IN DEPTH

Dorothy McRae-McMahon: the radical life of a trailblazing gay minister from Zeehan

FAITH: Dorothy McRae-McMahon, who was born in Zeehan, has lived a life of activism. Picture: Supplied
FAITH: Dorothy McRae-McMahon, who was born in Zeehan, has lived a life of activism. Picture: Supplied

Wikipedia defines Reverend Dorothy McRae-McMahon as a "feminist Christian trailblazer".

She also holds the title of Australia's first openly gay clergy member.

Born in Zeehan, on Tasmania's west coast in 1934, Dr McRae-McMahon was the first daughter of a Methodist minister - a man she described as radical in his progressive views.

The influence of her father is something she said has been omnipresent throughout her life.

After spending her formative years in Tasmania, Dr McRae-McMahon moved to Victoria with her family.

Despite her intelligence, her mother prohibited her from finishing high school.

It's a decision Dr McRae-McMahon said still pains her.

At her mother's urging, she went on to work in early-childhood education, but soon felt the call to more radical causes.

"I was a very shy girl, but very concerned [about social issues] and once I was at a conference and I didn't speak," she said.

"I spoke to Dad about it afterwards and he said 'well when you care enough you'll find a voice Dorothy'.

"So I did."

Once Dr McRae-McMahon found her voice, peace, activism, political movements and protests soon became a centrepiece of the life she shared with her husband Barrie and four children.

"We had the peace movement and I was very active in that," she said.

"And then when the Vietnam War came about I was very involved in organising the protest marches."

Dr McRae-McMahon said it was difficult to describe those years of activism to anyone who hadn't been there.

"These days, it would be a success if you got 1000 people at a protest march," she said.

"But in those days, we often had tens and thousands of people protesting.

"I used to paint banners with political statements on them to carry in marches and I remember counting them and I had 20 of them - all for different causes and with different statements."

After working in International Aid for the Uniting Church - a role that saw her travel to 33 countries - Dr McRae-McMahon said she felt the "sense of a calling".

So, she was ordained as a minister of the Uniting Church at the age of 50.

This spiritual calling saw her become the first woman to be ordained as a minister in Australia.

"Which is even more incredible when you consider that at the same time I was ordained was the same time I realised I was a lesbian and separated from my husband," she said.

Her first church, the Pitt Street Uniting Church, was located in the heart of the Sydney CBD and in 1982 had a dwindling congregation.

"It was just about empty and we added 210 new members in the years that I was there," Dr McRae-McMahon said.

"We started all sort of radical activities and we made signs and put them up out of the church."

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One of the most significant campaigns the church ran was as part of the anti-apartheid movement.

The congregation's support of this international movement led to a Nazi group called National Action attacking both the church and Dr McRae-McMahon.

"They would come in to our church and paint swastikas and other offensive signs inside," she said.

"There were many nights where they would follow me home."

However, the activism of the church didn't go unrecognised, with Nelson Mandela preaching at Pitt Street to a crowd of over 1500 people after his release from prison in 1990.

After a decade at the church, Dr McRae-McMahon moved on to become the national director for mission of the Uniting Church.

She was also the first woman to become moderator of the World Council of Churches.

Despite having left Pitt Street nearly 30 years ago, Dr McRae-McMahon feels a deep connection to the church to this day.

"I've always said that when I die I'll be carried out of there, because the 10 years of my life there were the most significant of my life," she said.

By 1997, Dr McRae-McMahon was one of the most senior figures in the Uniting Church.

It was out of respect for her partner Ali Blogg that she came out publicly at a national conference in 1997.

It was this that led to a successful movement to have homosexual ministers formally accepted by the Uniting Church.

After 20 years together, Ms Blogg passed away from brain cancer in 2012.

And while the untimely passing of a partner may have shaken the faith of others, Dr McRae-McMahon's remains steadfast.

"I still feel she's nearby," she said

"I feel that she'll be waiting for me when I go."

This story The radical life of a trailblazing gay minister from Tasmania first appeared on The Examiner.