WCWF/GWC History – Australia

With my sister beside me



There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling;
one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
one God and Father of all
who is over all and through all and in all.
Ephesians 4:4-6



Through the Federal Women’s Conference, long-standing relationships with ecumenical and international women’s organisations have allowed Churches of Christ women to support missionary ventures beyond the scope of any one organisation. The injunction to Christian unity by the Churches of Christ founders, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, has found frequent expression through the CWF and through its Federal Executive’s participation in numerous other committees. Indeed, Lesley Stirling boldly claimed in 1982 that “Had unity of the Churches depended on the women, there is little doubt that it would have materialised long ago”.

In the earliest days, when the World Council of Churches (WCC) was newly formed, the Federal Women’s Conference kept in close contact with Rev. Winifred Kiek, women’s liaison officer for the Australian Council for the WCC and ordained minister in the Congregational Church. The existence of the Federal Women’s Conference, as a peak body for Churches of Christ women, facilitated relationships at a national level.

The Federal Executive followed the cause of women’s ministry internationally through the work of the WCC. They reported that personal ecumenical contact made Christian unity real and vital; a perspective informed by the Federal Women’s Conference’s distinctly female theological identity. In 1957 Jess Cleland and Lila Williams wrote that Australian Churches of Christ women “know in their hearts that it is only as individuals meet, talk and share that co-operation can come” and that through friendly sharing of faith “resolutions in the council meetings will follow”.

World Christian Women’s Fellowship
Jess Cleland met women from Churches of Christ around the world when she served as Australia’s first delegate to the World Christian Women’s Fellowship (WCWF). Every delegate who followed reported a similar experience: “lifelong friends”, “challenging messages” and “lovely memories”. Networks grew and in 1968 Doreen Strack reported that “many of our women are writing personally to our WCWF friends in other countries – thus cementing the close ties that bind us to one another”.

Australian Representatives to World Christian Women’s Fellowship (WCWF)
…. 1950-55 Miss Bell (Interim)
Toronto 1955-60 Mrs Jess Cleland
Edinburgh 1960 Mrs Jess Cleland
Puerto Rico 1960-65 Mrs Bess Wylie
Adelaide 1965-70 Mrs Doreen Strack
Mexico City 1970-74. Mrs Netta Newham
Honolulu 1974-80 Mrs Gladys McKenzie
Honolulu 1980-84 Mrs Alice Saunders
Jamaica 1984-88 Mrs Dorothy Hartam
Auckland 1988-1992 Mrs Joy Sansome
Long Beach 1992-1996 Mrs Helen Banks
Calgary 1996 – 2000 Mrs Lorraine Hensby
Brisbane 2000-2004 Mrs Shirley Burton
Brighton UK 2004- 2008 Mrs Judith Flett
At the 2004 meeting it was decided to change the name of
WCWF to “Global Women Connecting”.

Australian Representatives to Global Women Connecting
Nashville 2008-2012 Mrs Marj Dredge
Goiania 2012 Mrs Marj Dredge

From 1950 when the idea of a World Christian Women’s Fellowship was first put to Australian women, the Federal Executive was overwhelmingly in favour. They participated in the planning leading up to World CWF’s ratification in Toronto in 1955. The stated purpose was:
to promote a channel by which all women of Churches of Christ may be joined in fellowship and through which, by worship, study and service together, they may make a worthy contribution to the extension of the Kingdom of God.                                                    
An executive, comprising President, Vice-President and Secretary/Treasurer and one representative per country, was elected for the first five-year term. Miss Bell served on the interim committee leading up to Toronto, but Jess Cleland represented Australian CWF at Toronto and again in Edinburgh in 1960. It was a long way from her home in Ringwood East and she clocked up many miles in travel twice across the globe. Her duties involved posting out the World CWF newsletters to Australian women twice a year – because keeping everyone involved and connected was essential – and serving on
the programme committee for Edinburgh. She also attended World Conventions of Churches of Christ.

Women representatives of member countries would meet for three days prior to the World Convention of Churches of Christ at a WCWF Retreat. There would usually be a luncheon held during the Convention with an open invitation to all women. Women’s Retreats reportedly worked well in Brighton (UK) in 2004 and Nashville (USA) in 2008, but there were lower attendances and a different schedule used in Goiania (Brazil) in 2012.

