Congratulations and blessings to Helen-Ann Hartley, the new Bishop-elect of Waikato. We rejoice with you! Helen-Ann brings a significant career in theological scholarship and pastoral leadership to her new place in the Church as Bishop and Pastor of her people. However it is not my intention to go over Helen-Ann’s background and experience, as this is well publicised and accessible on Taonga and other media sites. Do read them, if you haven’t already, for it helps to know who the women in leadership in the Church are, so that we can more fully support them in prayer and partnership.
Some of us met Helen-Ann for the first time when she visited St Johns College as a guest of Te Rau Kahikatea. It so happened that her visit coincided with one of our AWSC meetings, and Helen-Ann lead us in bible study during our meeting. It was a wonderful way of getting to know each other, and we were all delighted to hear that she enjoyed our place so much that she came out to be Dean of Tikanga Pakeha. I for one was glad to meet her especially as a few years prior I had visited and stayed at Cuddeston College in Oxford where she was teaching up until moving here.
That said this is an appointment that, structurally, requires us to do some deeper soul searching and analysis. Thus far, none of our women Bishop’s were born, or brought up in New Zealand, Aotearoa, or Polynesia. It raises questions for us as women in theological education and mentoring. For instance, why are our own women consistently overlooked? We make it as far as the slate for election, but among our peers, it goes no further. In earlier years, because there were fewer ordained women, most of us were known, to greater or lesser degree, nationally. It is not the case now. Perhaps we as women in leadership need to think about how we might make more visible, more accessible, women who can be put forward as candidates, with a certain confidence of being taken seriously. That the number of our male colleagues is considerable in our electoral colleges cannot be overlooked.
Theologically there is an imperative for us. Biblically, in the letter to Philemon, Paul writes a very persuasive letter requesting that Philemon put aside previous prejudices and receive Onesimus back, not just as a free man but “as a beloved disciple”. Lydia was recognised by Paul as a leader in her own community, and worked with her as an equal in ministry. Ecclesially I believe we need to work to ensure that our women too, are recognised not just as ordained women, but “as beloved disciples” fully equal to the task of missional leadership. I believe we have work to do. And what might that work look like?
Some ideas; gather a group of women and men to ask some of these questions, and brainstorm about how we might be more ready to recognise women amongst us and their call. Resource them! Don’t wait until there is another resignation and electoral process. Begin now to think about women; talk to them, talk about them, make them visible in your hui amorangi and dioceses. Invite them to preach at significant moments in your church life. Invite them to come and lead a retreat, a study for your church community, put them forward for places on boards, councils, synods and any other governance roles that are relevant. And as in all things, pray! Let us all become persistent widows, and give God no peace for a bit. Remember Hannah in the Hebrew Scriptures.
Remember also – that the Holy Spirit called Penny who was a courageous spiritual and strong leader, that it was the Holy Spirit who called Victoria when Christchurch was going to need a strong woman. And let us remember Helen-Ann, bringing us an example of rigorous scholarship and prayerfulness. And as we remember, let us rejoice that they are gifts to us. Similarly, may they inspire us to seek out other women with similar courage, prayerfulness and strength that they too may take their place as leaders in the future.
Revd Erice Fairbrother is Tikanga Pakeha Councillor for the Anglican Women’s Studies Centre. She is currently moving to Wellington from Waiapu to devote more time to her writing projects.