The Anglican Diocese of the Riverina has done a much better job at achieving equal gender representation than our parliaments. Around 50 per cent of priests in this bishopric – which extends from Coolamon to Broken Hill – are female.
“Women priests are a huge blessing, because people find them more approachable than a man,” according to Father Thomas Leslie, the 40-year-old Dean of St Alban’s Cathedral in Griffith.
Australia’s youngest Anglican Dean says his own parish was enriched by the arrival of Reverend Gemma Le Mesurier in 2020, who breaks rural religious stereotypes with more than just her gender.
The 35-year-old curate is a proud feminist, skilled videographer, near-vegan vegetarian and deeply committed to climate change action. She’s also ambivalent about having children and doesn’t mind listening to prominent atheists with opposing views, such as Stephen Fry and Sam Harris.
Her official title is now Mother, but she prefers not to use it.
“When I hear ‘mother’ I just think Mother Goose,” she jokes.
While it’s been three decades since the first woman was ordained in Australia, she’s still seen as a novelty in one of the nation’s most Catholic towns.
“I have noticed people saying things like, ‘Oh, you’re the prettiest priest I’ve ever come across’,” she said.
“I hear that from men coming from a certain era – where they think that they are giving me a compliment … [but in general] people are happy to meet me.
“When I walk along the street people smile at me, which is completely normal. But then I look away and I look back and they’re still smiling at me. I’m thinking, ‘They’re seeing the collar and working out what this means’. Once they’ve worked out what it means to have a female dressed like this, they just want to chat.”
Like Father Thomas, she sees her gender as an asset in the role.
“In the current climate of distrust towards clergy, somehow being a female I’m a bit exempt. People don’t look at me with the same suspicion and tend to be more comfortable opening up to me.”
As a child, Reverend Gemma’s faith was nurtured by her grandmother. She never consciously imagined herself as a church leader, though her behaviour suggested otherwise.
“When I was a kid I used to play ‘Eucharist’. I would get bread and break it up and get water with food colouring to make it look like wine.”
After studying French and English at university, she struggled to find meaning in her life, so moved to France where she volunteered in a monastery. It was there that she not only found meaning but her future husband Frederik Le Mesurier, a Dutchman who followed her back to Australia. The pair were ordained into the priesthood together in a ceremony at St Alban’s in November 2021 and have served as assistant priests in the local church ever since.
Parish Priest Father Thomas is delighted to have them both.
“If one is unwell there is someone to step in the gap … they are very technologically savvy and have broadened what we can do. Gemma has encouraged and revived our youth program.”
After a slow start, she’s gradually warming to her Riverina town, though feels the need to ease back on expressing her opinions on issues like veganism and climate change in a farming town.
“There are other issues that I can get up and loud about without alienating people. That’s not what my goal is … I have to be diplomatic about the issues I’m passionate about.”
She also doesn’t buy into the view that Christianity is under attack, expressed by former prime minister Tony Abbott in his recent book.
“I find that so frustrating. When there are people in the world who are genuinely being persecuted, to sit around and say, ‘Poor us, we are so persecuted’, I think that is so uncompassionate and tasteless … nobody ever stops me from saying Happy Christmas.”
For now, Reverend Gemma is happy to keep preaching in the Riverina, content in a church that’s broad enough to incorporate many viewpoints.
“There are dioceses where I couldn’t work. In the Sydney diocese, I would be unemployable [because they don’t allow female priests] … but I’ll keep seeing what the journey brings, for the time being we have a lot of loyalty to this parish but down the track there’s so many possibilities for us.”
Original Article published by Oliver Jacques on Region Riverina.