The fruits of the feminist revolution are there for the taking, and here at the University of Sydney, the young women of today are being turned into tomorrow’s world-beaters. We are taught that the best use of our time and skills is to forge our own path, stick it to the man, shatter the glass ceiling.
So if you’re a smart young woman from a liberal, secular family, pursuing a PhD in a field you love, it would seem a curious decision indeed to opt out of that world and opt into Christian ministry training – an occupation where the upper echelons of your profession are mostly closed to you, and where tradition, doctrine, and straight-up theological conservatism seem to hold sway. Tess Holgate, final year Bachelor of Divinity student at Moore Theological College in Newtown, did just that.
Moore Theological College is the ministry training college for the Sydney Anglican church, and is located just over the road from our university. Established in 1856, it trains men and women to work in a variety of ministry roles. To its supporters, Moore College faithfully teaches God’s word as revealed in the Bible, and trains its students to be servants of Christ and of others. To its detractors, Moore is just another outpost of the fundamentalist Sydney Anglican church, training up ever more acolytes to flood Sydney’s churches with anti-women, anti-gay, illiberal firebrands.
So again you might wonder – why would a woman spend four long, rigorous years at this place?
Tess grew up in a non-religious family, and had never been to church in her childhood. She made friends with some Christians at high school, and would spend discussions with them insisting religion wasn’t for her, however much she was happy for them to have their beliefs. She would demand proof, and was the typical sceptical unbeliever.
When she was 16, Tess attended a church weekend away with her friends, where a speaker told her about how God had loved the world so much that He sent His son Jesus Christ to die to achieve reconciliation between the world and Him. That was the first time Tess had heard the story of Jesus, and it struck her. A problematic family life and strained relationship with her father meant she could barely comprehend love sufficient for someone to die for her. She spent the next few weeks reading and thinking about what she had heard.
In the end, she decided that Jesus’ death compelled her to give her life to Him and says that whilst she still didn’t know a lot of things about Christianity and the Bible, she thought “He died for me, I owe Him my life, so let’s do this.”
At first her parents thought it was a phase, but Tess calls them “The ‘We’re happy as long as you’re happy’ people,” who just wanted to know she wasn’t part of a cult. She was able to convince them of that over time, admitting that she understands it would be scary as a parent when your kids starts hanging out with different friends and doing strange things like reading the Bible and praying.
She talks about how it took her some time to realise that being a Christian was not just a “Sunday decision”, but something that would affect her whole life. She told me “I am not living for myself anymore. I still get to do the things I like, but I try to do them in a way that glorifies God, not me.”
From there, Tess did a science degree, and started her PhD in geography. After deciding academia wasn’t for her, she worked in campus ministry with university students, first at the University of Wollongong and then in Mexico City. Her sense that there was a lot that she still didn’t know about her faith lead her to Moore College, where she has spent nearly four years studying the Bible, and taking classes on ethics and church doctrine.
Tess recalls trepidation when she first started at Moore, mindful of its reputation for being hard line and afraid that her fellow students would all have the same opinions, and that dissent and difference would not be welcomed. She was pleasantly surprised to find this wasn’t the case. Tess calls the diversity at Moore “a great gift” and says she had not had to fight to maintain her own ideas.
In the Sydney Anglican diocese, and other Christian churches or organisations that Moore students often go on to work with, there are certain jobs that aren’t open to women. They can be ordained, and can take on a variety of ministerial and organisational roles, but cannot occupy positions as senior ministers. Although individual churches are allowed to make their own decisions about whether a woman can preach to a mixed congregation (i.e. a group of male and female churchgoers), Tess says the prevailing belief at Moore and in the church is that women should not preach to a mixed crowd.
Tess has clearly wrestled with this issue of women in the church, coming from a home where she was told her gender was irrelevant to her career and that she could do anything she wanted. After all, she takes the same classes as the men at Moore, and gets graded alongside them – and of course sometimes her grades are better. Ultimately she says she is happy to come down on the conservative side of the debate, accepting that God’s order for the world is good, and seeing that in her experience, it works.
Tess, who happily identifies as a feminist with “a few reservations”, is quick with an emphatic “Yes” when I ask if there are men at Moore and in the church more broadly who she thinks use scripture and church tradition as an excuse to just be plain old sexist. Admitting that it is hard to specifically identify what is in many ways just a “vibe” she gets, she modestly and carefully explains that sometimes, as an intelligent women, she feels she has hold back to protect the finer feelings of the men in her classes, so as not to offend them. She admits that feeling is a bit ridiculous, and explains that clearly, scriptures don’t bar her from holding or expressing her own ideas.
She talks about how women are set a certain example of domesticity and gentle femininity in Christian circles, and feels there is unfortunately a subtle push to be a certain way, rather than taking Biblical principles and applying them to “who God has made us to be as individuals”.
Tess, far from being the stereotype of a Christian who swallows the easiest answer fed to them, clearly continues to wrestle with and think about what are for her tricky questions about women and the church, about individuality and community. She says the church could probably do some critical thinking about engaging with the community where it is at today, and making their message relevant to people of the 21st century. Her final comments in our conversations about these issues, however, are all very similar – that she sees such issues as secondary to the most important task of seeking to love and serve her Lord, and seeking to love and serve the world He has made.