First female priest ‘called’

Leading the way . . . Claire Brown was Dunedin's first Anglican Church female priest. PHOTO: JESSICA WILSON

Dunedin’s first female Anglican priest did not set out to push the boundaries, but rather pursue a “sense of call” she felt when she was only 14.

December 3 marked the 40th anniversary since women were allowed to be ordained as priests in the Anglican church and the Rev Claire Brown was Dunedin’s first.

Originally from Invercargill, she was ordained as a deacon in July 1983 and as a priest in September 1984.

Rev Brown said at the time there were people, both men and women, who did not support the idea of a woman priest but most were “polite” about it.

It was only after she became a priest and people had got to know her they told her they did not originally support the change.

“Once it was personalised it was different,” she said.

“I never thought of pushing the boundaries . . . [I] just felt I had some kind of calling.

“It was just a natural progression from when I was 14.”

Mrs Brown was 46 when she was ordained a priest. She was married with children and living on an orchard in Alexandra.

In February 1985, she moved to Dunedin, where she now lives, and took on many roles, including as a vicar at Port Chalmers, before she retired.

It was when she moved to Dunedin she realised the importance of her role and the impact it had on women.

There had been many changes in the diocese in the past 40 years, such as the development of a more equal and inclusive environment.

Forty years ago, the “weight” of the church’s male voices was “terrible”.

acknowledgement of the fact that everybody in the church is in some kind of ministry of service and we are all in it together,” she said.

“I think there is a much stronger emphasis on social justice.”

There were groups of women in the church who often spent time together and supported one another, she said.

“It’s never been an anti-man thing .. it’s just been an encouragement group and taking pleasure in one another’s company.

At present, there are 20 active clergy in Dunedin, both paid and unpaid, of whom nine are female.

St Martha’s Anglican Church priest missioner Esther Clarke-Prebble, who was ordained as a priest in 2002, said her work in the church was a “very important part of my life”.

She said it would have been “amazing” for the women allowed to take on the role 40 years ago, although it would not have been smooth sailing.