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Women, the High Court and the Church

By Rod Benson - posted Tuesday, 27 September 2005

We learned last week that a new judge was on its way to the High Court. Attorney-General Philip Ruddock announced the appointment of Victorian judge, Justice Susan Crennan, to replace retiring judge, Michael McHugh, in November.

This is the fifth Howard Government appointment to the Court’s seven-member bench, and (according to most pundits) it ensures a conservative High Court well into the future. The Government’s political influence on the High Court will continue, with three more vacancies due in the next four years as judges reach the compulsory retirement age of seventy.

Girl-time in the judiciary

Justice Crennan, 60, is the 45th appointment to the nation’s highest court in its 102-year history, and only the second woman appointment. The first was Mary Gaudron, who served from 1987 to 2003. Crennan began her legal career at the NSW Bar in 1979, after a first career as a teacher of English literature. In what was seen as a very rapid elevation, she was appointed a Queen’s Counsel in 1989. She chaired the Victorian Bar Council in 1993 and was the first woman President of the Australian Bar Association from 1994-1995.


Last month, Justice McHugh challenged the Howard Government to appoint a woman to replace him when he reached retirement age on November 1. But despite a long campaign by female lawyers to appoint a female judge to the nation’s highest court, Ruddock’s decision was made, he said, “on merit alone and not because of any pressure to appoint a woman”.

Nor would Crennan herself want you to imagine her appointment was a win for feminists, for gender equality, or indeed for women. Earlier, she rejected suggestions that her remarkable career success was a victory for feminism, saying it merely reflected the “increased numbers of women working in the profession”. When she chaired the Victorian Bar, Crennan insisted on being referred to as “chairman”, not chair, chairwoman or chairperson, apparently regarding the term “simply as a title, not a gender-positive appellation”.

Victorian barrister Kate McMillan, SC, said Justice Crennan was “a beacon for the modern woman who wanted to have it all, but not for those advocating affirmative action”. When first touted for judicial office a decade ago, Crennan said the feminist argument about the paucity of women in the professions was wrong. They wanted to play a blame game, she said, when the real reason for gender imbalance in professions such as law and medicine were “biological imperatives” and the overwhelming demands on those who chose to combine career and family.

In my view, the appointment of Justice Crennan augurs well for the High Court, the Australian judiciary and the nation. I’m pleased the Attorney-General made the call on the basis of merit alone. I’m also pleased the Howard Government happened to appoint a woman to a bench that currently seats seven men. Even 2 out of 45 appointments is better than one. Or none.

Girl-time in the Church?

So it is girl-time, of a sort, at the High Court. But all the media talk today about affirmative action (or lack thereof) leads me to ponder the state of women’s leadership in the church and in Australian Baptist churches in particular. In NSW, the state with which I am most familiar, local churches may ordain women and, since 1999, the denomination has accredited women as professional ministers. Even in a denomination that is predominantly conservative and evangelical, the critical theological and cultural battles, it appears, are over.

Yet, while the number of women graduating from evangelical theological colleges is significant and on the increase, to my knowledge the Baptist Churches of NSW and ACT have only one female lead pastor and very few female pastors in pastoral teams. There is arguably a “blokey” church culture. Women find it difficult to join (and remain on) denominational committees and taskforces. Women “of child-bearing age” find it almost impossible to secure full-time pastoral positions and those women who do succeed in gaining employment as a pastor rarely succeed in moving from that role to a similar role in a second church. These features are common to Baptist churches across Australia.


If you thought the gender issue was pertinent to the senior judiciary, it is at least as pressing in Australian Baptist churches. In the light of this situation, I was pleased to note the arrival last week of a new publication from Morling Press, Leadership and Baptist Church Governance, edited by Dr Graeme Chatfield, which features a chapter on women’s leadership written by the Reverend Belinda Groves and Kristine Morrison.

The whole chapter is an illuminating and disturbing read, but I want to highlight their suggestions for the way ahead for Australian Baptists:

  • revisit what it means to be Baptist (a reference to the cardinal Baptist principal of religious liberty);
  • celebrate female Baptist leaders of the past, and ensure better recognition of the contributions of women to Australian Baptist work in future histories;
  • rejuvenate and transform the culture of committees and meeting practice;
  • and actively seek out women to serve in key leadership roles.

The authors boldly add, “in order to establish a gender balance, a woman may have to be given preference over a man”.

Will we see a sea change in gender-based attitudes and practices among Baptists in Australia? I doubt it will occur in my lifetime. The most important change that needs to occur, if women are to be accorded equality with men as pastors in our churches, is for local churches to view women and men as God views them. A majority of members in Australian Baptist churches today, and almost all the opinion-makers and gatekeepers, are cultural conservatives who are tacitly opposed to women in lead roles.

The church of Jesus Christ once led the community in facilitating social change, I think against slavery, trade unions and civil rights. I look forward to the day when the church once again takes the lead. In the meantime, thank-you, Mr Ruddock, for appointing a woman to the bench of the High Court, even if her gender is irrelevant to both her and you.

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Article edited by Angela Sassone.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

First published in Soundings, September 21, 2005 Soundings is a publication of the Centre for Christian Ethics, edited by Rod Benson.

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About the Author

Rev Rod Benson serves as ethicist and public theologian with the Tinsley Institute, and Public Affairs Director for the NSW Council of Churches.

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