We learned Tuesday that a new judge was on its way to Australia’s High Court.

Attorney-General Philip Ruddock announced the appointment of Judge Justice Susan Crennan to replace retiring judge Michael McHugh in November.

This is the fifth Howard government appointment to the seven-member bench, and–according to most pundits–ensures a conservative High Court well into the future. And the government’s political influence on the High Court will continue, with three more vacancies due in the next four years as judges attain the compulsory retirement age of 70.

Justice Crennan, 60, is the 45th appointment to the nation’s highest court in its 102-year history. She is only the second woman to be appointed. The first was Mary Gaudron, who served from 1987 to 2003.

Crennan began her legal career at the New South Wales Bar Association in 1979 after a first career as a teacher of English literature. In what was seen as a very rapid elevation, she was appointed a Queen’s Counsel in 1989. She chaired the Victorian Bar Council in 1993 and was the first woman president of the Australian Bar Association from 1994 to 1995.

Last month Justice McHugh challenged the Howard government to appoint a woman to replace him when he reached retirement age on Nov. 1.

But despite a long campaign by female lawyers to appoint a female judge to the nation’s highest court, Ruddock’s decision was made, he said, “on merit alone and not because of any pressure to appoint a woman.”

Nor would Crennan herself want anyone to imagine that her appointment was a win for feminists or gender equality.

She rejected suggestions that her remarkable career success was a victory for feminism, saying it merely reflected the “increased numbers of women working in the profession.”

When she chaired the Victorian bar, Crennan insisted on being referred to as “chairman,” not chair, chairwoman or chairperson, apparently regarding the term “simply as a title, not a gender-positive appellation.”

Victorian barrister Kate McMillan said Justice Crennan was “a beacon for the modern woman who wanted to have it all, but not for those advocating affirmative action.”

When first touted for judicial office a decade ago, Crennan said the feminist argument about the paucity of women in the professions was wrong. They wanted to play a blame game, she said, when the real reasons for gender-imbalance in professions such as law and medicine were “biological imperatives” and the overwhelming demands on those who chose to combine career and family.

In my view, the appointment of Justice Crennan augurs well for the High Court, the Australian judiciary and the nation. I’m pleased the Attorney General made the call on the basis of merit alone. I’m also pleased that the Howard government happened to appoint a woman to a bench that currently seats seven men. Even two out of 45 appointments is better than one–or none.

All the media talk today about affirmative action (or its lack) at the High Court leads me to ponder the state of women’s leadership in the church, and in Australian Baptist churches in particular.

In <New South Wales, the state with which I am most familiar, local churches may ordain women and, since 1999, the denomination has accredited women as professional ministers.

Even in a denomination that is predominantly conservative and evangelical, the critical theological and cultural battles, it appears, are over.

Yet while the number of women graduating from evangelical theological colleges is significant and on the increase, to my knowledge the Baptist Churches of New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory have only one female lead pastor, and very few female pastors in pastoral teams.

There is arguably a “blokey” church culture. Women find it difficult to join (and remain on) denominational committees and taskforces. Women “of child-bearing age” find it almost impossible to secure full-time pastoral positions. Those women who do succeed in gaining employment as a pastor rarely succeed in moving from that role to a similar role in a second church. These features are common to Baptist churches across Australia.

If the gender issue was pertinent to the senior judiciary, it is at least as pressing in Australian Baptist churches.

In the light of this situation, I was pleased to note the arrival last week of a new publication from Morling Press, Leadership and Baptist Church Governance, edited by Graeme Chatfield, which features a chapter on women’s leadership written by ministers Belinda Groves and Kristine Morrison.

The whole chapter is an illuminating and disturbing read, but I want to highlight what they suggest as the way ahead for Australian Baptists:

–Revisit what it means to be Baptist (a reference to the cardinal Baptist principal of religious liberty).

–Celebrate female Baptist leaders of the past and ensure better recognition of the contributions of women to Australian Baptist work in future histories.

–Rejuvenate and transform the culture of committees and meeting practice.

–Actively seek out women to serve in key leadership roles.

The authors boldly add that, “in order to establish a gender balance, a woman may have to be given preference over a man.”

Will we see a sea change in gender-based attitudes and practices among Baptists in Australia? I doubt that it will occur in my lifetime.

The most important change that needs to occur, if women are to be accorded equality with men as pastors in our churches, is for local churches to view women and men as God views them.

A majority of members in Australian Baptist churches today, and almost all the opinion-makers and gatekeepers, are cultural conservatives who are tacitly opposed to women in leadership roles.

The church of Jesus Christ once led the community in facilitating social change: I think of slavery, trade unions and civil rights.

I look forward to the day when the church once again takes the lead.

In the meantime, thank you, Mr. Ruddock, for appointing a woman to the bench of the High Court, even if her gender is irrelevant to both her and you.

Rod Benson is founding director of the Centre for Christian Ethics at Morling College in Sydney, Australia. His “Soundings” column is used here with permissioin.

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