Photo Credit: Diocese of Melbourne
By Muriel Porter, Diocese of Melbourne
There have been many ‘firsts’ for Anglican women clergy in recent years, but surely the Eucharist celebrated by the Revd Elizabeth Alfred on 10 January this year must outshine them all. Ms Alfred must be the first woman priest, if not the first priest, to preside at Holy Communion on her 100th birthday!
On 13 December 1992, Ms Alfred was the first woman ordained priest in Melbourne, when Archbishop Keith Rayner ordained 12 women in a long-awaited historic ceremony. She was 78, well beyond retirement age, but Archbishop Rayner had promised this significant pioneer that age would not prevent her ordination when it finally became possible.
Her first Eucharistic celebration was at St James’, Dandenong, the parish where she had ministered as a deaconess – she became a deaconess in 1944 – and then as a deacon after she was ordained at the first diaconal ordination of women in Australia in 1986.
Her centenary birthday Eucharist was, most appropriately, back at St James’, and the church was packed. The preacher, former St James’ vicar the Revd Alan Baker, pondered whether this was another "first": has any other woman ministered in the same place as deaconess, deacon, and priest?
Family members, friends, parishioners and clergy colleagues, some of whom had travelled considerable distances, burst into sustained spontaneous applause as Ms Alfred entered the church, vested in a chasuble. Frail after some weeks of illness that she had feared might abort her long-held dream of presiding on her 100th birthday, she needed the assistance of a wheeled walker to get to the altar. Parish clergy helped at various points in the service, and stood close by.
But when she spoke – to absolve, consecrate and bless – her voice was clear and strong. There was no doubt who was presiding at this special Eucharist.
At the end of the service, after numbers of people had offered greetings, congratulations, and gifts, Ms Alfred spoke briefly. During her recent illness, she said, she had been upheld by the prayers of all her friends, and “the knowledge that Jesus was always beside me”. And, she added, “at least I didn’t have to come today in a wheelchair!”