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Prophet of women's ordination


Patricia BrennanSome years ago in the heyday of Christian feminism in Australia, the Australian Council of Churches Commission on the Status of Women published a calendar honouring women of faith here and elsewhere. 10 January was set aside for Patricia Brennan, 'prophet in our time'.

And such she was — by any definition of prophet, biblical or colloquial. She was utterly dedicated to challenging the sincerity of the religious establishment about its commitment to women, without fear or favour. She was both a prophetic voice herself, and the inspirer of other prophetic women and men.

More than any other single individual she put the ordination of women on the agenda of the Anglican Church and kept it there, in full public view. She brought together several isolated groups and created the Movement for the Ordination of Women, whose voice and influence far exceeded its membership.

Patricia's name became synonymous with the struggle. She brought MOW into a much wider arena. She led a delegation of Australian women to challenge their bishops at the Lambeth conference in 1988.

A year later, she was in Washington, reporting widely through the media on the consecration of Barbara Harris as the first woman bishop in the Anglican communion — ironically on the same day
as the Diocese of Sydney ordained its first women deacons.

Her friendship with Alison Cheek, one of the Philadelphia 11, persisted until her death.

She pushed MOW into the wider Christian context. It was Patricia who brought Catholic feminists, Uniting Church feminists and WomenChurch together for a conference in 1989.

Like Germaine Greer, Patricia was tall, with an unmissable presence and an unforgettable rich voice. She was challenging, provocative, talented and slightly eccentric. She had a way with words and debate, and a great gift for one-liners, which the media loved. But Patricia's one-liners were never empty spin, they were informed, insightful and devastatingly incisive.

Like Germaine, she was often called strident. Criticisms like that stung her deeply. But it was typical of Patricia that she immediately broke the word 'strident' into two words, 'stir' and 'tend'. And those two words symbolised her life. She did stir up and disturb the comfortably churched. She did stir up and irritate the armchair ecclesiastical liberals.

She dared to challenge the sincerity of their commitment to women, in the same way as she challenged the overt opponents of women's ordination. And she tended to those who were distressed and harmed by the Church and its leaden, sometimes cruel ways.

I cannot speak of her as a forensic and medical sexual assault clinician, but I am sure her approach was exactly the same: a bold, courageous, uncompromising quest for true justice.

It would be remiss not to include her voice here. In 1989, she wrote:

To have gone to the press and onto the streets and declared publicly in front of our cathedrals that a great wrong was being done to women in the Church, put our hearts into our mouths. But, in the prophetic tradition, it isn't a bad place for the heart to be kept.

Now she is in the great company of prophets, not only the biblical ones but those who were her friends on earth: Angela of Stroud, Margaret Anne Franklin, Monica Furlong, Marie Louise Uhr, Camille
Paul, Alison Gent, John Gaden, Alder Hall among them.

Let us all mark 10 January in our perpetual calendars and remember the life of Patricia Brennan as a courageous prophet and dear friend.

Janet Scarfe was national president of the Movement for the Ordination of Women 1989–95. This tribute was read at Patricia Brennan's funeral at St Stephen's Church, Newtown, in Sydney, on 11 March 2011, by Janet Nelson, former convenor of MOW Melbourne. 

Topic tags: Janet Scarfe, Patricia Brennan, Movement for the Ordination of Women



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Existing comments

What a superb tribute!

Time itself paid its own with the arrival of the international day for women occurring around the same time.

Meanwhile, the climate form women in the catholic church darkens....with the refusal of the Vatican to endorse second term for the female leader of Caritas International because it wants a 'more catholic' edge to the agency's work...a contradiction in itself for anyone familiar with her work.

One has to smile...I was surprised in the prayers of the faithful at our parish church at the weekend to hear a plea for the church to avoid a preoccupation with splendour and domination....and then to read the words of the new Confiteor in the newsletter which the congregation was then obliged to recite. Sweet irony indeed.

Brian Haill - Melbourne | 13 March 2011  

After the twenty year battle for women’s ordination in the Anglican Church, Patricia used to joke that half the campaigners were then ordained priests and the other half left the church. She gave a wonderful presentation in 1998 for the sesquicentenary of the Jesuits in Australia. Her topic was personal well-being and social conscience. She commenced the address with a very evocative image of a steel blade at the top of a waterfall:

“Beliefs, felt to be held freely, are like a steel blade, an infinitely thin steel blade, suspended in the current at the top of the Niagara Falls, pointing in the same direction as that of the tons of water roaring over the edge. While in line with the current there is theoretically minimal force on the blade’s equilibrium. But should it be turned to engage the current ever so slightly, what massive force it would experience.

“Like the blade, a sense of personal well being can be maintained effortlessly as long as you do not engage the currents that hold the interests of some in place while they sweep the lives of countless others over the edge. To begin to develop a social conscience requires turning ever so slightly into the very tiniest edge of that force. To turn is to risk change. You will hear the roar and feel the danger which previously, a micro-millimetre away, you felt only as order and equanimity.”

With her beliefs eternally aligned, may she continue to inspire us as we confront diverse and swirling currents.

