University of Melbourne Magazine

A higher calling

  • Robyn Shackell

    Robyn Shackell. Picture: Damien White

    (BA 1977)

    Robyn Shackell is a trailblazer, but a patient one. 

    She waited decades for the Anglican Church’s Ballarat diocese to welcome women to the priesthood. When they finally did in 2013, she was one of the first two women ordained and became Warrnambool’s first and only female priest.

    “It was really wonderful,” she says of her inaugural Sunday service in her parish, when she celebrated the Eucharist and wore the vestments, the traditional robes of the priesthood. 

    Shackell, a grandmother of two, says she brings a “different perspective” to a male-dominated profession. Though some people were uncomfortable having women in church leadership, she says her community has been overwhelmingly supportive. 

    She recalls a woman in her 80s who approached her after a recent service and told her, “I’ve been waiting all my life for this”.

    Shackell had too. “I guess I always felt that God was calling me to something but I didn’t quite know what,” she says. 

    Shackell grew up in Sydney with three younger brothers and parents who thought educating a girl would be a “waste of time”. But she was determined.

    She successfully applied for a scholarship to teachers’ college, and later moved to Melbourne to study theology at Melbourne College of Divinity, where she received a Licentiate in Theology and a Diploma of Religious Education. 

    Shackell eventually enrolled in a bachelor’s course in psychology and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Melbourne.

    After graduating, she moved to Koroit, where her husband, Denis, worked as principal at a local primary school. 

    She was 40 when she finally found her calling, in 1986, during a trip around Australia with her husband. In Tennant Creek they met parishioners at a small church lamenting the departure of their priest.

    It was then that she knew what she wanted to do, though it would be years before she could fulfil her ambition in her home diocese. 

    She became a workplace chaplain in 1988, counselling employees of companies such as Nestlé, Fletcher Jones and VicRoads, and in 1998 she received a Master of Ministry from Melbourne College of Divinity.

    In 2008, the Ballarat diocese voted to ordain women as deacons. Several years later, at age 67, she was ordained a priest.