love of Christ." I was by this time a halftime guidance counsellor at the local college, and doing postgraduate university papers, as my children were all at school, and I had had enough years with nothing to engage my brain. Do it for love? I probably would have, but I have a strong sense of justice. I asked them straight, "Would you ask that of a male minister?" and they looked sheepish. Then by God's grace, I was vindicated by one of the elders, who I know was not particularly in favour of women in the pulpit, but who was experienced in business and in educational management. "I see what Viv is on about," he said, "she is a professional and we are asking her to do a professional job. We need to pay her." That swung the vote, and they probably never knew what a gift they got with the many paid and unpaid hours I put into that role. It convinced me though that I was capable of leading a parish; I hadn't seen that clearly before.

But now I was out in the public domain, the Presbyterian minister for the town, even if only as a "temporary stopgap" as one man said, and the farming community of that town were in for a surprise. At that stage there were only a handful of women doctors, and no women dentists or lawyers in the town. Rotary was firmly a male domain and the Heads at local schools were men (what would it take to achieve that now!). So when someone rang the church to arrange the funeral of their father/mother/uncle/granny, and I turned up to the house for a visit, there was often thinly-disguised shock and horror. Some managed to cover their reaction, only betraying their true thoughts when afterwards they said,amazedly , "You did that very well." Others went to all sorts of contortions to organise one of the other local ministers to officiate; one in particular I remember roped in a local kaumatua, though the family, as far as I had know had no iwi connections, and there was no Maori spoken in the funeral service (which I attended as it was in our church and the deceased was my parishioner) .

I will save for my one-day-to-be-written autobiography (called in my mind "Dancing on Hind Legs") the long, long story of how the parish grappled with the issue of whether to actually call me as their minister, but it was a long wait, punctuated with memorable moments like being told they were waiting for a "real minister' and were hoping to soon "get a man back into the manse." These and other memories were recorded about that time by psychologist Dr Vivienne Adair who researched the experiences of women ministers for Auckland University, and published her findings in "Women of the Burning Bush". I ended up resigning, but thankfully God did indeed have good plans for me and they slowly emerged, over a period of limbo where we didn't feel we really belonged anywhere. Then a call to a thriving parish in Auckland turned out to be the ideal option for our family, who were rapidly approaching tertiary studies and could live at home while in training. That parish had no issues with me being a woman, as there had been several employed as assistants there, and even when I was later called as the Senior Minister, a leadership role I played there for ten years, no one argued against my gender. It was only several years into that tenure, with the arrival of some conservative South African families, and the influence of Promise Keepers, that some expressed their theological preference for a male leader. I rode out that storm, confident of my call, and now, six or seven years later, they do have a male minister again. And the parish up north does too, but interestingly he is not a Presbyterian, but the local Pentecostal pastor. That church shrunk down to so few, their only strategy for survival was to join forces with the "Christian Fellowship".

All this wandering down Memory Lane was prompted by a book I haven't even read yet, but I know I will recognise the story. It is the story of women in New Zealand, searching for identity, equality and respect, and to be allowed to do what they are called to do and be who they are called to be. I am deeply thankful that is my experience in the church of today.

To Chew Over: In what ways have you experienced prejudice or injustice? How have you handled it spiritually and practically?
Who is this man who gave to women dignity
In partnership of worth and equal grace,
Who listened to the stories that they told him,
And honoured each whatever was their place;
Who let them choose to come and join his company
And learned with them God's love for every race,
Who showed to each the courage of their nature
To care and tend each lonely and each suffering face?

Who is this man, who spoke to men of gentleness
And showed them all the children at his side;
Who taught of love and justice for all people,
And took a towel and washed away their pride?
In him they saw the strength of truth and mercy,
And how he trusted God to be his guide,
Knew how he led them through misunderstanding,
And then forgave them when they ran away to hide.

Who is this man, who calls us now to follow,
A shadow presence asking us to be
Companions of the way through this life's journey,
To live in truth, to set our tired world free?
So, let us find each other now in partnership,
With ears to hear and eyes awake to see,
That we might grow in grace and understanding,
And walk beside that man who comes from Galilee.
Mary Pearson 2000.