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Pace, Barbara Jean (1925–2008)

by Janet Scarfe

Barbara Pace, n.d.

Barbara Pace, n.d.

The Reverend Barbara Jean Pace, one of the first women ordained priest in the Anglican Church in Australia, has died in Mornington, aged 83.

As vicar’s wife, hospital chaplain and priest in and around Melbourne, she shared closely with thousands of children, adults, parents and partners their sickness, grief, healing and celebrations for 60 years.

Barbara was born in Adelaide, but apart from a short time in South Africa as a child, spent all her life in or near Melbourne. Her engineering father and mathematical and musically gifted mother sent her to Melbourne Girls Grammar. She studied commercial art, then joined the WRANS as a wireless telegraphist in 1944 (her service record says "Character: Very Good. Efficiency: Average").

After her demobilisation, a friendly form letter from the local vicar led her to St John’s Toorak. Already she had a sense of "call" to become more involved in service to God.

At St John’s she met and fell in love with Lindsay Pace, the deacon in a neighbouring parish. They married after he was ordained priest, and in 1949 Barbara launched into the first stage of her ministry, vicar’s wife.

Barbara took on the role with gusto, in all sorts of parishes – rural, industrial, leafy and built up urban. She did all the traditional things (Mothers Union, Girls Friendly Society, counselling, hospitality), but with a distinct flair (wearing trousers, riding a motor bike) that set her aside from other clergy wives.

During this time, she studied theology (achieving first class honours), and gave birth to four daughters, the last still born.

The death of baby Sara was the catalyst for the second stage of her ministry, hospital chaplaincy. In the late 1960s, chaplaincy was still the preserve of clergymen and occasionally deaconesses. Perhaps because she was a clergy wife, she was allowed into the Clinical Pastoral Education training for chaplains, the first woman to participate. In less than a year she was more qualified than anyone in the country apart from the course leader. As she said, "I never again returned to the previous model of ‘Vicar’s wife’".

In 1970 "after many weary months of negotiation, delay, equivocation and frustration", she was appointed chaplain at the Royal Children’s Hospital. It is testimony to her ministry that the then Archbishop of Melbourne quickly changed his manner of addressing his correspondence to her from "Chaplain" to Chaplain. In 1982, she was appointed Anglican Chaplain and Chaplain Co–ordinator at the then Prince Henry’s and Caulfield Hospitals, where she remained until her retirement in 1991. During that time, she mentored and encouraged many women and men in chaplaincy.

Barbara was keenly interested in the ordination of women question which was increasingly debated in the Melbourne diocese from the mid 1970s. Initially, she saw it as a matter of principle, as she didn’t feel her ministry at Sick Kids was hampered by not being ordained. Ministry with sick adults, however, was another matter entirely. Increasingly she felt her capacity to help patients severely restricted because she could not pronounce the Absolution, and so assure people of God's forgiveness. Only priests could do that and the Church did not allow women to be priests.

In 1985, the Anglican Church permitted women to be deacons, but not priests. In 1986, Barbara was one of a number of women long involved in professional ministry made deacon by Archbishop David Penman. It was the third stage: ordained ministry.

It was another agonising 6 years before the Anglican Church permitted women to be priests. Barbara described the period as "dreadful". When the church’s archbishops and judges conducted hearings on the "finer" legal points about whether women could be priests, deacon Barbara with her decades of ministry experience sat in the front row, in formal clerical garb, unmissable. In the atmosphere of the time, it was a very courageous act.

By the time women could be priests, Barbara had retired from official chaplaincy. Nevertheless, Archbishop Keith Rayner ordained her priest in December 1992. It was the culmination of a ministry that began on a vicarage door step in 1949 and never stopped.

As a chaplain, Barbara met people in times of crises, when their normal lives were disrupted and they faced dependency, even briefly. She offered them what she called "an opportunity for reflection and quiet, to allow God’s voice to be heard, to discover just where we are, to find new meaning in life, new horizons – and how to proceed further on the journey."

In the "casual" conversations about life and death we all have at the golf club or a dinner party, don’t be surprised when the name of Barbara Pace and her extraordinary impact crop up – it does happen.

Barbara is survived by her husband, Lindsay, whose encouragement and enthusiasm for her ministry never wavered, their daughters, her brother and their families.

Original publication

  • Melbourne Anglican, 18 December 2008

Citation details

Janet Scarfe, 'Pace, Barbara Jean (1925–2008)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/pace-barbara-jean-13324/text23947, accessed 25 June 2019.

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