The Beginnings of Australian Church Women
During the 1940s and 50s, a growing number of church women had expressed a desire to fellowship at a national level with women of other denominations.
Dipping into the ACW archives again, I discovered that Revd Winifred Kiek, of South Australia, had begun to explore the possibilities of national fellowship and cooperation after the second world war. In 1950, she joined the World Council of Churches Commission on the Work of Women in the Churches. As the World Council of Churches liaison officer in Australia for work among women, she submitted a number of reports on the work done with women’s groups.
Jump forward a decade and Mrs Joan Coates, of Melbourne, raised the issue again of a national women’s group, during the 1960 National Conference of Australian Churches. Mrs Coates called together those women delegates who were interested in supporting an interdenominational women’s group, and she submitted a report to the Australian Council of Churches (ACC).
Then, ‘in 1962 at the February Annual Meeting of the Australian Council of Churches … it was resolved to set up an investigating Committee’. An Interim Committee for Women’s Work was appointed. The committee comprised four women and four men. The men served in an ‘advisory’ capacity as consultants, with one of the men chairing the committee. This committee was to examine the possibility of ‘some kind of relationship with Women’s Inter-Church Councils in the various states and women’s denominational commonwealth-wide federations'.
The committee was also asked to ‘review the constitution and activity of the United Church Women of the USA and its relation to the National Council of Churches of the USA. The committee was to function as a committee of the ACC and to report back to the ACC Executive for further examination and implementation’.
This Interim Committee for Women’s Work held their first meeting on 5 June 1962 in the Sydney office of the Australian Council of Churches. In the October and November, they held two consultations. These consultations were with denominational women’s organisations (including the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox), and the Women’s World Day of Prayer Committee, and also with a member of the Victorian Women’s Inter-church Council and a YWCA representative.
At the 1963 Annual Meeting of the Australian Council of Churches, the Interim Committee for Women's Work was able to present a report, and after much debate the following resolution was passed:
‘That the establishment of Australian Church Women in accordance with the report be authorized and that the Committee to investigate women’s work be re-appointed and nominate to the Executive the National Committee of Australian Church Women.’
The number of committee members grew to 12 and included the original members of the Interim Committee for Women’s Work. This new committee became the Interim Committee of Australian Church Women, and Mrs Mabel Wyllie was appointed as the Committee Convenor. Mrs Wyllie later reported: ‘During the two years in which the Interim Committee functioned, we were all conscious of a growing fellowship and a joyous working together. I am sure that I speak for all members when I say that planning together was a privilege for which we will always be grateful.’
In April 1963, Revd Kiek expressed her surprise at learning of these Interim Committees, and that their investigation was considered to be ‘breaking new ground’. Her previous reports seemed to have been forgotten or even lost, and those who were aware of the extent of her significant earlier work were greatly concerned by this. The following year, at the 1964 consultation on Australian Church Women, Revd Kiek was duly recognised for her pioneering efforts into coordinating the work of Christian women.
During 1963, the state women’s inter-church councils were invited to be the units through which Australian Church Women would operate. New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria accepted the invitation. Tasmania did not have a fully representative group that could act as a unit for Australian Church Women.
In September 1963, suggestions for a more formal structure were set out and circulated to inter-church councils and denominational women’s groups. These suggestions would be the basis for further discussion and recommendations on linking the state units. Defining the relationships between all the groups involved in the establishment of Australian Church Women was an arduous process.
It was noted in the Australian Church Women Consultation Report, in March 1964, that this consultation was widely representative of all interested in Australian Church Women. ‘It is not an exclusive club,’ wrote Rev. HL Perkins, General Secretary of Australian Council of Churches. ACW was not intended to be limited to just those churches that are members of the Australian Council of Churches.
The Consultation had no legislative powers, but it did make recommendations to the Interim Committee who then made recommendations to the Executive of the Australian Council of Churches. The Interim Committee also began to work on a draft Constitution after the ACC Executive authorised them to proceed with this. ‘This was prepared over many meetings and referred to State women’s inter-church councils, Federal denominational women’s groups, the ACC Executive Committee and Federal Heads of the member churches.’
Thus, 1964 became ‘a year of preparation for the first National Committee of Australian Church Women. The aims and objectives were defined; the programme of special days, Winifred Kiek Scholarship, and Fellowship of the Least Coin were planned and the Constitution drawn up’.
The first National Committee meeting of Australian Church Women was held in Sydney on 10–11 February 1965. The office bearers were elected and the draft Constitution was presented and ratified.
Mrs Mabel Gertrude Wyllie, representing the Methodist Church of New South Wales, was elected as the first President of Australian Church Women, and the first Working Committee of ACW was based in New South Wales.
In the newsletter report above, most of the members have been listed with the initials of their husband’s Christian names, as was the tradition then. Below, I have listed the officers with their own Christian names; please advise if any are incorrect.
President: Mrs Mabel Gertrude Wyllie, Methodist
Secretary: Lieut Colonel Hazel Cross, The Salvation Army
(1) Mrs Marjory Irene Gordon Verco, Churches of Christ
(2) Deaconess Mary Maria Andrews, Anglican
Treasurer: Mrs Keelah Pulsford Dey, Congregationalist
Together with the following members, they formed the 1965 Working Committee of Australian Church Women:
Mrs Doratis, Greek Orthodox
Mrs A Dougan, Presbyterian
Mrs CF Gribble, Methodist
Mrs HJ Lilley, Methodist
Mrs F Stafford, Churches of Christ
If you know the Christian names of the women above, please email me at: email@example.com
Quotes are from 1962–1965 ACW minutes and reports.
[Mrs Mabel Wyllie later became the first ACW Archivist.]
Photograph of Mrs Mabel Wyllie and the first National Working Committee of Australian Church Women.
In the ACW archives, we only have two blurred images of our first National President Mrs Mabel Wyllie. Do you have or know where there are copyright-free images of Mrs Wyllie and the other members of the first National Committee of Australian Church Women? Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if the ACW archives are permitted to have and use these images.
Update 7 February 2020
Thanks are extended to those members who have responded to my request for information on this blog post. They have advised me that the Christian names of Mrs A Dougan is Elsie, Mrs CF Gribble is Isobel and Mrs HJ Lilley is Lorna.