Boxhill Lutheran Church recently published the following interview with Sue Westhorpe by Pamela Richardson. A reply by Pr Mark Tuffin will follow in another post shortly.
Several years ago I attended my first Women’s Ordination Conference where I was enlightened and inspired by stories and discussions that centered on women and their place in the Christian Church, and particularly in the Lutheran Church of Australia. So it was with anticipation that, in mid July, I, along with a number of others from Victoria, attended a Women’s Ordination Conference organised by St Stephen’s Lutheran Church in Adelaide, South Australia. It was at this conference that I heard for the first time, in the seminary refectory, Sue Westhorp’s stories — a story I listened to with a mixture of sadness, anger, and pain.
Sues’ story is about her vocation to be an ordained pastor in our Lutheran Church and the sadness, struggles, and barriers she has encountered in this journey. For me, I was moved and disturbed that I could have been in St Paul’s for six years and known Sue, but have no idea of the depth of her sadness and frustration experienced on her journey. As Sue said in her opening remarks, her story is but one of many similar stories lived out by other women who have felt called to the ministry within this, our Lutheran Church.
1. Sue, how do you cope when you reflect on the fact, that here in Australia, where women are able to be whatever they choose to be, you face seemingly insurmountable barriers to fulfill the calling you have felt since childhood to be a pastor in the Church of your birth?
Well, when we’re told “no”, we adjust, and find other ways of answering the call. So I worked at St Paul’s in music, pastoral care, and adult education: a wonderful and (eventually) full-time lay position that I thought surely must satisfy the call. And yet it didn’t. There was always part of the ministry that was missing, ‘fullness’ of ministry.
So I compensated with about 10 years of service in the national church, chairing the Department of Music and sitting on the Department of Liturgics and the Commission on Worship. I planned music for three general synods, and for the last one planned all the worship. But all of this together still did not satisfy the call; and I also got increasingly frustrated with having my ideas and suggestions only taken seriously when repeated by a male committee member.
A breakthrough came with my studies in Clinical Pastoral Education, or CPE. Not only was my calling affirmed, but I found new ways of doing ministry, new ways of doing theological reflection. And I was also led into new employment, currently as a palliative care chaplain in the Royal Melbourne Hospital. Without compromising who I am as a Christian or a Lutheran, this involves me in multi-faith ministry, helping people make sense of what they experience in hospital, often in their last days. Because I no longer have freedom to travel for meetings, I have had to give up my work on national LCA bodies; but I love what I am doing now.
My colleagues from other churches affirm my gifts and calling — even their humour is affirming! For example, every morning, one of the hospital cleaners greets me with “Good morning, Reverend Ma’am”! But the important thing is that I am now able to do most aspects of ministry (with the exception of consecrating the Communion elements), including preaching and leading some services such as funerals (usually at the request of those I have ministered to in their last days, or their families). And yet there is still that lingering sadness that I cannot take those final steps, and that even the work I now do cannot be within the context of my LCA church, my home.
2. Sue, in your story you mentioned your dream, that your husband Peter encouraged, of going to the wonderful “Mecca” that is “the Sem’’ to study theology. What was the initial response to your application to study there?
Very positive. Peter Lockwood said “Yes, please come.”
3. You have spoken of “some harder times” as your studies progressed. What were they and why did they develop?
Well, in our first year, a friend and I had to fight to be allowed into the Bachelor of Theology program rather than the Bachelor of Arts in Theology then being offered to lay people. There was the time I discussed my sense of call with a final year student, and the shock of his opinion that the only call I could have had must be from the devil. There was the pain of being excluded from certain Seminary subjects that were declared reserved for pastoral candidates — with the flow-on effect in general synods and gatherings of being excluded from discussions when the ‘serious’ theological and ministry talk began.
5. Sue, having completed the Bachelor of Theology and any other requirements expected of a pastor, what respect and acknowledgement has the church and its clergy given to your knowledge and experiences?
I have the Bachelor of Theology (and my Bachelor of Music, and CPE qualifications); but I don’t have all the subjects required for a pastor. Women at Seminary were not permitted to study homiletics (how to prepare and deliver a sermon).
As for the second part of your question, there are some pastors within the church who are truly pastoral, and can deal with this area with respect and sensitivity — and that includes some on both sides of the political division over ordination.
6. Sue, how and why do you remain in the LCA despite the fact that other Lutheran women have left it because they have felt there is no place for their vocation in this our church?
This church is so much a part of my spiritual DNA, my roots, that I really cannot leave it behind. I choose to stay, even though chaplaincy colleagues have offered me “safe harbour” in other denominations that ordain women.
7. So, Sue, what are your future hopes for women like yourself in the LCA?
After the vote at the Toowoomba Synod (the majority in favour of ordination of women and men, but less than the 66% hurdle that had been set), a pastor friend remarked that the ordination of women was inevitable but it could take up to 100 years to come into effect. For the sake of other women who feel called, I hope it is sooner than that. I hope that there will soon be a way that a call to ministry in the LCA can be tested for all people, as it is now for men.
But mostly I pray that the ordination of women may be allowed in the LCA for the sake of the church and the gospel. And until it is, we shall continue to find other ways to serve.
8. Finally, Sue, what are the things and images that sustain you in this journey?
There are two images that sustain me on my journey.
The first is the image of the crucified Christ — the Christ who knows pain, who knows rejection, who knows suffering — this is the Christ I carry as I visit patients and families in my work, this is the Christ who carries me in my pain about ordination.
The other symbol comes in a wonderful gift given to me by Elizabeth Pech after the death of Pastor Herman. When she moved into a retirement village, Elizabeth gave me Herman’s home Communion set, for which I am deeply grateful. At first I left the vessels exactly the way they were — unpolished, with a hint of Herman still about them. A couple of months ago, I decided to clean them so they were ready for use. For me, this is like the maidens keeping their lamps trimmed — this is both a symbol of what I cannot yet do, and a symbol of my hope and readiness.