Frank Brennan SJ | 13 March 2011  

Actually it was always more appropriate for women to be Pastors than to be Politicians. Human beings are still animals despite having intellect.

It is more likely a Man will succeed as a community Leader than one of the gentler persuasion who are more cut out for the duties of a Priest. Who else holds my opinion?

Jack Kennedy | 13 March 2011  

My contacts with Patricia were those of a teacher of her sons at St Ignatius, Riverview.

The extraordinary qualities she exercised in the public domain she also showed in her role as mother there. Her efforts to get her boys into the school were characteristically energetic and her care of them and her concern for what the school could do for them once they were there unremitting.

I remember especially her (and Rob's) pleasure and support for my engaging James, the younger son's, remarkable talents in the lead roles of Measure for Measure and King Lear within the space of about 9 months. Far from strident, ever, she revealed herself as a deeply cultured and a wonderfully warm woman.

Joe Castley | 13 March 2011  

Patricia Brennan is a great loss to Australian society. As Janet Scarfe, another remarkable woman, says she was a prophet in our time.

Although she suffered for that role, she was undaunted and fearless, and led many of us in our quest for truth, and to address the oppression of women in the Anglican Church.

On a personal note I was one whose life was changed through my encounter with Patricia, and that led me to establish the Movement for the Ordination of Women, Brisbane branch.

Her passing, so quick, and at the height of a career which reached out to society's victims, feels unbelievable. And yet her spirit lives on and she has set a great example for us to follow.

Vale, our wonderful Patricia.

DR GWENNETH ROBERTS | 13 March 2011  

Frank Brennan quotes Patricia: “…To begin to develop a social conscience requires turning ever so slightly into the very tiniest edge of that force. To turn is to risk change. You will hear the roar and feel the danger which previously, a micro-millimetre away, you felt only as order and equanimity.”

May Patricia’s courage, tenacity and sense of justice be an inspiration to those seeking equality in every aspect of society, especially for women within the Catholic Church. An excellent article on the (non) discussion of women’s ordination was recently published in Catholica. To view the article titled: "Is Our Institutional Church Unjust?" go to http://www.catholica.com.au/gc2/occ2/059_occ2_040311.php
Perhaps many more will feel inspired to speak out openly as until such time, change will remain but a dream.

Joseph Daley | 13 March 2011  

Well, well, I see the self-appointed liberal magisterium has canonized another saint:

Philomena - Prophet and Confessor.

Well, just in case she was fundamentally sincere, but completely wrongheaded about the justice of her adopted cause, her error was in some way a culpable one (it does sometimes happen you know), and she repented of the same before the end, I'll pray for her soul. Perhaps those who have her eternal interest at heart might join me.

HH | 13 March 2011  

Wonderful article. vale to patricia. Much strength to those still engaged in a search for justice and equality for women in our Australian churches.

dclarke | 13 March 2011  

I loved Janet Scarfe's article about Patricia, but I have also appreciated the comments in this magazine. Thank you to all of you for your continuing support of women minsters. We shall all miss Patricia, but she has done a huge amount for us. Sue Emeleus

Rev Sue Emeleus | 13 March 2011  

Thank you Patricia (and Janet). I am one woman priest who has benefited from the work of such wonderful women. I serve and lead a small country parish where it no longer causes a stir that I am female!

Jorie | 14 March 2011  

Oh HH, surely you could open your heart on hearing of a woman's death, and leave aside your criticism. There is a time to experience your shared love of God and simply release her to God's embrace.

Pauline | 14 March 2011  

Wonderful to note that Patricia Brennan's efforts have lead to a great exodus from Protestantism to reunion with the 'one true Catholic and apostolic church' with many more to follow through the establishment of ordinariates around the world. An early champion of Ecumenism.

John Frawley | 14 March 2011  

Pauline, your complaint is not with me but with Someone higher:

"It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they might be loosed from sins." (2 Machabees 12)

HH | 14 March 2011  

Thanks Janet for your celebration of Patricia's life. I had no idea that she had died until I read the postscript.

Leigh Mackay | 14 March 2011  

Great to see Patricia Brennan honoured and remembered in Eureka Street.

Alan Nichols | 17 March 2011  

Vale Patricia. I remember her as a visiting speaker at CTU and elsewhere, and her encouragement of myself and others in our theological studies. Those early days of MOW were inspirational and her incisive intelligence and wit are unforgettable.
She was and is a remarkable woman of the Church.

margaret cody | 17 March 2011  

Thank you for publishing the article about Patricia Brennan. She did bring together women from many traditions, and there are many in each of our traditions who will miss her very much. I remain in the Anglican Church, but pray to continue to live as courageously as Patricia did.

Susan Emeleus | 17 March 2011  

Thank you for honouring my beautiful Aunt Patricia. Indeed she was a monumental woman of substance and What an influence she was to me and all our family.. we lived through those turbulent, exciting and influential times with her. Her legacy lives on in all our lives. Sincerely Catherine Goodwin-Gracia Chairwoman Advance France Www.advance.org

Catherine Goodwin-Gracia | 14 March 2017  

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