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The Tapestry: One woman’s Journey to Priesthood

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Frances Thompson reviews an autobiographical account on one woman’s painful and long journey to priesthood in the Diocese of Wangaratta: “The tenacity of women like Libby paved the way for Australian women who have been ordained in the last 10 years, as well as those who are training as ordinands now”

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Libby Gilchrist was ordained a priest in Melbourne by Bishop Philip Huggins in 2005. However, she first felt a calling to ordained ministry in 1986 and was deaconed in 1996 after completing her theological studies. Her home diocese of Wangaratta, Victoria, took longer than many other Dioceses to make the decision to ordain women. For comparison’s sake, the Diocese of Perth was the first to ordain women in March 1992, with the Diocese of Brisbane first ordaining women in December 1992. By contrast, Wangaratta’s first female ordination was in 2008.

“This story has become my lament,” Libby writes. Her long and painful tale is a very personal story, telling a history of the Anglican Diocese of Wangaratta from the 1980s to 2008 and Libby’s journey to eventual priesthood.

Libby was sure of her calling, but the Church had not yet made the decision to ordain women. She reflects on why she kept going, why she didn’t give up, and why she didn’t choose to move to another denomination, which probably would have ordained her earlier. Her strong faith kept her going, and her love of Anglican sacramental worship kept her focused.

Libby designed and made a tapestry during her long years as a Deacon. It became a solace for her, full of symbolism that helped her make sense of her feelings. The tapestry depicts an embroidered stone wall of seemingly unsurmountable obstacles, a broken cross representing the church in difficulty, and a butterfly representing beauty and change. She felt imprisoned by her call to ordained ministry; however, parishioners insisted that she not give up. There is a little ray of light in her tapestry, perhaps included because she hoped that she would be ordained a priest one day. There is a real sense of joy when that day eventually happens.

The book deals with the painful truths that some male priests would not accept communion from a woman. And, that some male priests would subsequently refuse to take communion from Bishop Philip Huggins because they felt his hands had been tainted by ordaining Libby.

This is a very honest, raw and painful account, which in part expresses her raging anger at God. On one occasion she makes paper water bombs, fills them with dirty water, and then hurls them at the garage wall, yelling at God with frustration.

There is also a lot of sadness, with Libby recalling that she was told “You need to realise your place, you have no authority at all,” while a Deacon by senior Diocesan men.

At one stage Libby learnt tae-kwon-do with her son, getting bruises and breaking a toe. One way to deal with stress and frustration in your life is to go and punch things, rather than people. Libby believes that tae-kwon-do helped her learn to stand up to the repressive regime, which was evident in Wangaratta Diocese at that time.

There is much personal detail in this book, describing the difficult journey that many women like Libby undertook as the Anglican Church gradually made the decision to ordain women. The tenacity of women like Libby paved the way for Australian women who have been ordained in the last 10 years, as well as those who are training as ordinands now.

As a female Deacon, Libby remembers being asked to leave a Deanery meeting and see to the dishes, so the men could discuss female ordination and speak freely to each other. She declined. Thankfully, in most parts of Australia, such days are behind us.

The stories of the past, the insensitive behaviour and the hurtful words recounted in this book are confronting. However, for young women considering ordination today, spending time being mentored by some of the confident and capable women serving in the Diocese of Southern Queensland would perhaps be more inspiring and encouraging than spending time dwelling on Libby’s past hurts, as detailed in this book. The Diocese of Wangaratta has moved on from its former position on female ordination, as have many other Dioceses.

Libby Gilchrist, 2018. The Tapestry: One woman’s Journey to Priesthood. Ark House Press, Mona Vale, NSW.

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