The impact of the international WCWF was felt locally in a number of ways. A National Gathering was scheduled to coincide with an international meeting: Marj Dredge recalls that in Brisbane (2000) the National Gathering was also held just before World Convention to enable “a more inclusive Retreat, open to all with just some time set aside for WCWF Executive business matters”. Also, the advent of World Christian Women’s Fellowship saw the adoption of uniform naming across Australia. Until the Federal Conference in Sydney in 1956, the state groups had been known by a variety of names: Sisters’ Auxiliary Conference, Churches of Christ Women’s Conference, Churches of Christ Women’s Fellowship, State Sisters’ Conference. Local groups exhibited an even wider
variety of names. But in the following years it became accepted across Australia that each congregation’s women’s group was “CWF”. Curiously the Federal Women’s Conference did not adopt the CWF title until 1968 when it became Australian Christian Women’s

According to the Australian women who represented ACWF at WCWF, attendance at international events was “the icing on the cake”. But it was expensive. The financial strain on individuals attending international events was recognised by the Federal Women’s Conference with the introduction of a World CWF Representative’s working allowance in 1956. Funds for the purpose came from local groups who also contributed indirectly to WCWF affiliation fees. After 1960 a travel fund was established too, though discussion at Conferences in later years suggests the Australian Representatives were not always fully reimbursed and sometimes covered their own costs entirely.

The Australian Representative to WCWF also attended the Disciples of Christ Quadrennial Assemblies during her term of office and would sometimes be accompanied
by the current Federal Women’s Conference President. There they gathered ideas for programmes to be run in Australia. Again, representatives sometimes travelled at their own expense or with limited donations to defray costs (as in the case of Helen Morrow who went to Indiana in 1982).

Through WCWF, Australian women contributed to projects aiding women in other countries, such as a “Literacy Project” in Haiti in the 1960s and “Relief work” in Vietnam. Other ventures included the provision of protein and vitamin supplements to the Sahel area of Africa in the 1970s, and the support of the Colombia Women’s Network in 2006. Representatives of Australian CWF initiated the WCWF’s support of the Churches of Christ mission in Klong Toey, Thailand. As well as a Representative to WCWF for a period of four years, Australia contributed a number of WCWF leaders whose contributions have been appreciated both at home and around the world.

Australian Women Leaders of World Christian Women’s Fellowship
1960-65 Mrs Clarice Digwood Vice-President
1965-70 Mrs Kathleen Lawton President
1988-92 Joy Sansome Vice-President
2000-04 Marj Dredge President
Australian Representatives to WCWF: Joy Sansome, Helen
Banks, Lorraine Hensby, Shirley Burton and Judy Flett (2004)

However, at the Goiania Convention in 2012, Marj Dredge recalls having to announce that Australia no longer had Women’s Ministries-Churches of Christ in Australia, so we would no longer have a rep on Global Women Connecting. We were not alone in this
and the future of Global Women Connecting is tentative given the huge shift in direction of the ministry of World Convention.

Ecumenical networks
In addition to connecting internationally within Churches of Christ, the Federal Women’s Conference has facilitated Churches of Christ participation in the management of a number of other organisations. The Federal Executive has nominated representatives (often the President of CWF) to serve on the national committee of Australian Church Women. Indeed in the 1982 Churches of Christ Federal Conference Report, Margaret
Pollard and May Searle reported, “In most States and at Federal level some executive positions are filled by women of our churches”. This level of involvement has been maintained in recent years although Australian Church Women has declined in vigour as the average age increased. The Australian Church Women Committee
also had representatives from State Inter-church committees, Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), and the National Council of Churches in Australia.

Projects of Australian Church Women include the Winifred Kiek Scholarship which is a project related to the annual ‘Fellowship Day’. On ‘World Community Day’ coins are collected for the international ecumenical “movement of prayer for peace, justice and
reconciliation” known as ‘Fellowship of the Least Coin’ (a reference to the widow’s mite in Luke 21:1-4).

Churches of Christ women have also been active over the years on state committees and in leadership roles within the international ecumenical movement known as World Day of Prayer (formerly Women’s World Day of Prayer) which is held each year on the first Friday in March. They have also supported Australian Church Women’s Fellowship Day and World Community Day.

Through the Federal and State Executives, the CWF has been involved with the work of the World Christian Women’s Fellowship, National Council of Women, World Day of Prayer, Australian Church Women, YWCA, Women’s Christian Temperance Union, British
and Foreign Bible Society, and various locally based ecumenical and humanitarian missions. The women who have involved themselves in this work on behalf of Churches of Christ were recognised and applauded in the CWF for their cooperative efforts. The great network of relationships across organisations and denominations has been a hallmark of the work of many ecumenically minded Christian women. The Federal Women’sConference has been a vital part of this work; facilitating organisational and personal relationships at national level.

 Handasyde, Kerrie. With my sister beside me: history of women’s ministries-Churches of Christ in Australia. pp. 44-53. Australian Churches of Christ Historical Society: Mulgrave, Victoria, Australia, 2014


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