English-born New Zealander Penny Jamieson was the first woman in the world to be ordained a diocesan bishop of the Anglican Church. While vicar of St Philip’s in Karori, Penny was nominated by a group of women for the position of Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Dunedin. She was consecrated in 1990, and some criticised the sudden promotion, foreshadowing opposition from the church’s conservative element that would cloud her 14 years in the role.
A graduate of the University of Edinburgh, Penny married New Zealander Ian Jamieson and moved to Wellington with him. There she lectured in linguistics at Victoria University, then worked for the Wellington City Mission while completing her doctoral thesis and mothering three young daughters. During this time she developed her vocation, and was ordained into the priesthood in 1985.
A former student protester, and a campaigner for the ordination of women, Penny continued to speak and write about her beliefs during her term as Bishop. Subjects ranged from the war in Iraq and the greed for oil to local moral issues such as the removal of the hearts of children who had died in Greenlane Hospital. However, she rejected the notion that she would use her position to push other people’s agendas, ‘so that I can truly be an agent of the will of God and not a reactionary puppet in the hands of other people’.
Penny published several books including Living at the Edge: Sacrament and solidarity in leadership, which explored her experiences as a woman in a powerful position within a patriarchal institution.
From the start, it was clear the role would bring its challenges. The Anglican Bishop of Aotearoa, the Rt Rev Whakahuihui Vercoe and the Catholic Bishop of Dunedin, the Most Rev Leonard Boyle, boycotted Penny’s ordination. Eight years later she spoke candidly at Kings College, London, saying she wouldn’t wish being a woman bishop on anyone. ‘The continuingly subtle, even underground power of patriarchy, whether exercised by men or by women, to destroy from a base of self-righteousness is truly appalling.’
This was days before the Lambeth Conference, a 10-yearly international gathering of Anglican bishops, during which a number of delegates held a parallel meeting in protest at the presence of ordained women.
A constant concern for Penny was the role of the church in modern society, and the need to separate spirituality from dogma. She told a conference in 1996, ‘There is a desperate need in every secular society to “remake” the sacred…. without falling into religious literalism, fundamentalism or dogmatic thinking’. It was a theme she returned to at her last Eucharist as Bishop, stating: ‘I still long for a church that can look out and engage with confidence in the society in which we are situated.’
Penny Jamieson retired in June 2004, and was made a distinguished companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit soon after. She expressed regret that she had no-one to ‘pass the mantle on to’. It was not until August 2008 when The Right Reverend Victoria Matthews, a Canadian bishop, became New Zealand's second woman bishop when she was elected Bishop of Christchurch.